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Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. OHara, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this very important debate. I represent a constituency that borders the River Thames and is notable for its very high tidal set. The tide can rise and fall by up to 8 m in a single day, so it is a significant tidal area. I am an amateur boatman; I am a keen sailor. I was brought up on the River Thames, but on the non-tidal section, and one thing that someone notices when they move to the tidal section is that there are significant difficult waters and treacherous currents in the tidal section that simply do not apply to the non-tidal section of the Thames.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go aboard the boat Mercia and I had a very interesting briefing from Alex Hickman about the tidal section of the Thames. We spent some time going up and down the Thames, looking at other craft and seeing how they handled. What was brought to our attention was the size and make-up of some of the barges and tugs that navigate the tidal section of the Thames. A single tug can tow three barges. Those barges can each carry up to 600 tonnes of freight, so the total towing capacity is up to 2,000 tonnes. A 2,000-tonne vessel trying to negotiate a 5-knot tide in difficult waters under serial bridges involves quite a feat of boatmanship. Anything that is done to reduce the skill of those boatmen would be very detrimental to safety on the river.
The historical methods of becoming a lighterman or boatman have not been arrived at lightly. Let me give some background. Watermen have enjoyed the exclusive right to carry passengers on the tidal Thames since 1510. They provided the first form of licensed public transport on the Thames. Acts of Parliament dating from 1514 and 1555 were passed to ensure that the profession was regularised and standardised fares were introduced to protect the public from unscrupulous dealing and to introduce safety measures. The 1555 Act also established the Company of Watermen, one of the City of Londons ancient trade guilds, to ensure that the profession was regulated.
The worlds oldest continuously run sporting eventthe rowing race for Doggetts coat and badgeis conducted each year over 4 miles and 5 furlongs from Swan pier at London bridge to Cadogan pier in Chelsea to test the skill of Thames watermen. That race is run even now, and the winner receives the traditional watermans coat and a silver badge representing liberty. Many years ago, one Thomas Doggett fell into the river and was rescued from a watery grave by watermen. To mark his thanks to them, he set up the race, so it goes back a long way and represents an important mark in ensuring continuing standards and safety on the River Thames.
The watermens business has gradually reduced over many years because of changing freight methods on
the Thames and changing passenger numbers, but now there seems to be a revitalisation of Thames traffic. Far more freight is being carried. There has been a significant tonnage increase in freight moved on the Thames and a significant extra number of passengers carried on the Thames over the past few years, which makes it even more important that we maintain standards and ensure that all those involved in navigating and mastering those vessels are of the highest possible standard.
We have heard a great deal from the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) about the changes in regulations, so I need not rehearse those issues, but they are of great concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I want to touch on some issues that particularly affect me. As I have said, the tidal Thames is one of the more difficult areas to navigate in the country. It has many treacherous water channels, cross-currents and hidden underwater obstacles. As I have also pointed out, 8 m, which is about the height of this Chamber, is the tidal change in one day on the Thames. That can cause significant changes in the channels, the markings and the height of bridges above water level, all of which will have a significant impact on people using the Thames.
We have heard about the Bowbelle disaster and the difficulties that that has caused. Some of the rules that we are discussing were introduced following that terrible tragedy, but it is not the only collision that has taken place on the Thames over the years. The collision between the pleasure steamer the Princess Alice and the Bywell Castle off Woolwich resulted in the loss of 700 lives. That was one of the worst disasters ever to take place in British river or coastal waters. It took place on a stretch of the Thames that, if the legislation that we are discussing proceeds, will be outside the local boat knowledge area for boatmasters. In other words, that type of event could happen again with a master who is not as qualified as current boatmasters. In more recent times, the tugboat Hawkstone was thrown into the wash of a ship on the River Blythe, which resulted in the loss of six lightermen and the tug crew. At Tilburyness, the Rora Head ran down the tugboat General 7, with the loss of four lightermen and the tug crew.
As well as being one of the most treacherous rivers in the UK, the Thames constitutes one of the busiest commercial ports in the country. In fact, the number of watermen and lightermen operating on the Thames is greater than the total number of skippers on the rest of the UKs inland waterways put together. We are talking currently about 600 people. In the past few years, there has been significant growth in the level of traffic and the number of passengers carried on the Thames. Each year now, 2.3 million passengers use the Thames, which represents an increase of 44 per cent. since 1999.
The increase in the number of commuters has been even more marked, with a leap of 80 per cent. in the past year alone. The amount of freight transported is also growing. It has risen from 50 million tonnes in 2000 to 56 million tonnes in 2005an 11 per cent. increase. More importantly, 95 per cent. of that freight is handled on the stretch of Thames below Woolwichthe part that will in future no longer be covered by the local knowledge certificate. That is of great concern to me, and many of my constituents who work on the
river have brought it to my attention and wish to make their views known. Much more investment is being put into updating and improving passenger piers and craft on the Thames. Companies are purchasing new boats every year because of anticipated growth in traffic.
All that makes it even more important that we do nothing to water downto use another punthe qualifying requirements for Thames skippers. We must ensure that we do not open up the river to people with skills and training that do not meet the difficult and demanding requirements of the river.
