Skip to main content

Shipping: Passenger Safety

Volume 751: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on passenger safety of their application to the Committee on Safe Seas and the Prevention of Pollution from Ships for exemption for certain ships and areas of operation from European safety requirements in order to substitute life rings for life rafts.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government require all vessels to carry enough life rafts to meet the risk to those on board in an emergency. The proposal submitted to the Committee on Safe Seas and the Prevention of Pollution from Ships is based on UK regulations for domestic passenger ships and is supported by the department’s formal safety assessment of domestic passenger ships carried out between 2002 and 2004 in response to Lord Justice Clarke’s formal inquiry into the “Marchioness”/“Bowbelle” collision.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that response. My understanding is that this exemption application applies to passenger ships with up to 130 people on them, which, under directive 2009/45, article 4, allows them to go 15 miles from the place of refuge or five miles from the coast in the summer. The idea is to reduce the number of life rafts to the maximum number of passengers—not allowing, of course, for the fact that you cannot always launch life rafts if a ship is heeling—and to replace the rafts removed with life rings. Does the Minister really think that it is a good idea for people who might be wrecked in an accident in the North Sea or off the Hebrides to have to get into a life ring rather than a life raft?

My Lords, my understanding is that this exemption is for up to five miles and therefore would not apply in most of the circumstances that the noble Lord has just described. It is for small craft of less than 24 metres which have to be travelling in daylight and in summer only. They are required to have sufficient life rafts for all passengers but additional safety can be provided by buoyancy apparatus.

My Lords, are life rafts generally not preferable to life rings, particularly if the water is cold? Is the saving in this negotiation really significant? Presumably all existing vessels already have the current requirement rather than the reduced one.

My Lords, there is clearly some confusion. The EU directive was designed for the large, steel ferries that I think noble Lords are referring to. These are small craft. Existing small craft already have this exemption; it is simply as they are replaced that newer craft can have the same exemption. The rationale is simply that on a very small boat there is very little space for adding one additional life raft, which is what would be required by the directive. You would have to take off passengers. These are usually small, family operations operating on a tight financial margin and, as I say, it is within five miles of the coast so that if something untoward were to happen, modern life rafts are very reliable and air-sea rescue is very close at hand. Therefore, the marginal benefit is considered very marginal.

My Lords, I am rather exercised by the fact that Britain over the past 100 years has had the reputation of giving leadership in the International Maritime Organisation, which is across the road there, with the highest standards in world shipping. I am trying to think of the read-across of this to the Philippines archipelago, to Indonesia and so on. Two very brilliant new books on seafaring that have just come out show that many safety standards are now deteriorating. Will the Minister give an assurance that, within the IMO and elsewhere, the British Government will continue to listen to the problems of workers on seagoing ships and that the Government’s contacts with the employers will be equally matched by their contacts with the trade unions?

My Lords, the UK has been an absolute leader in marine safety and I can guarantee that this Government will continue to be. I will ask about various discussions that are taking place with the IMO and other stakeholders, and make sure that we write back to the noble Lord.

Is the Department for Transport involved in any studies looking at lessons learnt from, for example, the “Costa Concordia”, and at the inability to launch lifeboats and life rafts at excessive degrees of heel?

My Lords, I do not have the answer to the noble Lord’s question but I will obtain it. I want to make it very clear, however, that the exemption being sought is not for a boat like the “Costa Concordia”. We are talking about something much smaller in benign waters very close to shore.

My Lords, is not this application one of a number which have arisen from the formal safety assessment by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency which I as a mariner regard as entirely practical?

The noble Lord is exactly right. I think that this is regarded by almost everybody as a practical, reasonable and sensible measure. It has withstood over many years a reputation of providing sufficient safety in the relevant circumstances.

My Lords, what would be the comparative rates of survival for the two methods, life rafts and life rings, in cold winter water around our northern coasts?

I assure your Lordships that this standard could not apply in winter weather; it is for summer only. It is for boats that are very close to the coast and for small excursion vessels. It is part of an appropriate safety regime to look at how the vessels are being used and to make sure that safety is appropriate to that rather than circumstances in which they cannot be used.

My Lords, may I invite the Minister to reconsider her reference to benign waters? Very often, waters that appear benign can rapidly become less benign, and lifeboats are not available at close proximity all along the coast. Can we make sure that if we are erring, we are erring on the side of safety?

I can assure your Lordships that, from a UK perspective, this measure meets a very high standard of safety. Both the safety required of the boats themselves and the quality required of the life rafts have been very closely examined. I have learnt in this House that the word “benign” can be wrongly used, but I think that these are generally benign waters.

My Lords, the Minister is still trying to convince the House that there is virtue in pitching British safety standards below the minimum of European safety standards. Why on earth should that be done unless it is just some doctrinaire response to Europe?

Perhaps I may explain, because I think that there is some confusion here. The EU directive which would require an additional life raft is not intended for this kind of vessel; it is for steel vessels and for large-scale ferries, so it does not apply to most of these craft because typically they are fibreglass, and so on. We want to be sure that we are getting an appropriate exemption for future replacement of existing craft. As I said, the EU directive is not intended to deal with this kind of craft; they are expected to be handled through an exemption process.