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Yacht and Boat Delivery Companies (Safety Regulations)

Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)

The reason for my seeking to secure this Adjournment debate is the death of five men in circumstances that will, I hope, attract the indignation of every right-thinking man and woman listening to my narrative.

The sea conditions in the north-west Pacific in the months of November and December are notoriously dangerous. The navigational directions of the Admiralty speak of frequent gales, huge seas and swells rising to over 4 metres. These mountainous and confused seas are raised by violent winds and driven by tropical storms and hurricanes. Into the teeth of those conditions sailed the fragile, 40-feet catamaran, the Cat Shot. She was skippered by a constituent of mine, John Anstess, a man born in Plymouth, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), whose family reside in the village of Beer Alston in west Devon. He was an experienced skipper and a decent family man. He had set sail in August 2006, en route to Seattle on the north-west coast of the United States of America.

The Cat Shot had crossed the south Atlantic and, after making several stops and negotiating the Panama canal, put in to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico to shelter from Hurricane Sergio. Hurricane Sergio weakened and died off on 18 November and, on 24 November, the Cat Shot arrived at San Diego. There, the crew refused to continue because they thought that it would be unsafe to do so at that time of year in that vessel. On 30 November, the Cat Shot arrived in Los Angeles, where she took on a replacement crew member, Richard Beckman. On 7 December, she made San Francisco, where she took on another crew member, Dave Rodman. On 8 December, she departed from San Francisco for the final run to Seattle. She was skippered, as I have said, by John Anstess.

That was the last time those three men were seen alive. When the catamaran was recovered, the hull door was found open and a line was attached to the propeller bracket. She had capsized. The crew had clearly left the vessel after that happened. The log was recovered. The final entry had been made at 03:00 hours on 11 December 2006—it had been the skipper’s practice to make entries roughly every three hours—from which the US coastguard concluded that the vessel had foundered off the coast of Oregon between 03:00 and 06:00 hours on that day. The log recorded very heavy weather conditions and confused seas. The vessel had run before the wind, bare poled, with no sails and with sea anchors deployed. A storm had developed in the area at the time, and the Admiralty court judge who inquired into the matter stated that it was

“most probable that size and steepness of a combination of waves and swell was sufficient to overturn her.”

How had the vessel come to be in that place at that time? John Anstess had been engaged by a company called Reliance Yacht Management, or Reliance Yacht Deliveries Ltd, as a delivery skipper. It is the conduct of that company and its principal director, Mr Nicholas Irving, that is and should be under scrutiny by my hon. Friend the Minister, as well as the important questions of public policy that this case raises.

The United States coastguard conducted an inquiry, which concluded that

“the master felt pressure from his employers to deliver the yacht against safety standards (no survival suits, radar, heating, proper communications gear, proper life boat for ocean travel)...the master requested to travel a different route via Hawaii because he felt it would be safer and quicker and was denied permission by his employer who stated the owners would not allow it.”

The judge in the Admiralty Court concluded:

“The question is whether it was proper to navigate a vessel with the characteristics of this catamaran into a part of the world where she could or was likely to meet such bad weather conditions…In my judgment it could generally be regarded as intrinsically unsafe and therefore foolhardy to take a 40 foot…multi hull vessel across any piece of water when it was expected to meet hurricane or typhoon conditions…this is particularly true if it was possible to avoid such conditions”.

The judge concluded in the High Court that Reliance should have taken steps to inquire what conditions would face the vessel. If not, it would have had no way of knowing whether it was sensible to commit the skipper and the crew to the delivery of a boat within that time scale.

The judge concluded that Irving had done nothing to check the weather to be expected in the north Pacific at that time of year or to carry out elementary route planning, which is a prerequisite of the responsible operation of sailing vessels. Had he done so, he would have been bound to conclude that the voyage was unsafe. This was the view of the crew who left the boat at San Diego. It was the view of the local skippers. This view was conveyed to Reliance, but it was ignored. The only inference—I repeat, the only inference—is that Mr Irving and his company were more interested in their reputation for delivering boats on time than with the lives of their skippers and crew.