I do not wish to speak for too long, because many other hon. Members want to speak, but I have received a briefing from the European Transport Workers Federation on whether we are able to have a change of regulation compared with the rest of Europe. It states that
the requirements of directive 96/50/EC state...national navigable waterways not linked to the navigable network of another Member State are not subject to international competition and it is therefore not necessary to make compulsory on those waterways the common provisions for the granting of boatmasters certificates laid down in this Directive.
That is what has happened on the Rhine. The ETF goes on to say that the Rhine boatmasters licence is significantly more difficult to obtain than the licence that currently obtains in this country. To paraphrase the document again, in order to get a patent to navigate the Rhine, a person has to be at least 21, with four years as a crew member, at least two of which were as a boatman, and acquisition of local knowledge must be significant. Overall, it means that, to obtain a boatmasters certificate on the Rhine, a person has to have a minimum of six years training and work experience. The ETF believes that that would also be an appropriate level at which to operate on the Thames. All we are saying is that having the same level of safety and qualifications in Britain as on the Rhine would meet most of the unions objections and make perfect sense in terms of safety and public confidence. It should be well within the scope of the regulations to allow that to happen.
I ask the Minister to revisit the issue to see whether there is any way in which we could follow the example of the Rhine boatmans certificate and apply the same regulations to the tidal part of the Thames. We must ensure that what we understand by the tidal part of the Thames still goes as far as it currently does and does not stop at the Thames barrier, as under the current proposals.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am glad to be able to make some brief comments, because I appreciate that other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on her excellent speech, which brought all the issues out into the open.
I obviously represent a central London seat, which is at the heart of the Thames and the City. Tragically, it was in my constituency that the horrendous events involving the Bowbelle and Marchioness took place 18 years ago. All London Members on both sides of the House have a great passion for our city, and the Thames is at the heart of the city. That is particularly true of hon. Members in the centre, although the same applies, of course, to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), whose constituency is not quite in the centre, but which is, none the less, a Thameside constituency.
We recognise the importance of the Thames, which has been at the heart of Londons economic and recreational growth. As the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) rightly said, however, it has also become increasingly busy in recent years. Five million passengers and 50 million tonnes of goods are carried on the Thames every year. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Rhine, and I hope that the Minister will give clear consideration to that issue. The same point also applies to the Danube, which is an important part of Romania, one of the new EU nations. Special rules apply on those two rivers, so it would seem sensible that such rules should also apply on the Thames.
There has been a long struggle over this issue. In considering the 10-year struggle of those who lost loved ones and near ones on the Marchioness, we recognise our impotence and powerlessness as Members of Parliament. At times, those people must have thought that they were having to break down the walls of bureaucracyto some extent, that is one thing that I hope all of us, as Members of Parliament, can do on behalf of our constituentsto bring in new rules and regulations.
All Opposition Members look with a certain scepticism at any new regulations, and there is always a sense in which business should not be over-regulated. Above all, however, there is an issue of public safety. Of course, we do not want such stringent rules on any of our riversor, indeed, on any form of transportthat it is impossible for people to go about their everyday business. Inevitably, any form of transport will always involve an element of risk, and the idea that we can entirely eliminate risk is unrealistic. Equally, however, we need to ensure that, as far as possible, we strike the right balance between ensuring that the Thames is a great place for pleasure and commerce and a safe place.
I therefore entirely endorse the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. She was right to say that we need to consider the Thames alongside the Rhine and the Danube, and I hope that the Government will make strong representations on the issue in Europe. We do not expect special treatment, and it is quite sensible to apply the proposed rules to many of our other rivers, but the Thames will be increasingly important.
Another important issue will be some of the rivers tributaries, most importantly those around the Lea valley. I spent last Sunday walking around the Olympic site, although, rather depressingly, little work seems to have been done in the 17 or so months since we won the Olympic bid. However, significant work has been done on the towpaths in the upper Lea valley to make them safe and to ensure that the site is attractive for the many millions of people who will visit the Olympics, as well as for those who will live and work in the area in
the years ahead, when the site ceases to be an amalgam of former industrial sites. That shows the important role that water will play for Londons economic growth in the future, and we need to have an eye to the safety aspects.
I have just one other comment at this juncture. It has been suggested that the watermen and lightermens company is some sort of trade union that is looking after its own interests. It is probably fair to say that that was its underlying raison dêtre when it started up in the 16th century. However, it now plays an important part not only in Londons history, but in ensuring that the Thames is safe and that those working on it can go about their business. I praise the watermen and lightermens livery company for playing an important social role, as do many of our livery companies in London. Indeed, if one walks down Penge high street, one will see almshouses going back to the 17th century, which were run by the watermen and lightermens company. The company is now working with the London borough of Bromley to ensure that many dozens of people can live happy lives in one of our London suburbs.
