Mr Prescott linked the inquiry with a desire to assure the public the Thames was safe. "During the next few months, the Thames will be used more and more as part of the millennium celebrations," he said. The inquiry will also advise "whether there is a case for further investigation into circumstances surrounding the Marchioness disaster and its causes".
Members of the Marchioness Action Group said they were "absolutely delighted" with the Government's decision. Billy Gorman, a former chairman of the group, whose sister-in-law died in the disaster, said: "We have waited nine years, 11 months and 29 days for this decision. It's been a long, hard and difficult wait, but now we have been given an assurance that there will be a full investigation into the disaster."
Eight members of the group had been taken into Mr Prescott's confidence over the announcement. One survivor, Iain Philpott, whose girlfriend died when the pleasure boat capsized after a collision with a dredger, said: "We are thrilled, and can only regret it has taken 10 years to announce."
The High Court judge who will conduct the inquiry has not yet been named. Mr Prescott said the Lord Chancellor would nominate a suitable candidate and the judge will be empowered to take evidence from the Marchioness families and to recommend safety improvements on the Thames and any further investigation he considers necessary. Mr Prescott said he would expect at least an interim report by December.
Mr Gorman criticised the previous Conservative administrations for failing to order a full and open inquiry. "We fought battle after battle to get this inquiry. We knew the last Tory government would give us nothing and I am hopeful that Mr Prescott has now delivered the goods."
However, Mr Gorman said the action group would seek judicial review if they did not get what had been promised.
Hundreds of people are expected to attend an annual memorial service at Southwark Cathedral tomorrow. Survivors and the bereaved will read prayers and an anthem entitled "River", composed by Anthony Perks whose brother Stephen died in the tragedy, will be sung. Mr Prescott is expected to attend and the constituency MP, Simon Hughes, will read the lesson.
"When we join in commemoration at the service in Southwark Cathedral this Friday we will have cause for thanksgiving, as well as the painful act of remembrance," Mr Hughes said.
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