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Herald Of Free Enterprise

Volume 118: debated on Monday 29 June 1987

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport on what basis he made his decision not to bring prosecutions in respect of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster; and if he will make a statement.

I am advised that it has been the firm policy of general application over many years not to bring criminal charges in connection with matters which have been the subject of public inquiries of this sort. It was felt that in this case the paramount need was to establish the cause of the disaster as quickly as possible and to see what lessons could be learnt.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and recognise that he was not in his present position when the decision was made. However, did not the inquiry clearly show that the company had allowed safety to be sacrificed for speed and that negligence was proven? This is a case far more serious than anything similar. My right hon. Friend's Department, through the Civil Aviation Authority, would have grounded any aircraft or airline that had behaved similarly. Has the inquiry any executive powers, and, if not, why has my right hon. Friend apparently pre-empted any decision that his Department might take in future?

I agree about the seriousness and importance of the case. The inquiry, which I hope will report before too long, will make what recommendations it likes, and it would not be right for me to comment at this stage on what my hon. Friend says. As I understand it, it has always been the view in all formal investigations that prolonged discussion of the evidence at a public inquiry would prejudice a fair trial if criminal proceedings were to be brought. In addition, witnesses at subsequent inquiries would be inhibited in providing evidence. It is open to the inquiry, if it so wishes, to suspend or cancel the certificates of the officers involved, should the inquiry think that an appropriate course.

Is the Minister aware that a number of new ferries are coming into operation and that they must be affected by the evidence taken in this inquiry? Is he further aware that unless he is prepared to talk urgently to the transport companies, it is possible that we will face another major accident?

I hope that that is not the case. However, the hon. Lady is on to an important point. As soon as I have the recommendations of the inquiry, I shall wish to consider them speedily. A not unrelated question from one of the hon. Lady's hon. Friends should be reached in a few moments.

Is it not the case, quite clearly from the evidence that we have seen in the press, that Townsend Thoresen is riddled from top to bottom with negligence and disregard for safety procedures? In that case, does the Minister not regret the blanket decision not to prosecute? Does he accept that it will come ill if one or two officers are made to carry the can for what was clearly company policy? Will he give an assurance that should it unfortunately become necessary for a similar inquiry to be held in the future there will be no blanket immunity from prosecution?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to prejudge the inquiry. Let us wait and see what the judge reports, and then the House will consider the appropriate findings. This decision has not been taken in isolation. There has never been a prosecution after a formal investigation of this kind, and this is true not only of these investigations but of inquiries like them, because it is thought that a fair trial would be prejudiced. That was the position when the Labour party was in power. I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says, and it may be right, after the inquiry is over, to look at these procedures again. However, I cannot do that until the inquiry reports.