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Mr. and Mrs. Petre believe that there should be clear written instructions for the duty officer regarding the welfare of personnel returning from shore leave, particularly when alcohol has been consumed. It is possible that that has been covered by the fifth recommendation from the board of inquiry, but perhaps that needs to be spelled out more clearly. Their second suggestion is that clear instructions for dealing with personnel who return after drinking should be made available to duty officers. I think that there was an issue with the duty officer not
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being aware that such instructions existed. Will the Minister tell me whether that is covered in that recommendation, or whether more work needs to be done on that?

The third suggestion involves increasing the frequency of night deck patrols and/or the possibility of making more or better use of CCTV on deck areas at night, or in circumstances in which a significant number of a ship’s personnel have been on shore leave and there might be a need for additional care. Again, that might be an issue that has been addressed by the fifth recommendation, but I would ask the Minister to confirm—in writing, if necessary—whether it was considered and deemed to be a matter that the Government wanted to pursue.

A fourth suggestion was that a crash boat crew should be rested, alcohol free and on standby at all times, and that those boats should be regularly maintained and properly equipped with high-powered, working searchlights. The final suggestion was that the bar keys should be held by an officer, rather than by a rating bar committee member. Again, it is possible that that issue has already been addressed in the third and fourth recommendations. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to these additional proposals—if not now, perhaps later and in writing. I am sure that he will make it clear when he responds to the debate whether that will be the case.

We are in the fortunate position today of having sufficient time for the Minister to respond in detail to all the points that have been raised. Most, if not all, of those points were raised with him in advance, to give him time to consider his response. Having sufficient time to address serious matters is a luxury that we do not often have in this place. Also, we have confirmation from the coroner on the Isle of Man that there is no reason for the concerns that I have highlighted today not to receive a full and open hearing. I hope, therefore, that when the Minister responds, he will be able to respond fully to all the points that I have raised, and will not feel in any way constrained.

The tragedy experienced by these families, and the pain that they will feel for the rest of their lives following the unnatural and early loss of their sons, cannot be undone. However, a clear indication from the Government that they will implement policies to reduce the likelihood of other families going through the same trauma will go some way towards alleviating their pain. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us such an indication today.

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this debate. I know he has taken a great personal interest in this matter and he has articulated clearly the background to this sad case, also raising the difficulties experienced in expediting the death benefit payment.

The death of Mark Petre was a tragic event and our condolences go to his family and friends. I should also like to take the opportunity to express my sympathy to the friends and family of Keith Rice, who also died on the same night.

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For the record, I may repeat some of what the hon. Gentleman has already said, but it is important for a Minister speaking for the Government to do so. As we know, Royal Fleet Auxiliary Orangeleaf was anchored off Douglas, Isle of Man, on the afternoon of 3 June 2005. The commanding officer planned to allow two days of rest and recreation prior to participating in an exercise. As we now know, an incident-free time ashore took place that evening and all the ship’s company had returned to the ship by the time of the last liberty boat at 11.30 that night. Several members of the crew gathered in the recreation area and several dares and wagers were made. Seaman grade 1A, Mark Petre, and leading hand cook, Keith Rice, remained behind in the bar while the rest of the ship’s company retired.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, during routine rounds, Petre and Rice were subsequently found to be missing. An area search operation with the Liverpool coast guard co-ordinating air and surface assets failed to locate the two men. A body was recovered a few weeks later and was identified as that of Keith Rice, but Mark Petre’s body has not been recovered.

A board of inquiry was convened on 8 June 2005, five days after the event. The president was Captain I. E. Johnson, RFA, assisted by a Royal Navy commander and a civil servant. It reported one month later on 8 July 2005. The board’s primary conclusion was that this was a tragic accident, the balance of probability suggesting that the two were lost, presumed drowned, following a dare to swim around the ship. A copy of the report was given to the Petre and Rice families in August 2005.

As has already been mentioned, following a written question from the hon. Gentleman, the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), reported to the House on 2 May 2007 that the seven recommendations made by the board had been adopted.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about health and safety issues. Of course, the reason why the board of inquiry was established was to ensure that we learned whatever lessons there were. The report included, for example, the recommendation that command teams should make arrangements as they feel necessary to provide additional supervision when large numbers of crew members have been consuming alcohol ashore. As I have said, all the board’s recommendations were accepted in full.

Although Mark Petre’s body has never been recovered, a fishing boat from Portavogie, Northern Ireland, recently recovered a human bone from the Irish sea, which subsequent DNA testing confirmed to be Mark Petre’s. As a result of that identification, Her Majesty’s Attorney-General, Isle of Man, wrote to the Isle of Man coroner, directing him to hold an inquest, which will take place in Douglas court house this Saturday, 24 May. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it would be wrong for me to anticipate the outcome, but I hope that it will enable the coroner formally to confirm the death of Mark Petre and the likely circumstances surrounding this tragic event. The coroner’s certificate of findings will allow the death to be registered formally and a death certificate to be issued.

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The hon. Gentleman made specific points about the payment of death benefit retrospectively. Death benefit is a lump sum repaid on presentation of the death certificate. It will not be retrospective, but will be paid to the death benefit nominee, Mark Petre’s father, Mr. Geoffrey Petre. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about issues surrounding the death certificate, which he has made clear previously. The matter has also been the subject of correspondence with the national secretary of the Prospect trade union. The decision not to pay death benefit in the absence of a death certificate was endorsed on appeal, but as I have indicated, I would hope that this Saturday’s inquest will enable us to resolve the issue very shortly.