When Mr Anstess urgently and repeatedly raised the sensible suggestion that he should take the Hawaii route because it would have avoided the area of bad weather and was a route that was more off wind than the coastal route and therefore much more appropriate for a catamaran, it was rejected by Irving with the words that the “client will go ballistic”. John Anstess had also e-mailed his sister on 25 November to say that he was getting no help from Reliance and had requested a change of route, but that Nick had laughed at him. Nick did not say, as a responsible operator would have, “Well, John, it is a matter for you; do what you think is best—you’re the captain on the spot.” He directed John Anstess to sea; he directed him to his death.

When John Anstess suggested wintering in San Diego—of all the options, the most sensible—he was told: “John, you have definitely got a tired attitude. I still like you, John, but this trip you have definitely showed a different side to you.” The judge rightly concluded that this was a rejection. He found that there was no competent managerial system in place at Reliance that could evaluate the relevant dangers and make proper decisions. He agreed with the United States coastguard that John Anstess had been put under pressure to complete the voyage. He found Reliance negligent and the loss of the crew directly attributable to its conduct. He also found that when John Anstess had sent a message stating that the weather was not looking good—that there were strong south-easterlies gusting 30 to 40 knots for the next three or four days and a massive low system out over the Pacific—he was told by the company that its forecast shows “light winds” out to the south-west and south-east, and either way not from the north.

Let us pause a moment and reflect upon the wickedness of such an act. The judge concluded there had been no such weather forecast, and that it had been part of Reliance’s approach to put pressure on John Anstess to complete the delivery. He had gone ahead only against his own best judgment, after the company had ignored and overridden his warning and advice. The judge found that John Anstess had probably survived the capsize and had rigged the line around the propeller, no doubt in an attempt to remain attached to the capsized vessel in the swelling seas. So he ordered that Mr Irving and his company should pay £3,000 to his relatives and estate, and should pay the remainder of the $7,500 fee for which John had contracted to supply the boat. A note of a phone call from John Anstess was found at Reliance, saying that he was

“on a boat already suffering stress damages. I am being pushed into taking the boat into even more extreme weather than I have encountered so far and nobody seems to care.”

What has been the reaction of Mr Irving? Has he paid the paltry sum that Reliance was ordered to pay by the High Court? He has not. He has applied to dissolve his company, and with that dissolution to escape the judgment debt. He is in the habit of dissolving companies: he has dissolved no fewer than four so far.

John Anstess is not the only skipper who has been lost at sea while delivering yachts for Reliance, and for Mr Irving. Although it beggars belief, just two months later Steve Hobley, another Devon man—from Newton Abbot—was sailing on the right, safe and prudent route from England to Miami when he was ordered to deviate and sail north of Bermuda to take a 38-feet catamaran to Annapolis in Maryland. He was told by Irving that if he failed to make the diversion, he would never work for the company again. The area is notorious for bad weather at that time of year, and the catamaran capsized. His two crew survived for 11 hours in the Atlantic on its upturned hull, but they watched Mr Hobley die of hypothermia and slip beneath the waves in the darkness.

Alistair Crawford, a young and inexperienced skipper on his first trip, was sent to sea to deliver a yacht to the Caribbean. Irving had lied to the owners about Alistair Crawford’s qualifications, claiming on a falsified CV that he possessed thousands of miles of seagoing experience. Other yacht companies had warned their employees not to put to sea that night, but Alistair Crawford—just like John Anstess and Steve Hobley—was subjected to pressure to do so. The yacht foundered, losing its mast, in storm conditions and 60-knot winds in the Bay of Biscay. It was not equipped to deal with those conditions.

What are the issues raised by this sad and tragic story? Not a single action has been taken by any authority in this country to bring to account Mr Irving and his company for that story of neglect, irresponsibility and reckless endangerment of the lives of human beings. The yacht was registered as a pleasure craft and did not have to meet the rigorous requirement for charter vessels, even though it was being taken by employed crew—many of them British citizens—from this country to the port of destination, for pay.

