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The hon. Gentleman made a series of remarks about the cost of living, the interaction between food and fuel prices and the tax system. The tax system is important and concerns all our constituents, so I want to address it thoroughly and seriously. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced changes to the tax system 15 months ago in order to simplify the system. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the basic tax rate is now lower than it has been for 75 years. The offsetting measures that were introduced at that time involved the tax credit system for families with children and raising the personal tax allowance for old-age pensioners. As he knows, that left a large number of people on low incomes who did not fall into either of those categories as losers. As he has said, in the intervening period food and fuel prices have increased. That means
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that the impact of those changes is different from what could have been foreseen 15 months ago, when the decision was taken. The final package that the Chancellor has announced to raise personal allowances for everybody on the basic tax rate was put together because everybody is under this pressure from food and fuel prices.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned taxes on motoring. I have some statistics on those, although I cannot find them now. I shall write to him, however, because, interestingly, the numbers show that the level of revenue coming to the Exchequer from petrol tax is, contrary to popular belief, lower than it was 10 years ago. Prices are increasing not because the Exchequer is, in some sense, being greedy—that is often the characterisation—but because world prices in the oil markets and the international commodity markets are increasing.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) discussed telephone boxes. I am sympathetic to what he says about them because I, too, have a rural constituency, and I know that it is not possible to use mobile phones everywhere in such constituencies. I shall certainly pass his remarks to my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It would be easier for us to tackle the issue if the telephone industry were in public ownership, but of course, he belongs to the party that privatised that industry. He also rightly said it is important that we structure aviation duty properly and take an international approach to it. That is why this Government have been very energetic in trying to get aviation and shipping into the EU’s trading system, and those negotiations are ongoing.

I have had the pleasure of serving with the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on the Public Accounts Committee. His thoroughness in exposing the particular problem that he detailed is of exactly the sort that makes that Committee one of this House’s most effective. I shall ensure that his remarks are passed to my colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

I should like to return to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham at the beginning of the debate. He spoke about the miners’ compensation scheme. He and I served together on the Public Bill Committee that considered what became the Legal Services Act 2007, which was introduced to address the problem. It will address many of the issues that he has so energetically been raising over a long period. It is because this Government are concerned about miners who suffer from respiratory and vibration problems resulting from their work in the pits that £3.8 billion has been spent on miners’ compensation. I look forward to seeing him at the Durham miners’ gala on the second Saturday in July, when we can celebrate those benefits.

My hon. Friend also spoke about Stanley town council. The town and parish councils in County Durham of course do excellent work. I would particularly like to take the opportunity to congratulate those involved in building the Sacriston health centre on their carbon-neutral building. My hon. Friend talked about the desire among many in the north-east for the Lindisfarne Gospels to be brought back to Durham; as a Durham Member, I am obviously very sympathetic to that.

Hon. Members could have a very enjoyable time in County Durham during the Whitsun recess. They could see many beautiful and excellent things. For
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example, there is a very good locomotion museum in Shildon in my constituency. It is where the first steam engine was built. Some 150,000 people a year come to the museum, which offers a great family day out. At the Bowes museum in Barnard castle there is a particularly fine exhibition of the pictures of Alfred Sisley this summer. It is the first Sisley retrospective for 30 years, and hon. Members would enjoy it very much if they came.

Mr. Bacon: May I suggest that if people were unable to get as far as County Durham, they might come to my constituency, where at the Bressingham steam museum they would find one of the greatest steam engines, the Royal Scot, which has been restored with lottery money? They could then go over the border into Suffolk and have a drink at the “Sir Alfred Munnings” pub to celebrate that famous painter.

Helen Goodman: They could indeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham also talked about the development of the economy in the north-east; I agree with him. Sometimes it is difficult for people to see what is going on in the economy. The pattern at the moment is that jobs in large manufacturing companies are disappearing; obviously, that is serious for the people who work in those factories. However, at the same time, other investments, made by small and medium-sized firms, are coming in.

The other significant point is that, as the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was saying earlier, we now have record levels of inward investment in this country because our business climate is so good for investment from overseas. The County Durham Development Company, for example, shows that in the past decade the county has benefited from 181 separate inward investment projects with employers from the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland, Iceland and Germany. All have put money in, and that has created 6,000 jobs over the same period. I wanted to reinforce my hon. Friend’s points.

