Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this extremely important matter. It arises from significant changes that have been made to the level of competence and the experience required to obtain a boatmasters licence in order to operate on British waters. Those changes, effective from 1 January, will mean an inevitable lowering of safety standards. That will have a particular impact on the tidal Thames, where conditions and the potential for accidents are almost unique.
The purpose of the debate is to make the strongest possible case for special status for the tidal Thames requiring a licence that maintains our traditional high standards. However, those standards were swept awayI hope that the House will forgive the nautical termon 1 January at the behest of the European Council.
I shall describe the changes that have been imposed on us. To comply with European Council directive 96/50/EC, the boatmasters directive, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has introduced a new licence for passenger and non-passenger craft of more than 24 m on all inland waterways, and it allows European boatmasters to operate in British waters.
Until 1 January, a licence granted by the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen and the Port of London Authority demanded five years experience on the Thames and four examspractical, oral and written. To qualify, applicants had to be certified by five separate masters as being able to manage their craft. The old licence therefore created a maritime elite, reflecting the ability to handle craft of different types, speeds and sizes over a wide range of tidal, visibility and weather conditionsand with detailed local knowledge.
That licence is now defunct. However, the new licence has not yet been issued. All that a waterman can produce at the moment is proof of posting of his application for the new boatmasters licencea Post Office receipt. Therefore, the Post Office is currentlyI hope that hon. Members will forgive me another punin charge of administering Thames licences.
The new licence demands only two years experience and one practical examination. That demonstrates the ability to manage one craft on one occasion under one set of river conditions. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and Transport and General Workers Union are right to be concerned that those requirements are not sufficient to qualify a master to navigate safely on the tidal Thames.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Is the hon. Lady aware that relatives of those who died in the Marchioness disaster live in my constituency, and that they are distraught that it took 10 years to get the public inquiry that led to the safety improvements on the Thames that they now see being seized with this opportunity to roll back that safety and protection? After such a loss of life, would she not say that the Minister should understand the high risk of using the Thames waterway?
Angela Watkinson: I was not aware of the hon. Ladys personal connection to those involved in the accident between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle. I shall refer to it later, but she is right in what she says.
The river carries a wide variety of craft in dense traffic conditions, with a huge tonnage of goods. Large and small passenger craft, dredgers, Thames barges, tugs, small private motor boats, small hired boats, passenger ferries, fireboats, sailing dinghies, rowing boats and canoes, speed boats and water skiers, river buses and houseboatsI apologise for any omissionall share the same busy water from Teddington down to the estuary, and all those involved must know and understand its bridges, moorings, currents and tides.
I understand that the pride and joy of the Royal Navy, the newly refitted aircraft carrier Ark Royal, will be visiting London this spring. That will be an auspicious occasion. Under the old licence standards, we could be confident of the qualifications and experience of other vessels sharing the river with her. We need that assurance still.
I have some limited personal experience in bringing small motor yachts of 30 ft and 40 ft down from the upper Thames to St. Katharines dock. It taught me great respect for the river, especially the importance of local knowledgefor example, how to negotiate the half-tide lock at Richmond, or how to follow the line of the river bed at low water at places such as Syon reach, where it would be easy to go aground with a draft of more than 3 ftand most importantly the rules of precedence on the water.
It is common in summer to see small hired boats in the hands of people who are probably competent car drivers but who have found to their dismay after some brief, rudimentary instruction that boats do not have brakes and that stopping them requires some forward planning. Even when her engines are stopped, a boat does not stand still; she moves with the tide and current unless she is tied up. Sailing and rowing boats have precedence over boats with engines, but their crew often have unrealistic expectations of their ability to stop and of the manoeuvrability of vessels under power. The conflict of uses between the different types of craft frequently compromises safety.
The high standards that prevailed until 1 January were set in the wake of the accident in 1989 between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle, which claimed 51 young lives. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that every precaution possible is taken to prevent another accident of that magnitudeor, indeed, any accident.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con):
My hon. Friend refers to the Marchioness. I pay tribute to my constituent Margaret Lockwood Croft, director of the
Marchioness action group. She has been fighting a fantastic, sterling battle over the past 17 years, and is hugely concerned that all that has been achieved during those years is being frittered away by the Government.
