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House of Lords Hansard
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27 March 2017
Volume 782

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effectiveness of the international safety regulations and procedures laid down in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea to ensure the safe evacuation of ships carrying more than 5,000 passengers and crew.

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My Lords, assessments of the safety regime for shipping are undertaken by the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee. The particular issue of large passenger ship evacuation was the subject of significant additional work following the loss of the “Costa Concordia”, and regulations relating to passenger safety drills were subsequently adopted internationally.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but if something happens to a cruise ship of, say, 10,000 people—passengers and crew—in the middle of the Atlantic, Antarctic or the Arctic, where ships go more these days, and there is a need for an evacuation even if the ship remains upright, and people are able to get into life rafts without panicking, what happens then? He did not answer the Question about whether there had been any full-scale trials of such a scenario. Will he urge the IMO to get on and do a trial such as this to see what happens? My fear is that there will be wholesale panic.

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I am sure I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House when I say that we hope that such an occasion does not occur. Importantly, to get to the crux of what the noble Lord is asking, the UK has been not just working very closely with the IMO—the organisation that leads activities in this field—but showing leadership to improve the importance of safety. SOLAS chapter 3 in particular makes provision for passenger vessels to undertake drills on a weekly basis—and, following the “Costa Concordia” accident, passengers must undertake safety drills to familiarise themselves directly with evacuation procedures to address the sort of scenario the noble Lord illustrates.

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Does the Minister know whether consideration has been given to language issues? There will be people of all nationalities on these ships. Communications between the crew and passengers are vital. Do these form a part of any tests that take place?

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In light of representations that we ourselves have made, the noble Lord is right to raise the issue of languages, because many who travel may not be familiar with some languages. In that regard the IMO is looking to introduce specific measures to ensure that evacuation drills and emergency procedures reflect the languages of the people who are travelling.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that 19 ships capable of carrying more than 4,000 passengers are on order at the moment for delivery by 2020? The noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches asked about crew. Is it not vital that crew training is given absolute priority in view of the problems that he mentioned with languages? In the “Costa Concordia” accident, I gather that the crew could not understand emergency instructions in the official language of the ship.

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The noble Lord raises an important point. I partly addressed it in my previous answer, but he is of course right. When we look across modes of travel, we see that in aviation, for example, all evacuation and emergency procedures on a flight heading for a particular destination in a particular country are explained in a particular language. I suggest that there is a bigger challenge for cruise ships, which often stop at different destinations—but language and crew training related to it are nevertheless important.

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What is the attraction of taking a cruise with 4,999 of your closest friends?

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Unlike the noble Lord, I cannot claim to have 4,999 close friends. There are many noble friends in your Lordships’ House, but, even if we went on a cruise together, I am not sure that we would quite reach that standard.

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My Lords, can I clarify the Government’s position on this question? Bearing in mind the increasing number of British citizens who go on cruises, can the Minister—I do not think that he has done it so far—give an assurance that the Government are satisfied that the existing safety of life at sea regulations on evacuation in an emergency and the associated crew training and practice drill procedures reflect the reality of today of much larger cruise liners than before carrying many thousands of passengers and crew?

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I can give that assurance. We are working on several streams; first, looking at adapting existing fleets in accordance with the challenges and the way in which the industry operates; secondly, looking at crew training; and, thirdly, ensuring that emergency and evacuation procedures reflect the language of those travelling on those ships. So, yes, we are satisfied, but one can never be overly prepared for such emergencies. When such incidents happen, the real test will be of the stability of the ship, the operation of the safety regulations and how well crew members are versed in them, and how well educated and informed are the travelling public. Work is going on to improve that. I suggest to the noble Lord that it should be an ever-evolving exercise, so we look to embrace the latest technologies and address the concerns which noble Lords are right to raise.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as a past chairman of the RNLI. The International Maritime Rescue Federation has been looking at the vexed subject of how one retrieves hundreds if not thousands of people from a ship which has been evacuated on to the sea. Has it made any sensible progress and is it still working well with the IMO?

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The noble and gallant Lord is right to raise this issue. My understanding is that work has been done to ensure the survivability of ships for a longer time and that, if an evacuation is necessary, it can be conducted. In the case of the “Costa Concordia”, the ship was stable for up to an hour. Had the crew and captain been equipped in an appropriate manner, perhaps more lives could have been saved. Another area that we are looking at is the stability of ships, to allow them to return to port safely without the need for evacuation. The noble and gallant Lord asked how the two organisations were working together. I shall write to him on that.

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My Lords, has consideration been given to a minimum thickness of hull for these vast cruise ships, particularly those going to Antarctica?

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Again, given the technical nature of that question, I will write to my noble friend. I assure him that on all types of ships, including the roll-on, roll-off ferries widely used by the travelling public, the issue of safety is extremely important. It is important to consider the nature, building and construction of ships—but, as we have said, we must also inform the travelling public on safety procedures and ensure that the crew, too, is well informed.

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My Lords, the training of officers and men is crucially important and British seamen are probably the best in the world. However, we have a huge shortage. In the Falklands, 73 merchant ships were called up, all using British crew. Have the Government ascertained the minimum number of merchant seamen this nation requires for crisis and emergency?

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On a maritime Question, I knew I was missing something—and now I know what that was. I will write to the noble Lord in that respect.