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Mariners: Alcohol and Drugs Limits

Volume 694: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Why non-professional mariners in charge of vessels of under seven metres in length should be exempt from the alcohol and drugs limits as prescribed in Part 4 of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003.

My Lords, the proposed exemption is designed to except from the application of prescribed alcohol limits those non-professional mariners on vessels which, because of their smaller size of under seven metres and lower maximum possible speed of seven knots or less, pose less risk in the water. The parameters for the exemption are designed to achieve this while being a recognised figure based on existing international shipping law.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, but is she aware that one of the biggest causes of marine accidents in the leisure industry is people coming home in their boat from the pub after a good drinking session? A lot of people die that way in their dinghies. Does she agree that there is very little difference between being in charge of a boat, even if it is only doing seven knots, and being in charge of a car? You can still kill people. Does she not agree that it is illogical to exempt people who are at leisure just because it seems to be all right? They can still cause as many deaths as a professional boatman.

My Lords, I do not agree with my noble friend on the possibility of small dinghies, canoes, rowing boats and punts, which are the category of vessel we are talking about, posing as much of a safety risk as larger motor-powered vessels over the limit of seven metres and seven knots that we are proposing. While ensuring the safety of the public on all vessels in our waters is a top priority, we are, through consultation, learning the lessons from, for instance, the terrible tragedy of the “Marchioness” and the two most recent accidents in Scotland and the south-west, where people were killed because of alcohol limits being exceeded. To create a balance, the Government have chosen this category to be the exception.

My Lords, while such people may pose a smaller risk to larger vessels, is it not the truth that they pose a risk to themselves and the people on board these smaller vessels if they are incapacitated by alcohol or drugs?

My Lords, of course they will pose a risk to each other. We still maintain that that risk is a lot less than the limit of seven knots and seven metres. However, there is an offence, which will be put into force once the regulations have commenced, of being impaired in the ability to navigate because of drink or drugs. That offence will be there for both professional and non-professional mariners. It is not as if leisure mariners are completely free of legislation. That impairment offence through drink or drugs will be there.

My Lords, I wonder if the Minister is aware that the South West Ports Association has written to the Government asking them to include the smaller boats to which she referred within the new law. With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, it is when ships get close to shore and people use dinghies and rowing boats—which the Minister rather dismissed—that the accidents occur. Might the Government not be devoting sufficient resources to the enforcement of several laws relating to boats in connection with people-trafficking, drugs and accidents to people?

My Lords, I sincerely do not believe that this is a question of resources. The majority of the responses from the assiduous consultation that has gone on with both the leisure boat industry and the safety agencies have led us to believe that we have struck a balance. There is a need for that balance between regulation and overburdening people in their leisure time and ensuring that we have safety on our waters.

My Lords, will my noble friend advise those in the House who are concerned with this Question of the precise details of accidents that have occurred to those who have been involved with drugs and drink?

My Lords, there are increasing observations from the police, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch of cases where nuisance and accidents have been caused by people drinking too much.