I draw my hon. Friends attention to some figures given to me by the Minister, which show the number of incidents involving non-qualified and qualified personnel. During the past three years, unqualified personnel were 50 per cent. more likely to have been involved in an incident than qualified watermen and lightermen. Does that not speak for itself? Given that unqualified lightermen are involved in many more incidents than qualified lightermen, there is evidence that, if the Government go down that route, the prospects are for a much unsafer Thames.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady accept that, although the focus of this debate is on the Marchioness accident and accidents that involve other pleasure craft, many more accidents happen on the Thames? For instance, a barge driver recently collided with Battersea bridge, causing it to be closed for three or four months. Although those accidents do not have such tragic results, they cause huge disruption to river traffic and to road traffic crossing the Thames. Although that accident is sub judice, it is one of a string of accidents, with barge drivers causing huge disruption to London by driving into Thames bridges.
Angela Watkinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We seem to be quite consensual thus far in our common desire for the highest possible safety standards on the Thames and the highest degree of professionalism that can be achieved.
Traffic on the river has increased significantly since 1989, and it is likely to increase even more with construction traffic in the preparations for the 2012 Olympics and the tourist traffic during the games, when large numbers of visitors will be in the capital. Local knowledge is essential to ensure the safe use of the entire length of the tidal Thames from Teddington to Lower Hope point, and not only the Woolwich to Putney part of the most dangerous stretch, to which the new examination applies.
The Port of London Authoritys application for local knowledge area for the entire length of the Thames was made as recently as October 2005, but it now supports the shorter section. What has brought about that change of mind? The area above Putney is characterised by restricted tidal navigation where the river is shallower and narrower. That area is often congested by vulnerable leisure users with no professional training, and it is also used by passenger boats at least as far as Hampton Courtsome even go as far as Henley and Oxford on the upper Thames. The area below Woolwich is where approximately 90 per cent. of the 50 million tonnes of the port of Londons annual cargo is handled. Add to that the sailing clubs and private motor yachts that use the estuary to cross
the channel and, considering the estuarys sandbanks and the sunken wreck of the Montgomery, the potential for an accident is enormous.
The new boatmasters licence will enable captains to qualify for an even more limited zone in the local knowledge area. Passenger-carrying vessels may, for example, be restricted to the stretch between Westminster and Tower piers, but if another accident or emergency that required evacuation similar to that of 7 July 2005 occurred outside that restricted zone, such vessels would not be able to respond. On 7 July 2005, approximately 100,000 people were evacuated from central London and Canary Wharf by river in a well organised operation that involved several passenger-vessel operators.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Port of London Authority are apparently confident that safety standards will not be undermined by the new boatmasters licence on the grounds that the shorter qualifying times will be more intensive. I am at a loss to understand how the daily activities of each candidate could be monitored in such detail. The suggestion that much of the former five-year qualification period was spent sweeping the decks simply cannot be substantiated.
Shore-based training has been reduced from a mandatory 10 weeks, plus other optional courses and two examinations for underpinning knowledge, to one week of safety training and only one examination for underpinning knowledgea reduction of 90 per cent. Qualifying service has been reduced from five years to 30 months, which is a reduction of 50 per cent., while the number of days that candidates are required to work has been reduced from 750 to 360a reduction of 55 per cent.
The number of days per year required for the revalidation service has been reduced from 50 to 24, which is a reduction of 52 per cent., and the number of examinations to be taken is down from four to one or twoa 50 or 75 per cent. reduction. The minimum level of local experience is down from two years to six monthsa reduction of 75 per cent.and examiners will not, in future, necessarily be locally experienced watermen. What consistency in the standard of examiners can be demonstrated to ensure consistency of qualifying performance in applicants? Can all examiners match the knowledge of a waterman?
Practitioner testimonies are down from six to one, which is an 83 per cent. reduction. In September 2002, the Baxter-Eadie study of the competencies and skills required by operators on the River Thames identified that about 500 skills are required. It would be impractical, if not impossible, to test all those skills in one practical test. Competence could only be guaranteed in the conditions prevailing on that day. A test taken on a nice sunny day in June under calm conditions would not qualify someone to work at night, in a storm, in fog or any other of the multitude of conditions that prevail on skippers who regularly use the river.
Practical examination has been a welcome addition for a large passenger vessel endorsement to the watermans licence. It was introduced without a reduction in the length of qualifying service and is currently held by approximately 50 per cent. of watermen. Continuous assessment is a reliable and proven means of assuring
extensive practical competence. The testimonial system is one form of continuous assessment, but signatories should be made more accountable to achieve transparency, and the addition of practical testing should not come at the expense of reductions in other elements of the qualifying process. The candidate logbook does not offer true assessment, as it testifies only to a candidate having assisted in tasks. The fact that the merchant navy model has discounted the use of practical testing stresses that that form of assessment can prove unworkable.
