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Fishing Vessels (Safety)

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Miss Clark.

This matter is very close to my son, my daughter and me. I no longer have a commercial interest in it, but the House knows of the loss I suffered on 24 March last year. If lives can be saved as a result of what has been learnt from Neil’s tragic accident, we will be content. I place on record my heartfelt sympathy for the family of the Mevagissey fisherman, Ian Thomas, who was so tragically lost last December, and I thank the maritime rescue services and the Fishermen’s Mission for their continued support for our seafarers. In the words of the Fishermen’s Mission:

“Over 13,000 men and women work in the UK’s toughest and most dangerous peacetime occupation: deep sea fishing. At sea, they face death and injury on a daily basis.”

Since 1991, the marine accident investigation branch—the MAIB—has recorded 153 accidents involving single-handed operations on board UK-registered fishing vessels, one in five of which have resulted in a fatality. Every fisherman is of course aware of the dangers posed by the working environment of certain fishing operations. Many of them are confronted with the economic decision of putting to sea in heavier weather conditions to support an adequate share of the catch for the crew, or working their boat single-handedly and working less weather. My own family faced that dilemma. Many fishermen choose to work alone on their fishing boat at their peril. Fishing gear and heavy machinery pose a genuine threat, and every fisherman I know is well aware of the dangerous environment in which they work.

Numerous recorded accidents demonstrate that fishermen’s work can be made safer by installing emergency stop buttons. In some instances, the use of an emergency stop button has been entirely responsible for saving a fisherman’s life. The incident on board Danielle is one such example. A deck hand sustained major injuries, but without the emergency stop button the injuries most certainly would have been fatal. Danielle was a UK-registered scallop dredger, and the deck hand was tipping each scallop dredge individually. He was using several turns of rope around the whipping drum on the port side of the winch house, when a riding turn developed. In an attempt to stop the winch and clear the riding turn, the deck hand slipped on the recovered dredges lying on the deck and his left hand became caught in the rope. He did two backward somersaults, whipping around the drum and the framework. He could not reach the stop button on his first attempt. He sustained horrific injuries, and he knew that if he went around a third time he might not survive, but he eventually managed to stand up, stretch and hit the stop button. That demonstrates that an emergency stop button is a vital piece of equipment. One needs to protect oneself against the worst possible scenarios when operating heavy machinery.

Going to sea alone is ultimately more dangerous than going with others. Statistics show that a fisherman has a higher chance of survival in an accident if he has other crew members on board, even more so if there is an emergency stop button, which will increase his safety. The dangers of fishing alone can be seen in the loss of the skipper of Breadwinner, who was dragged overboard and drowned while shooting prawn creels. The boat was being operated single-handedly, with no one to assist the skipper when he became trapped in a creel leader rope. The MAIB concluded that an emergency stop button would have most probably saved his life.

Cases involving serious injuries but not fatalities because other crew members were on board include that of Blue Angel. The fisherman was dragged overboard when his leg became caught in the back rope of a fleet of creels that was being shot over the stern. The two remaining crewmen managed to recover him and administer first aid, and he was transferred to hospital where he made a full recovery. The evidence shows that fishermen are putting themselves at direct risk by fishing alone, as they have no one to assist them if they get into a critical situation, and that is why an emergency stop button is vital for fishermen who choose to do so.

The 2007 code of practice for the safety of small fishing vessels recognised the importance of emergency stop valves, and a requirement was introduced for all new vessels to be constructed and outfitted in accordance with the latest Seafish Industry Authority standards, including the fitting of emergency stop buttons to the operational machinery.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House, and on her courage. We know just how much this means to her.

Clearly it is essential that the safety stop valve is put on boats, but the hon. Lady will be aware of the cost. Is she also aware of the EU grant? I understand that the EU will give a grant of 40% of the cost. This is a devolved matter in the regions, and in the one that I represent—Northern Ireland—the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will have to give some commitment as well. Does the hon. Lady feel that the EU and the regional Administrations can work together to ensure that safety on the boats can be achieved?

I will come on to funding a little later. I have obviously looked at England, but there is work to be done with the devolved Administrations as well.

The modification to the net drum aboard my husband’s stern trawler, Our Boy Andrew, and on many other vessels was completed before 2007, and there was therefore no legal requirement for emergency stop valves to be fitted. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency had previously published an industry-sponsored safety leaflet entitled “Single Handed Operation”, which provided a simple list of safety do’s and don’ts, but it was no longer in print at the time of the accident aboard Our Boy Andrew. I am delighted that the MCA has, as an interim measure, reinstated the leaflet on its website, and I hope the Minister will join me in calling for all single-handed fishermen to source and read that list of do’s and don’ts. One of the leaflet’s recommendations is the fitting and maintaining of emergency stops. The most recent investigations by the marine accident investigation branch have recommended the provision of emergency stops.