Finally, I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all the staff of the House and the officials who support me. I wish you, them and everybody else a restful and enjoyable Whitsun recess.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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Mr. Mark Petre

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Khan.]

3.53 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I am pleased to have secured this important debate on the tragic events that took place off the coast of the Isle of Man on 3 and 4 June 2005 and led to the death of Mark Petre, the son of my constituents Geoff and Irene Petre, and of Keith Rice, the son of Brian and Pam Rice. I would like to use this opportunity to extend our condolences to the Petres and the Rices and their families for events that I am sure have had a permanent and distressing impact on their lives. Both men were on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Orangeleaf, and I would like to set out the chronology of the events on those ill-fated days. Before I do, however, I would like to confirm that my office has spoken to the coroner’s office in the Isle of Man, which will be dealing with this case in two days’ time. It is comfortable with the debate, providing that I do not insult the coroner or the Isle of Man, and I intend doing neither. Therefore, the coroner has no issue with us debating the matter fully.

I understand that the Isle of Man coroner has the power to issue a certificate of finding on Saturday, which is the certificate that the coroner issues following an inquest. That certificate is then forwarded to the registrar of births, deaths and marriages so that it can issue a death certificate and register the death. I understand that once the death certificate has been issued, there is no reason why the Petres cannot claim any death benefit to which they may be entitled following the death of their son. I hope that the Minister can confirm that my understanding is correct, and that they do not face another four years of waiting for the death to be confirmed.

Returning to the chronology, RFA Orangeleaf was anchored off Douglas in the Isle of Man in the afternoon of Friday 3 June 2005 for two days’ rest and recreation prior to a naval exercise beginning on 6 June 2005. The ship was placed under in-port rules. Shore leave was granted to 21 of the ship’s personnel; they went ashore on the liberty boat from the Orangeleaf at 1800 hours, and returned to the ship by the liberty boat at 2300 hours when shore leave expired. All personnel were accounted for by several of the ship’s officers as they came aboard the Orangeleaf. It is confirmed that alcohol had been consumed by many of the men but all were assessed by the officers in charge as being capable, and none exhibited any sign of concern. The chief officer recalled that Mark Petre and Keith Rice were both coherent and not stumbling around or the worse for alcohol.

It is confirmed that, on their return on board, several of the crew, including Mark Petre and his colleague Keith Rice, obtained—in breach of the rules—a final drink from the crew bar because there was an unofficial spare key in circulation that allowed access to bar. Games in the bar area followed, and a wager was made. A third crew member, Ryan Poulton, was also involved, and all three men climbed through the emergency escape porthole on to the port side of No. 1 deck and sat talking on the safety rail under No. 2 lifeboat.

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It is suggested that Mr. Rice then challenged Mr. Petre and Mr. Poulton to jump into the sea from under No. 2 lifeboat, swim around the stern and climb back on board via the pontoon on the starboard side. That challenge was declined by both men. At 0014 hours—it was now 4 June 2005—Mr. Poulton received a call on his mobile phone and returned to his cabin to continue that conversation in private, and then fell asleep there. That was the last reported sighting of Mr. Petre and Mr. Rice.

Later that morning, the night watchman checked the ship’s anchor. On his way back to the bridge, he noticed a pair of shoes under No. 1 lifeboat on the starboard side. He reported his finding to the officer of the watch, who advised the chief officer, and an investigation was then started. The captain was contacted at 0110 hours, and at 0156 hours, the ship was called to emergency stations to carry out a full muster of the ship’s company. That muster was completed at 0215 hours and it became apparent that Mr. Petre and Mr. Rice were missing. The chief officer ordered an immediate, complete ship search. A few minutes later, at 0219 hours, the chief officer contacted Douglas harbour authorities and informed them of the possibility that two crew members were missing. The ship search was complete by 0230 hours. The Douglas lifeboat was launched to make an initial search at 0238 hours and, at 0330 hours, a helicopter fitted with infrared search cameras arrived from RAF Valley. A second lifeboat from Port St. Mary was on the scene from sunrise.

The air search was called off at 0804 hours because of awareness about how long people can survive in water. The surface search was suspended at 1206 hours. The coastline was searched using dog teams until 2000 hours and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Fort Austin was anchored off Douglas at 0750 hours and continued to search the inshore waters with her own lifeboat until late afternoon.

