Inquiries into disasters `are far too slow'

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT has ordered a review of the way inquiries into major accidents are carried out in the face of mounting criticism of the time it takes to find out the causes.

The Deputy Prime Minister, has asked officials in the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regionsto see if the system can be speeded up.

The move could lead to a reform of the legal system and is seen as a way of increasing transport safety. It was prompted by concern over the delays to inquiries into disasters such as the sinking of the Marchioness pleasure boat and the Southall rail crash in London and the loss of the trawler Pescado off Cornwall.

The report into the Pescado disaster was published yesterday, almost eight years after it sank with the loss of six crew. The delay in publication angered relatives of the dead.

Public inquiries are often delayed by criminal proceedings, to avoid the risk of prejudicing a trial. One way to shorten the time it takes for the cause of an accident to be made public would be to hold the inquiry before a trial. But that would need the co-operation of other Whitehall departments such as the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Mr Prescott said yesterday he was concerned over the time it took to get to the truth.

"The complications of pursing a court case and preventing an inquiry taking place is, I think, a most unsatisfactory situation," he said.

Mr Prescott's department said he had asked the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents to propose ways to shorten inquiries. "He has also set work in motion in the department to see how accident investigations can be shortened bearing in mind other legal processes and to ensure that justice is done," a spokesman said.

Mr Prescott's comments were seized on by lawyers for victims of the Southall rail crash. They called on the Government to ensure the public inquiry started.

Families of the seven people who died were told last week - the first anniversary of the crash - that the inquiry could not start until the criminal prosecution of the train driver had ended.

Families of the Pescado crew yesterday called for a public inquiry into claims that the trawler was dragged down by a submarine. They condemned the official report, which blamed Alan Ayres, the ship's owner, and Joseph O'Connor, managing agent.