And what of John Anstess? His Cat Shot was foreign-registered, and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency says that it is unable to act for that reason. My office has been in touch with the agency today, and it continues to adopt that stance. This is an outrage. Something must be done to bring the company to account. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I do not believe that enough consideration has been given to whether action can be taken. I do not accept that this matter is beyond the criminal jurisdiction of the courts of this country merely because the vessel flew a foreign flag. The instructions to go to sea that the judge found were negligent, the lies about the weather conditions, and the pressure put on the captain and the masters by Irving of Reliance were all carried out in this country. If they amount to a criminal wrong, there can be indictments in this country, even though the impact may have been felt 6,000 miles across the seas.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency must be asked to look at this issue again. It has signed a memorandum of understanding with other prosecution agencies—the Health and Safety Executive, the Crown Prosecution Service. My hon. Friend the Minister must prompt those agencies to look again at this matter. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 puts duties on employers—which is what the judge in the High Court found Reliance and Irving were—to ensure the safety of their employees. The instructions, the equipping of the vessel, the lack of navigational planning were all carried out in England, and, I submit, are therefore subject to the jurisdiction of our courts.

However, even if I am wrong about that—even if all these agencies, through all their concerted efforts, cannot find a way of affording justice to the families of these five men who have died—there is still an important public policy question. How can we allow companies that hold in their hands the lives of hundreds of men every year—sending them to sea in fragile pleasure craft, apparently unregulated by any authority—to continue to do so if they demonstrate the degree of callousness and neglect that Irving and Reliance demonstrated in the story I have just related?

It is time that the Government seized this nettle. We must have an urgent review to see whether it is possible to regulate the yacht delivery industry, at least by imposing basic standards of integrity and conduct upon it. As the judge in the Admiralty court found, the company had a responsibility to ensure that it was not committing the skipper to a time scale in this area of the world that no reasonable, sensible or prudent ship or yacht operator would agree to. What would happen in any other sphere? In a land-based case, the employer would be guilty of an offence under the 1974 Act for failing to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of his employees.

Watching tonight will be the families: John’s father, Jack Anstess, and his sister, Wendy, as well as Steve Hobley’s daughter and granddaughter, and the families of the crew who perished with John off the Oregon coast on 11 December 2006. My hon. Friend the Minister is a man of integrity, conscience and compassion, and it is essential that our Government render justice to them. They cry out for justice; the families expect justice.

Only very rarely must one bring to the House a story of such tragedy and such outrageous conduct that has not already been policed or brought to account in the courts. In the last resort, it is this House that can render justice to those wronged and aggrieved families, and it is my hon. Friend who can commence that process. I am grateful for his agreeing to see the family with me in a few weeks’ time, but that will not be sufficient if we do not demonstrate that we are determined to ensure that all the families know that this Government and the regulatory authorities have done all they can to satisfy their plea, which I have articulated, for justice and for this man and his company to be brought to account.

In the short time I have remaining, I will try as best I can to articulate my thoughts on the issue that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) has brought to the House’s attention today, and to me privately before this debate. It would be wrong of me not to say that my thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were lost at sea. Going to sea has always been an enormously dangerous occupation—for anybody—and the bravery of our seafarers has been renowned for centuries.

It is shocking for me to have to stand before this House with not one but both hands tied behind my back. I have questioned my officials at length about the powers that I or other Government agencies have to deal not only with this issue, but with the other serious crimes at sea that I have recently discussed with the International Maritime Organisation—the body with responsibility for such matters—so that we can achieve international recognition of the problems. I will return to that issue, if I can, in moment.

I want to express my particular admiration for the sister of John Anstess, Mrs Wendy Wood, who has pursued her campaign for improvements in safety not just in order to bring to justice those involved in this case, but to protect other seafarers in similar situations who are delivering British yachts and other vessels around the world. We would all like what she is calling for to actually happen—particularly me, as the Minister with responsibility for such matters. However, the difficulty is that, as became clear in discussions with the outgoing and the new secretary-general of the IMO, we cannot act in isolation. The cases that my hon. and learned Friend referred to are on the other side of the Atlantic. We must make sure that we do not simply move this problem to France or Belgium, for instance, so that the same terrible situation occurs there.

