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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, we broadly welcome the new regulations and in particular appreciate the value of the very greatly increased inspection regimes which are now in operation. Before I go any further, perhaps I may say that I am still concerned about the practical implications of Regulation 7 governing seasonal use. Perhaps the noble Viscount can give more information as to how that would operate in practice. After all, the sea is no respecter of the seasons and is not necessarily less stormy just because it is the summertime; nor is it stormy or calm on command. I wonder how the arrangement would actually work in practice.

To go back to the main topic, some may say, as the noble Lord has just said by implication, that the regulations ought to have been introduced sooner following the "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster, on that March day nearly 10 years ago when 193 lives were lost, and the inquiries and research that followed. It is true that a decision on the part of the Government to move ahead with a European level agreement to apply SOLAS 90 standards to existing ships operating to ports in north west Europe gave our region better safeguards in that respect than those that had existed world-wide, but apparently it needed the "Estonia" disaster in 1995 with the loss of 900 lives to persuade the IMO of the need for a rapid review of regulations and further international compliance.

I particularly welcome the Government's decision again to go further than the IMO was then able to do. In effect the IMO is now carrying out the agreement which we signed with our group of nations in 1994 and is doing so on a world-wide basis. I welcome the Government's decision to promote and co-operate in a second regional agreement at Stockholm last year. This requires structural modifications to prevent the destabilising effect of water in the cargo and car decks of ro-ro ferries for both new and existing vessels.

We still need to be vigilant. I draw the attention of the noble Viscount to four areas of continuing concern. First, in 1996 there were a number of ro-ro ferry accidents world-wide, most of which involved fire. Fortunately, these accidents did not cause loss of life, but fire at sea is a fearsome thing. Has the noble Viscount considered whether any further safety measures need to be taken in connection with that particular danger? We do not want to have to learn again from another disaster involving major loss of life.

Secondly, there is the question of the training of seamen in UK ships and in those flying the flags of other nations. Are the Government satisfied that present training, for example within the new STCW convention, is sufficiently widespread as to its use and sufficiently

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focused in its detail to ensure the required level of training in the application of regulations and best practice regarding ro-ro ferries?

Thirdly, I am reasonably content that the Department of Transport list of vessels operating in and out of British ports shows that a majority are very nearly within the new standards, but I hope that the authorities will ensure that the few who should conform this year actually do so.

Fourthly, I am concerned at the large number of ferries operating, for example in the Aegean, which may well carry UK citizens and citizens of the other countries which signed the Stockholm agreement last year, but which do not conform to our standards and may be rather elderly. Are the Government confident they will soon conform at least to SOLAS 90? Is there any measure which UK authorities or travel companies could or should take to warn UK citizens of the risks they may be taking?

I appreciate the work the Government have done to make ro-ro ferries operating in north west Europe progressively safer but we should go further and exert the maximum pressure in favour of safety standards implemented world-wide. That would be in the great tradition of British activity to promote maritime safety world-wide.

6.15 p.m.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, I should declare that I spent some years at sea and took a Master's certificate of competency in the late 1960s. Since then technology has advanced, and I would not make any claim to being up to date. I hope I am not being too technical, but we need to get some matters into perspective.

It is worth pointing out that it appears that standards prevailing at the time of the "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster embraced less than 25 per cent. of those contained in the new regulations. However, having said that, we were still way ahead of most if not all others at that time with regard to safety. It is also worth mentioning that the "Estonia" had exemption from SOLAS regulations due to a local agreement. That horrific accident could not possibly have happened here.

It should be acknowledged that the A/Amax figures cannot show one ship as being safer than another. All that can be deduced is the probability of damage resulting in residual stability. The static stability calculations are probably similar to those which used to be familiar to me, but the "Herald of Free Enterprise" and the "Estonia" tragedies have indicated the way forward towards further intensive research into dynamic stability through model testing of each vessel and then comparing the figures with the static calculations. A comparison could then be made between theoretical and practical results. This development should be encouraged as it would be a big step forward. Nonetheless, the regulations themselves are a big improvement over those previously in force and I thoroughly approve of them.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. Certainly, there has been a very

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wide level of support for the new regulations, and I believe that that view is reflected outside your Lordships' House as well. A huge amount of research has gone into the production of these regulations and there is a very strong feeling that this new regulatory approach deals with the structural issues and with water on the car deck; hence the stability issues that have been examined, particularly by the IMO panel of experts.