Mr. Rice’s body was found on 27 June 2005. Until recently, no trace had been found of Mr. Petre. However, a fishing boat recovered a bone, which was subsequently DNA tested and confirmation was received of a match to Mr. Petre.

Two inquests have already taken place into the death of Mr. Rice because his body was found. One took place on 21 April 2006 on the Isle of Man and, to conform with English legal requirements, a further one took place on 30 June 2006 in the north-east Kent district coroner’s court.

It is important to state that, contrary to newspaper reports, the inquests found no evidence that all-day drinking had taken place or that the men had tried to swim round the Orangeleaf. Despite what the newspapers wrote, no evidence of drinking was found. The exact circumstances of the deaths remain unknown.

The Petres were notified on 24 August 2005 that a board of inquiry report had been completed into their son’s death. I tried to secure a copy of that report for the debate, but I was informed:

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with names and places deleted—

Will the Under-Secretary of State for Defence investigate why that should be the case? Why should it be necessary to make a freedom of information request to access the report? I know that a redacted copy exists—indeed, I have seen extracts from it. A redacted copy was passed to the next of kin on whose behalf I am raising the matter in the House. Why, therefore, is it necessary for me to make a freedom of information request to secure a copy of the report? I have the family’s authority to raise the matter and a freedom of information request is unnecessary. I hope that the Under-Secretary can respond to that—if not now, perhaps later, in writing. If there is no reason for making a freedom of information request, I hope that, if other hon. Members have to raise similar cases, they will not be told that such a request must be made.

We know what the key recommendations from the board of inquiry were because I tabled a written question about the matter, which was answered on 21 May 2007. I asked the Secretary of State for Defence

RFA Orangeleaf. The then Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), replied:

The recommendations were then listed as follows:

The final line of the answer confirmed:

I am sure that is true, but it is worth pursuing those points and trying to get some more information from the Minister. That simple final sentence does not explain in what way the recommendations have been adopted.

Let me address the first recommendation that the accommodation ladder should be pulled up after the last liberty boat run of the day. I hope that the Minister will tell me—not necessarily immediately, but perhaps later in writing—what written guidance is being issued to ensure that that happens as a matter of course. I could ask the same about the second recommendation that the inherent danger associated with a man being over board, whether voluntarily or accidentally, should continue to be the subject of education and be linked to
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safety awareness. That recommendation has been implemented, but in what way? I should like an answer from the Minister.

The third recommendation, which related to access to alcohol outside of bar hours, stated:

I hope that the Minister will provide me with details of that guidance. I do not believe that there can be any reasons of security or of freedom of information that could prevent me from seeing precisely what additional guidance has been issued as a result of the review.

On the fourth recommendation, there has been a minor revision to the RFA drug and alcohol policy because it did not cover the unspecified case of a ship at anchor. I hope that the Minister will provide documentation to show that that change has been implemented.

The fifth recommendation was that command teams should take cognisance of circumstances in which large numbers of crew members have been drinking alcohol ashore and should make such arrangements as they feel necessary to provide additional supervision and encouragement to avoid inappropriate behaviour when crew members return. Again, that recommendation has been implemented, but in what way? I am sure that command teams are taking cognisance of circumstances in which large numbers of crew members have been on shore leave, but what are they doing as a result of that cognisance? How are they doing things differently?

As a result of the sixth recommendation, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary human resources and the joint casualty and compassionate centre were to meet and discuss whether their procedures should be integrated or interrelated. Will the Minister provide documentation to explain the findings of that meeting and how procedures have been adjusted as a result?

The final recommendation stated:

People should be encouraged to take contemporaneous notes of incidents to support future investigations. I assume that some guidance has been issued to support that, which will go beyond simply encouraging that to happen and which will ensure that written procedures are available and produced in a consistent manner. I hope that more detail will be forthcoming on that issue.

I welcome the fact that the recommendations have been acted on, and I hope that more detailed information will shortly be forthcoming to explain exactly how they have been implemented. However, the recommendations that were identified by the board of inquiry are not an exhaustive list of the changes that could be made. Mr. and Mrs. Petre have made a number of other suggestions for improving health and safety duty-of-care procedures, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on them.

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