In saying that, it is very important that we get the facts right. As my hon. and learned Friend said, the yacht that John was employed to move was not registered in the United Kingdom, and the sad loss occurred outside our territorial waters. That restricts enormously the powers of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. As I have said to him, he has full access to the MCA at any time, and to any information he requires. He is a learned man and perhaps knows more about these matters than I do, but I can only go by the legal advice I am given. We have no powers in this regard. I was very surprised to discover, on looking at the documents, that even though the company in question was registered in the UK, the HSE has no powers. I wondered whether anything could be done under the new UK legislation on corporate manslaughter, or under reciprocal international agreements—we have seen a lot in the press about our reciprocal agreements with America—but it cannot.

My hon. and learned Friend and I will work together with the families concerned, and if we can find a way to prosecute this issue through my Department, my agencies, my Secretary of State or through any other Government Department, we will do so. My fear is that we will not find a way, but we will try, and if we can act, we will. Should we not find suitable avenues, I intend to push within government to shut this down for future situations, which is what John’s sister so desperately wants.

We are signed up to the international convention for the safety of life at sea—or the SOLAS convention—and so are all the red ensigns in the Crown protectorate. I know that my hon. and learned Friend knows the Cayman Islands well, and it flies my flag—the buck stops with me in respect of the red ensign, no matter where it flies in the world. So we are all party to this. The regulations are quite explicit. They put the responsibility for all navigational decisions in the hands of the master or skipper of the vessel. The regulations also make it an offence for anyone to try to pressurise the master into making decisions against his better judgment. That fits perfectly within our territorial waters, but not on the high seas. That is one of the biggest things we can work on with the IMO and address in the work we are doing to tackle crimes at sea. That is because it is the responsibility of the signatory to the regulations and the member states, although on the high seas the situation is completely different.

An investigation did take place, and I have some quotes here from the United States Coast Guard. It investigated the accident, and the quotations that my hon. and learned Friend cited were absolutely right. But—this is the big but—it concluded that no criminal offence had been committed under US law. That was the US Coast Guard’s comment, not mine. I have to, probably understandably, respect its decision.

I find it astonishing that after Mrs Wood secured the civil judgment against the company, the fines were paltry—“loose change” would be the polite term for them. The fact that the owner has not even paid the fines is another matter. If there is any way we can work within government to try to address that, too, we will do so. It was a civil action, so the situation is slightly different from that of a criminal action, as my hon. and learned Friend understands fully.

Nobody in this House would have put the argument across in a more lucid way than my hon. and learned Friend. As the Minister responsible for the agencies involved in this situation, I feel that it cannot be right that we are so restricted within government as to what we can and cannot do, given that we all want to do the right thing internationally, as well as here. From the discussions I have had with the new secretary-general of the IMO, I am aware that there is a keenness within the international community to address the terrible situation of serious crimes at sea, of which this is one, that go, not “uninvestigated”, although I nearly said that, but without reaching the natural justice that we would all be looking for.

This is not the only incident that I have been working on recently. It is right and proper that my hon. and learned Friend has brought these issues to me, but I am dealing with other issues where people have been raped at sea, murdered at sea or have vanished off ships on the high seas. One of the things that I have found really difficult is that one of the defences from some of the smaller flag nations is that they—perhaps—do not see the offence as serious enough or perhaps do not have enough funding within their police authority to investigate it fully. That is no excuse at all, and that is one of the big issues that we are continuing to raise at the moment.

I believe that I am very close to the time when I will have to sit down, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you for your kind nod. The last thing that I wish to say is that I will certainly meet the families as soon as we possibly can. I will work with my hon. and learned Friend and the families, and with anyone else who wants to work with us, so that we do everything we can to see whether this prosecution is possible and, if it is not, to make sure that we protect other families’ loved ones when they put to sea on the high seas.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.