On the costs of the emergency stop valve, the expense is considerable for a small boat. A family-owned boatyard in my constituency, C. Toms and Son, was kind enough to give me a quotation. The installation of one emergency stop button would set back a fisherman about £981, with extra valves costing £35 each. The more stop buttons that are installed, the more the price of the wiring drops. The cost of a foot control with a heavy lead, which would enable the fisherman to move it around the deck, would cost about an extra £333. That is a total of £1,314, which is a large expense for a small, lower-grossing vessel. The economics is forcing more fishermen into single-handed operations, yet fitting emergency stop buttons is seen as an expensive modification, which is often put off until a later day. Knowing fishermen as I do and understanding the economic pressures they face, with fuel costs, harbour dues and insurance having to be found from the catch before they can provide for their families and pay household bills, I understand only too well how that can happen.

With that in mind, I approached the Marine Management Organisation to find out whether there was a possibility of financial help through the European fisheries fund, and I am delighted to have received a positive reply. The MMO confirmed:

“Further to our recent correspondence regarding the above, I would like to assure you that the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is fully committed to anything which improves the safety of fishermen and we are…pleased to be involved”

in this

“application. We have considered the eligibility in-line with the European Fisheries Fund regulation and national strategic priorities. I am delighted to confirm that safety stop valves are eligible under the scheme and we will be able to offer the following funding rates to applicants across England”.

Vessels under 12 metres not using towed gear can get 60% funding. Vessels under 12 metres using towed gear will get 40% funding. Vessels between 12 metres and 15 metres using all fishing methods will get 40% funding.

The reply continued:

“The funding sits within Axis 1—Vessel Modernisation and selectivity Measure 1 Improvement of safety on board. Applications can be submitted either by…individual fisherman or…an association of fishermen for consideration by the MMO. Application forms and guidance are available”

from the website,

“direct from the MMO Business Relations Team”

or from its coastal offices.

“Funding is available across England for all eligible vessels. It is…worth highlighting that boat yards and installers who carry out the installation of…safety stop valves must be registered businesses and the MMO cannot recommend individual companies.”

It concludes with:

“Please be assured we will make colleagues in our coastal offices aware of this new funding opportunity so they can…publicise it across the industry. In closing the MMO are very pleased to be able to support this safety addition to vessels and we are hopeful of receiving applications shortly.”

I have demonstrated today some very real scenarios of what can happen to fishermen when they go to sea without an emergency stop button. The MMO has undertaken to publicise the availability of funding and to help with the purchase of the equipment. Will my hon. Friend the Minister for Shipping join me in urging all fishermen to take advantage of the European funding and enhance safety on board fishing vessels? No one knows more than I do that our fishermen do a heroic and very dangerous job, and I hope they will now all fit emergency stop valves to their vessels as soon as possible.

I think this is the first time either as a Minister or a shadow Minister that I have served under your chairmanship, Miss Clark, and it is a pleasure to do so this afternoon. I warmly thank my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for securing the debate. The only word to describe her and her family is “dignified.” We cannot imagine the loss to her family, but how she has taken the arguments forward, so that others do not suffer in the way that she and her family have done, is moving. The House needs to pay tribute to the work that she has done and will do, and some of that work will, I hope, be with me.

The really serious situation that my hon. Friend has brought up has touched so many families around this great maritime nation of ours. The shipping industry has been with us, and dangerous, for as long as anybody can remember, but it is particularly difficult at the moment, especially for the smaller inshore fleets, simply because the economics of having a crew on a ship sometimes makes it almost impossible to make the trade viable. With the costs of insurance, harbour dues and fuel, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the one saving available to skippers is to limit the number of crew on their ships, thus limiting their costs, and many of them have made that decision. I used to live on the coast in Southend, and I watched the inshore boys regularly going out single-handed. It helps them in that it reduces their overheads, but it also puts them at enormous risk. Anything that we can do to help them to limit the risk is one of the highest priorities for any Government of any colour or persuasion.

When I took on this job and looked across my portfolio, I was pleased that I shared part of it with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has responsibility for fisheries policy, and shared responsibility for the Marine Management Organisation, which was a new entity, with a DEFRA Minister. One of the MMO’s key jobs is to ensure that we finance the right priorities in the right way. We have something like 17,500 part-time and full-time fishermen in the UK. Even though the debate is about England, I hope that my colleagues and fellow Ministers in the devolved Administrations are listening, because if we can secure money from the Commission, I am pretty certain that they can.

I thank the Minister for that very encouraging response. Does he intend to contact the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to make them aware of the funding? I have talked to some of the fishing organisations back home and I think that they are aware of it, but sometimes a wee nudge from the Minister enables them to move just that wee bit quicker.

I know that I am enormously popular in Northern Ireland in particular at the moment, so I am sure that a nudge from my size-10 boot would not go amiss. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will contact all my counterparts in the devolved Assemblies to ensure that they are aware of the debate and the research that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall has done on behalf of all fishermen, and to give them a subtle hint, because as my hon. Friend knows, it is not quite as simple as it sounds.

