River police chief warns over safety on Thames

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THE FORMER head of the Thames River Police warned yesterday that if a disaster such as the sinking of the Marchioness pleasure- boat was to be repeated now, the death toll would be much greater.

Rob Glen, a superintendent until he retired in 1995, told the Thames River Safety Inquiry that cutbacks and bureaucracy have left the river more dangerous than in 1989 when the Marchioness sank with the loss of 51 lives.

Mr Glen has made a submission to Lord Justice Clarke who is heading the inquiry set up by Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, in August to examine river safety and review the Marchioness disaster. He says overall responsibility for search and rescue on the river is still not clear and there have been cutbacks in the emergency services on the river since the 1989 accident.

"It is my honest belief that should a disaster occur today similar to that of the Marchioness the crucial `initial response' from Thames Division would have severe limitations to such a degree that the loss of life would be substantially increased," Mr Glen said. "This is not an exaggerated observation but a statement of fact supported by many of my colleagues still serving."

Mr Glen is particularly worried that safety is going to be a major problem on Millennium Eve when the Thames will be the centre of many festivities.

The public meeting at Methodist Central Hall, central London, was told yesterday that no single body has overall responsibility for safety on the Thames. It is split between different organisations including the police, the fire brigade, the Port of London Authority and HM Coastguard.

Most rescues are carried out by the Metropolitan Police but not all. At the time of the Marchioness tragedy, the Thames Division had 197 police officers, 22 boats, and five river police stations. It now has 18 boats and just 89 police officers at one river station at Wapping, east London. When the Marchioness disaster occurred, late at night, four police boats were on the scene within six minutes saving many lives. Mr Glen says there is now often only one boat operating in the area at night.

As head of the River Police for five years from 1990, Mr Glen was the police representative on the Regional Marine Safety Committee, which was set up after the Marchioness disaster to improve safety. He said was "largely a talking shop" which "achieved very little", and "many questions of river safety raised at the time remain unresolved".

The Metropolitan Police points out that in 1989 its river resources were spread out over 54 miles but it now concentrates on the central London areas. The police say their primary role on the Thames is to fight crime and provide a visible patrol against drug importation and terrorism. However, since January 1998, Thames Division officers have rescued 97 people from the river, recovered 71 bodies and assisted 218 persons at risk.

Mr Glen believes there should be a separate and dedicated search and rescue service.

Lord Justice Clarke is required to report on river safety in advance of the millennium. From the evidence given at the meeting yesterday it would seem unlikely that some vital improvements could be implemented in such a short time.