Letter: Human cost of flags of convenience

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Sir: Hamish McRae ('Exiles sail away to homelands of convenience', 27 January) says that 'flags of convenience are not yet a source of great contention' and likens them to offshore tax havens. But offshore tax havens have not, to my knowledge, caused the deaths of thousands of seafarers.

According to Lloyd's Register, 1,679 ships were totally lost between 1986 and 1991. Only 42 were British. More than one in five of those ships were registered in just four countries - Panama, Cyprus, Saint Vincent and Liberia, which are all flags of convenience. Panama, which has the worst record in the world, alone accounts for one in eight of all ships lost.

That is one reason why flags of convenience are already a source of great contention. More important is the cost in human life. The International Maritime Organisation reports that 471 seafarers died in 1990 alone, and of these, 303 came from ships flying flags of convenience. To put things into perspective, deaths in British vessels totalled 96 between 1986 and 1991, a figure which includes the 47 passengers and crew who died on the Herald of Free Enterprise.

Another IMO report shows that 1,046 lives were lost on oil tankers between 1977 and 1991.

Why is it that so much attention is given to oil tankers? Is it a genuine concern for the safety of the seafarers on these ships? Or is it fear for the environment from these floating time bombs? Or more likely, the threat to the profits of oil companies and shipowners? I do not deny the potential devastation to the environment from oil spillage, but I wonder if the priorities are quite right here, when so many sailors are being killed on these vessels. Is it, perhaps, that blood washes away more quickly than oil?

Flags of convenience are responsible for a disproportionate number of ships lost and for a disproportionate number of deaths. Their second-rate vessels are being put out to sea by nations more concerned with making a quick buck than ensuring that the vessels which fly their flags are safe and seaworthy.

That is why flags of convenience are an issue of great contention, and to dismiss the real and important protests against them is an unforgivable insult to seafarers and their families throughout the maritime world.

Yours faithfully,

JOHN PRESCOTT

MP for Hull East (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

28 January

The writer is Opposition spokesman on transport.

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