Throughout this difficult time, my Department has maintained contact with the Petre family and sought to provide them with the support they require. For the forthcoming inquest, Mark’s parents will be escorted by a senior officer of the RFA and the RFA chaplain.

The House needs to be aware that a memorial trophy in memory of Mark Petre is awarded twice a year to the best RFA seamanship trainee attending the Royal Navy training establishment on HMS Raleigh. A similar trophy in memory of Keith Rice is issued annually to the best RFA steward trainee. Mr. and Mrs. Petre made the inaugural presentation of the Petre award on 24 November 2006. Those prizes recognise achievement among trainees, but also serve to remind all RFA seafarers of the many dangers of the sea.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. I can go into them in a bit more detail because we have enough time, although I apologise if I cannot answer them all.

Tom Brake: I did not necessarily expect the Minister to answer all those questions today. Unfortunately, I am familiar with the way in which Adjournment debates work and Members raising a host of issues to which there is often no feedback. Can I secure an undertaking from him that his staff will go through my speech, pick up the specific questions that I have asked and respond in writing?

Derek Twigg: I am sorry if that has happened to the hon. Gentleman, but that is not how I work. I can assure him, as I think my record demonstrates, that I respond to Members on any points that I have not been able to deal with. However, in the time available I can go through a number of the issues raised, but I will come back to him in the near future to deal with anything that I do not answer or which he mentions in any supplementary questions he might have.

Raising the accommodation ladder following the last liberty boat is now a routine procedure for all RFA vessels. The inherent dangers of a man overboard incident should remain the subject of education and safety awareness. That is ongoing, with regular man overboard drills, and exercises conducted as part of a larger continuing training programme. The risk of falling overboard is one of the many risks associated with going to sea and is covered by a comprehensive health and safety regime.

On the suggestion that flotilla guidance on the control, inspection and validation of bar stock and keys should be published, instructions are in place and are published within the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service regulatory document BR875. The executive officer issues instructions
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for the operation and control of the bars, detailing opening and closing times, the responsibility for stock, the control of keys, the monthly inspection of accounts, and the limitation of issues to bars. Bar keys are collected from and returned to the place designated by the executive officer.

The RFA drug and alcohol policy and rules controlling ships’ bars should recognise the cases of ships at anchor. Instructions are in place and are published in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary regulatory document BR875 for the control of ships’ bars and alcohol consumption limits both in port and at sea. For ships at anchor, the commanding officer has the discretion, as captain of the vessel, to make a decision to apply the most appropriate rule—ship in port or ship at sea—taking into account all circumstances, for example the prevailing weather conditions. He also has the discretion to restrict shore leave and increase the number of duty personnel on board.

Command teams should make arrangements as they feel necessary to provide additional supervision when large numbers of crew members have been consuming alcohol ashore. The commanding officer has the authority to make any provision necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of the ship’s company, the ship itself and the environment.

The next point was that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary human resource and joint casualty and compassionate centre should meet to establish whether or not casualty and kinforming procedures should be integrated or interrelated. The procedure is interrelated. In the event of an incident, the joint casualty and compassionate centre will inform the Royal Fleet Auxiliary duty personnel officer, who is always on call, seven days a week, 365 days a year. He or she will commence the kinforming procedure through the police.

The hon. Gentleman has made a number of additional points either today or via my office. On the need for written instructions for the duty officer regarding the welfare of personnel returning from shore leave, the duties and responsibilities of the duty officer are contained in document BR875, volume 3. Specifically, it states:

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The point was also made about the need for a definitive assessment of the degree of intoxication. Each ship has at least one evidential breath analyser, and each RFA vessel carries a number of on-board trained operators including duty officers. The RFA operates a drug and alcohol policy, and should a duty officer or anyone else believe that an individual is in breach of the regulation, the person concerned will be subject to an evidential breath analysis. It would be impractical to breath-test everyone returning on board.

As for the need for increased night patrols, instructions are in place and are published in Royal Fleet Auxiliary regulatory document BR875. Upper-deck patrols are a regular feature of RFA life. During silent hours—that is, outside the normal working day—duty personnel will patrol at least every two hours, although the frequency of patrols will vary according to circumstances. The commanding officer has discretion to decide whether it should be increased, drawing on his professional experience.

Let me deal next with the need for the “crash boat” to be on standby with proper lighting and a sober crew. At sea, the crash boat is on standby to be launched at short notice. In port and when shore leave has been granted, including when a ship is at anchor, it is not customary to retain the crash boat and its crew on standby. The crash boat launch arrangements are purpose-built, and include approved lighting and communication facilities between the bridge and the launch position.

Bar keys are to be held by the duty officer only. Instructions are in place, and are published in Royal Fleet Auxiliary regulatory document BR875. They state:

Bar keys are held securely by the duty officer and issued under signature.

If there are any issues that I have not covered, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will get back to him in writing as soon as possible.

Let me end by saying that the loss of a loved one is devastating in any circumstances, but the absence of a body on which to focus that grief prolongs the pain. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all Members in offering condolences to the family. I trust that they may soon find a measure of peace and comfort, and, of course, closure.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o’clock.

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