Again, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, drew our attention to the history behind this issue. It is important to rehearse that in order to put the regulations into perspective and to provide a historical view as to how we have arrived at this situation. Certainly, regulation is based on examining the risks and investigating and identifying practical solutions. The noble Lord talked about being pro-active, and I certainly endorse what he said. Techniques such as formal safety assessment will be of major use in being increasingly pro-active.

The noble Lord questioned what is going on with regard to ferry design. Clearly operators could see the way that regulators were going and that they would be requiring ferries to meet new tough, stringent requirements. The new designs will of course take into account what is put forward in the regulations. Indeed, they will have to so do. There are further innovations in ferry design, not least the change from large conventional ferries to high speed craft of which we are seeing increasing numbers. They bring forward a whole new set of circumstances. Vessels which are travelling much faster bring different considerations with them. As regulators, we are looking extremely carefully at those new areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked about international action. I described the sequence of events which led up to the brokering of the Stockholm agreement and the links with the IMO there. We were pushing very hard within the IMO for wider international agreement but we were unable to achieve that. We believe that the technical solutions that we have identified are the right way forward and we shall maintain pressure to bring them about.

I was asked about France and Spain. I understand that certainly in the case of France, while it has not signed the agreement to bring in the regulations, it is content to participate in the regulatory approach and we are very pleased about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked about the Stena Invicta evacuation exercise. Making sure that ferries can be evacuated quickly and safely is a major part of the regulator's role. Such exercises are a major contribution to our understanding of how people behave in an emergency--whether the systems work and so on. Although it took some 65 minutes to complete the evacuation, the exercise provided much information about equipment and the way in which passengers and crew behave. We do not believe that it is right that such an exercise should take place in even more realistic circumstances, for example, in the middle of the Channel. Clearly, we wish to conduct those evacuation exercises in conditions of maximum safety. During the exercise, people were taking it slowly and deliberately because we did not want any injuries.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, commended the new inspection regime. That is an important part of the Government's powerful regulatory approach. Having covert inspections must be an important part of that. I was asked about Regulation 7, which deals with exemptions. That allows established operators to bring onto a regular route an additional ferry, particularly during the summer season. Such vessels would have to comply with requirements for a restricted period, perhaps for two or three of the summer months. That would be with regard to the significant wave height of the period. Weather considerations and significant wave heights around our coasts and those of other participants are a major factor in determining what level of standard must be complied with. That is a principle concerned with not just the summer months but with the different sea state conditions around the seas of the countries involved.

The noble Baroness is right to say that one can never guarantee on a particular day what the sea state will be. But a great deal of research has gone into sea states in various months and at various geographical locations around the coasts.

Exemption would require the agreement of both the Secretary of State of the United Kingdom and the equivalent authority for the other port. We do not want any exemptions to these powerful regulations which are not entirely appropriate and which do not take fully into account the safety considerations. Therefore, I can give the noble Baroness a very strong reassurance on that point.

The noble Baroness asked me about the STCW convention. I could say a great deal about that but I would be going beyond the scope of our debate. Suffice it to say that I am pleased with the direction of STCW. It will be a very useful tool for training, certification and watch keeping. I certainly endorse the noble Baroness's remarks about the importance of training.

The noble Baroness asked whether we should stick to the timetable that has been agreed. We shall certainly do that. As the noble Baroness said, we have published a list detailing the ferries and when each ferry would have to comply with the regulations. We shall take a very firm approach indeed as regards the timetable. It is a major part of the credibility of the agreement.

The final point about which the noble Baroness asked me was in relation to ferries overseas. Clearly, many United Kingdom citizens travel not just within Europe, and southern Europe where these regulations do not apply, but also further afield. That is why we are determined to keep up the pressure within the IMO for a wider adoption of higher safety standards for ro-ro ferries.

Finally, I welcome the intervention of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. He is right to point out the shortcomings in the design of the "Estonia" and the fact that it did not meet SOLAS 90. I thank the noble Viscount for his remarks with regard to the new regulations.

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The regulations have come about as a result of significant political pressure in the international dimension--the IMO--and within Europe. This is an issue on which we have participated fully with the European Commission. It has supported us and we have supported it in producing the Stockholm agreement. I thank the Commission for its support. We are convinced that this is the right way to go. It deals with the fundamental problem of water on the car deck and we believe that the agreement will lead to major enhancements in the safety of ro-ro ferries. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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