Skip to main content

Mr. Mark Petre

Volume 476: debated on Thursday 22 May 2008

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

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.

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:

“Although it is now normal practice for us to publish BOI reports on the MOD publication scheme, for historical ones (such as this), I am afraid that you need to formally request a copy of the report under the FOI Act, which would be considered and the report redacted”—

with names and places deleted—

“as appropriate (and then placed on the publication scheme).”

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

“if he will make a statement on progress with the recommendations of the Board of Inquiry into the loss of SGIA Mark Petre…and…Keith Rice…from”

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

“The Board of Inquiry…made seven recommendations”.

The recommendations were then listed as follows:

“The accommodation ladder should be raised following the last liberty boat run;

The inherent dangers of a man over board incident should remain the subject of education and safety awareness;

Flotilla guidance on the control, inspection and validation of bar stock and keys should be published;

The RFA drug and alcohol policy and rules controlling ships’ bars should recognise cases of ships at anchor;

Command teams should make arrangements as they feel necessary to provide additional supervision when large numbers of crew members have been consuming alcohol ashore;

Royal Fleet Auxiliary Human Resources and Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre should meet to establish whether or not casualty and informing procedures should be integrated or inter related;

Incident narratives should be kept as a matter of routine to aid investigations.”

The final line of the answer confirmed:

“All these recommendations have now been adopted.”—[Official Report, 21 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 1053W.]

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 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:

“Flotilla guidance on the control, inspection and validation of bar stock and keys should be published”.

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:

“Incident narratives should be kept as a matter of routine”.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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 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:

“Raucous Behaviour on the part of any person is to be tactfully and firmly discouraged, especially at or near the gangway…the Officer of the Day…informs the Duty Senior Officer of any person who, in his/her opinion, is suspected of being drunk or a danger to themselves or others. The OOD will decide in consultation with the available officers, whether or not medical attention is needed, or if action in accordance with the Code of Conduct and or the Drug and Alcohol policy is required.”

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:

“In Port, it is the responsibility of the OOD to ensure that all ships bars are properly closed by the appointed times.”

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.