It sounds as if I could stand here as Minister and just say, “We all know the safety benefits that could come from installing the emergency stop valve on a boat, so make it compulsory.” Why not regulate to avert such dangers? The biggest reason that I am not going to do that is not because I do not think that it would work, because it would, but because of the costs. The costs would be so bad for small inshore fishermen. The figure of £1,300 is interesting, but the true figure might be £1,300 plus VAT, if they are registered for VAT. It might be more than that in certain parts of the country, but it might be less in parts of the country with more competition. Some fishermen could not even get £1,300 with an overdraft or a loan, and so would not be able to go to sea.

I appreciate the Minister’s concerns about costs; it is a very salient issue for smaller vessels in particular. My concern about regulation is that the experience of recent years has been that where fishermen’s organisations themselves own the issues, self-regulation has been effective, as we have seen with conservation measures. I urge him to continue on the path he is taking.

I have absolutely no intention of regulating, and the reason for that is that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall has found a funding stream from Europe to the UK—what a fantastic thing. I wish we had a bit more like that. It is excellent news. If I regulate and make valves compulsory—I will give way to my hon. Friend if I am wrong—the funding stream ceases. Fishermen have to bid for the funding for themselves or as a group through the relevant bodies. If I say that I will lay before the House a regulation or statutory instrument using my powers, the funding stream will cease. That is the biggest reason I have not regulated.

I will encourage all fishermen who fall into the three categories my hon. Friend mentioned—I think there might be one other category—to apply for funding through the MMO. I will facilitate that. We will have links through our websites and ensure that we publicise it, to draw down the funding and get the valves installed as soon as possible. We must also look at new fleet. There are not as many new ships and many have been adapted from different uses over the years, but we need to ensure that when they come out of any of our boatyards, such technology is included at the point of manufacture.

I was disappointed when the Maritime and Coastguard Agency withdrew the single-handed leaflet. As soon as that was brought to my attention, I sought to address it. It will now be made not only available, but permanently available. It is not a temporary measure and it will be regularly updated, not least with the information that we have heard during this debate. It is crucial that we do that.

We need to work on other measures as well as the stop buttons. We need to address the culture among our fishermen and women whereby the odd injury or risk is seen as acceptable and a badge of honour. When I went to Grimsby earlier this year, I was disturbed to hear from a crew that one of their colleagues had been dragged overboard and had drowned because he was not wearing any buoyancy equipment. After that, they all started wearing such equipment, but the peer pressure suffered by the youngest member of the crew meant that, within six months, they had all stopped wearing it. We have to break away from that culture and work together as a Government and an industry to say that it is not big of someone to put their life at risk. People put their lives at risk enough by going to sea in order to earn a living. It is not a badge of honour to lose a finger. I have seen so many injuries, whether they be scars or the odd missing digit, just by shaking hands with fishermen around the country.

I have discussed this issue with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and know that her husband, prior to his terrible accident, had had an injury at sea. We have a responsibility to the industry to say that this is not acceptable. We know that they are proud men and women and that they have a fantastic history, but it would be much better—this is a subtle hint—for their families and young ones if they were as able-bodied as possible when fishing in order to bring in their income.

Through Seafish, we are continuing with the training. Fortunately, we won the court ruling on the funding of Seafish, which is enormously important. The fishing industry safety group is chaired on my behalf via the MCA and I have asked it whether my hon. Friend could join. I ask her whether she is willing to offer her expertise and knowledge to the group. It would have liked to ask her before the debate, but felt that it was for me, the Minister, to do so. I suggested to it that it should have asked me earlier. Even so, if we can get more people with life experiences, as well as “experts,” involved in the industry, I think that we will be able to bring much more understanding to bodies such as the fishing industry safety group. That would be of benefit.

I see that my hon. Friend is nodding, but I shall give way so that she can formally accept my invitation.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it would be an honour and a privilege to join the fishing industry safety group. Will he pass on my grateful thanks for the invitation? I would be delighted to accept.

That is fantastic news, because the dignity and knowledge that my hon. Friend has brought to this debate and to that taking place in the country as a whole will now be part of the fishing industry safety group. I also hope that her membership of the group will shake it up a bit. We have got to know each other very well over the past 18 months, and we both know that the industry needs to be shaken up. I also fully understand that my own Department needs to ask “Why?” in relation to certain aspects of this particular area. I am not saying that that is true of everything, but there is sometimes a definite need to ask questions.

In conclusion—I have kept my remarks relatively brief, but there is no point in my waffling on—we completely agree with my hon. Friend and we will address the devolved Assemblies issue. I have nothing but admiration for the fishermen who go to sea. They do so not only to look after their families, but on our behalf, and bring in a wonderful plethora of seafish and crustacean from our wonderful waters, which are being protected more and more. Fishermen have had issues with discard, but that is more of an issue out at sea. I agree with their concerns and we are desperately trying to sort out the issue of discard. If we can continue to protect our fleet as new ships with safety buttons are introduced, and if I can for once not regulate and see some benefit from that—if I regulated, we would not see any benefits—that will be better for everybody, and so many families, such as that of my hon. Friend, would not be in the situation in which they find themselves.