When it began its life, the watermen and lightermens company, like many livery companies, may have focused on acting as a guild for its members, but it now plays a much more important social role. Part and parcel of that role are the representations that the company has made to Members of Parliament in London and beyond, and I hope that the Government will give clear consideration to what it has to say. It is the expert in this field, and I sincerely hope that the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster will see the light of day in the Ministers comments and, more importantly, in what is done in the months and years ahead.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I speak as chair of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group, and I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members Interests in that regard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. She set out our views in a detailed way. As interventions have shown, there is consensus across the Chamber, and I think that that will remain the case.
It is important for the RMT that we place on record its concerns expressed over the past 18 months as part of the consultation. When a Government intervene on safety regulations, the most important thing is that people have confidence in that intervention and that the Government take everybody with them. My concern about the process so far is that despite the long consultation period, the Government do not seem to have listened to the representations made by various parties on a number of issues, and it is important that the Minister listens this morning.
I share the anxieties expressed about statements made to the Evening Standard yesterday, and I would welcome the Minister clarifying the position and amending some of them. The primary objective of
everybody who has been engaged in the consultation process and other discussions has been to improve and maintain safety on the Thames. There have been no attempts to protect individual interests, and the issue for those involved has been the interests of the people who work and sail on the river, as well as those of passengers. It is unacceptable to describe those who take that attitude as being part of a cosy club, and I hope that the Minister will resile from that view.
The debate is not simply about European standards either. During the consultation process, we accepted, as I think the Government did, that EU standards could apply but that we should have the right to apply higher standards in this country if specific issues have to be addressed. One thing that has come out of all the debates and consultations is that we are dealing with a river that has complications in its navigational system. That requires higher standards, and that is what we should aim for. Indeed, all the inquiries into the various disasters on the Thames have increased standards at each stage, and the one thing that we do not want to do is to step back from those.
On that basis, I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to start listening to those on the front line who deliver the servicethe professionals who have operated the service over the years on such a difficult stretch of the river. The RMTs concerns replicate those set out by the hon. Lady. The union is anxious about the significant cut in mandatory college-based training. That training was one of the key elements that the professionals whom we brought to discuss the issue with the Minister said should be maintained. As the hon. Lady said, apart from the weak safety training, it looks as though there will be a cut of up to 90 per cent. The replacement of four examinations with one is not acceptable to the union as it does not encompass the full range of testing that is required. Many professionals view the 75 per cent. reduction as a retrograde step.
The reduction of time in which to gain local knowledge is baffling to most people who operate on the Thames. The change is based on a limited risk assessment undertaken by the PLA which was contested by many parties involved in subsequent discussions. The Minister should re-examine that urgent matter. Having only six months instead of two years in which to gain local knowledge represents a 75 per cent. reduction, and people do not understand why we are stepping back from the very issue that has been highlighted in report after report: the need for detailed local knowledge of the Thames. This is not an attempt to exclude Europeans who want to sail or undertake work on the Thames, but a recognition of the difficulties with this piece of water. The change from five years to two regarding qualifying services does not replicate what is happening elsewhere in Europe, and significantly reduces the potential for people to become used to the river and to become professionals.
Will the Minister clarify the situation as regards to being in command of a vessel on the Thames? The current PLA Watermen and Lightermen Byelaws 1992, as amended, provide that a passenger vessel on the Thames must not only be under the command of a licensed waterman but be navigated by a fully qualified licensed waterman. Under the new proposals, inland
waterways vessels carrying cargo or passengers will be under the command of a licensed boat master, but any person whom the boat master believes is competent to do so will be allowed to navigate the vessel. If that is the case, it is a significant worry for many who work on the Thames because it means that a passenger vessel may be navigated by someone who is not fully qualified or who does not fulfil the age or medical conditions, such as those on eyesight and colour blindness.
People were explicit in the consultation. Following a detailed consultation with its members who work on the river, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers concluded that the new system will have potentially disastrous consequences for tidal river safety. The RMT and others have discussed the matter with people who tragically experienced what happened with the Marchioness and the Bowbelle.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he accept that it simply is not good enough for the Government and the PLA to keep saying that there was a long and extensive consultation processwhich there wasgiven that at every stage the consultees were ignored?
John McDonnell: It behoves the Government, particularly in matters such as this in which safety is the issue, not only to consult but to listen. When there is a difference of views, they should be explicit about why they have failed to take them into account, especially those expressed by front-line practitioners. I remember bringing expertspeople who are responsible for vessels on the Thamesto our meetings with Ministers. To a person, they opposed the Governments regulations, and they did so politely and with professional explanations. It behoves the Government to respond to those concerns in detail if they are to vary their judgment.
There is absolutely no logic, rhyme or reason for a Labour government to renege on the improvements in safety on the Thames...The minimum standards in the EU directive would be welcome on other waterways where there are currently no or lower standards, but not on the Thames and those other tidal rivers where the standards are already considerably higher. With river traffic increasing we need higher standards, not lower...It took our campaign 17 years to get a multi-agency emergency exercise to take place on the Thames, but if these changes are not stopped we could be seeing the real thing all too soon.
The RMT, many colleagues on both sides of the House and I fully concur with that view. We urge the Government to step back, consult again and re-examine how we can maintain the high standards that are so needed on the Thames.
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