An additional requirement has been introduced for all licence holders to hold valid certificates in firefighting, first aid, personal survival and, in the case of passenger vessels, passenger management. That is very welcome, and I am rather surprised that it was not put in place after the 1989 accident.
The generic licence, plus the passenger operations endorsement, is very similar to the provisional watermans licence followed by the full watermans licence. There is no difference in the application of the qualification, as both licence holders will need to be qualified to command a passenger carrying vessel. However, the new modular route to qualifying can now be completed in half the time that was previously required.
Currently, other freight and towing operations are covered by the PLA craft registration policy and management guidelines on competenciesbyelaw 12 of January 2002. The recommended qualifying service defined in those guidelines for towing vessels is nine years, now reduced to 30 months, and the guideline levels of experience for motor barge skippers is five years, now also reduced to 30 months.
The new legislation covers all passenger operations including ferries, but its application to other freight vessels is limited to those over 24 m. That will leave many vessels, including craft-towing tugs and workboats, unregulated within the boatmasters licence regulations. That issue exposes grey areas that require urgent clarification. The use of a tier 2 boatmasters licence on the tidal Thames in London for passenger operations has not been ruled out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, yet only the tier 1 boatmasters licence offers the standard outlined in the quantitative summary comparison.
The boatmasters licence established in 1993 ensured that local knowledge assessment was guaranteed for all category A, B, C and D inland waters. That requirement has been removed and therefore standards have been lowered, except for those with local knowledge assessment.
It is madness to lower our standards in this way to accommodate visiting European craft. They are very welcome to visitindeed, they are encouraged to do sobut they must use standards born of the experience of professional users of the Thames. How could an employer ensure that an applicant is fully competent on a different vessel from the one used for the one single practical examination? Under the old watermans licence an employer was guaranteed that the applicant had appropriate experience in vessels of a variety of characteristics and propulsion systems, gained during five years of training.
The new licence has been designed as a national system. The density of traffic and variety of craft on the tidal Thames, with its tides, currents and bridges, are incomparable with other waterways and make it deserving of special status. There may well be other UK waters for which the new generic licence is not appropriate.
Old London bridge supported bustling houses and businesses and had so many columns, or starlings14 from memorythat the flow of water was slowed down to such an extent that the Thames would freeze in sustained periods of cold weather. Hence, there were frost fairs when oxen were roasted on the ice. Watermen in those days, who were also the taxi drivers of their time, had no option but to raise their oars and pray as they went through the narrow arches under the bridge. It was so dangerous that, in the 16th century when King Henry VIII was rowed down from Hampton Court, he would not risk going through by boat. He was set down at the steps before the bridge and rejoined the boat after it had safely emerged downwater. Those currents still prevail, as was demonstrated to me yesterday, when I was on the river and saw tugs towing heavily laden barges. The boatmasters knew exactly which course to steer to navigate the bridges safely and each bridge has its own characteristics.
I am unclear whether the MCA and the PLA is the final authority on the tidal Thames and whether it is possible under the law to obtain an opt-out from the new boatmasters licence and reinstate the former qualifying standards.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This is fairly complicated legislation, regulation, directive and the rest of it, but does the hon. Lady agreeI hope that the Minister will deal with this laterthat it appears, from reading the documents, as though it is possible to comply with the European requirement but to have a two-tier system in the UK, which allows a general provision across general coastal and tidal waters and inland waterways, and a separate specific arrangement for specific waterways?
Angela Watkinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that what he describes is possible and that the opportunity will be taken to ensure that the appropriate standards on the tidal Thames are imposed, so that there is safety for all.
Fifty million tonnes of goods and 5 million passengers are carried annually on the Thames, and it is our responsibility to set the standards that have been shown through experience to be necessary to maintain safety on the water for all users. The watermen and lightermen and many regular users of the tidal Thames believe that the new licence lowers safety standards and increases the potential for accidents. The Minister must not put his head in the sand and dismiss the watermen as a cosy club or a closed shop. That simply does not hold waterthere is another pun.
Currently, there are two 16-year-old trainees who are the sons of taxi drivers. They have no previous connection with watermens families. The onerous rules were not intended to keep people out of employment, but to ensure the highest possible standards of professionalism. The Government must listen and act now before it is too late.
Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. Clearly, many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. I ask them to bear it in mind that the Front-Bench contributions should commence no later than 10.30 am.
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