The bereaved deserve better

Families will want to know that action will be taken to stop this happening again

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Today in Hammersmith Town Hall a coroner and jury will assemble five and a half years after the event to determine how, when and where 51 people died in a disaster in the centre of London. On the night of 20 August 1989 a 21st birthday party on a pleasure boat, the Marchioness, ended in tragedy - the tiny disco boat with its fairy lights was rammed by a massive dredger, the Bowbelle. That night devastated the lives of many of the proud parents and close friends and partners of the people who died. But almost as devastating for the relatives has been the way in which even the most simple facts about what happened have been concealed for so long . The whole sorry history raises serious questions about government accountability.

A new coroner, Dr John Burton, is about to begin a resumed inquest. It would not have been necessary if at any time the Government had acceded to the requests by the Marchioness Action Group for a public inquiry. But successive government ministers continued to deny one. Most recently, on 5 December 1994, the Secretary of State for Transport, Dr Brian Mawhinney, said in a letter that: "The facts relating to this deeply disturbing catastrophe are not a matter of dispute." It is hoped that the inquest will demonstrate that the government is wrong, that it has been wrong for five and a half years, and that there should have been a public inquiry right at the start. Not only are the facts in dispute but it is even possible that the official government report on the causes of the disaster is entirely wrong.

From the start the Government refused the demand for a public inquiry. Instead, the Department of Transport insisted that its newly created Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) would write a report that would be the authoritative inquiry into the causes of the collision. The MAIB completed its inquiries quite quickly. Evidence was sought and obtained in private and the views of the families as to the issues to be determined were not obtained, although there was consultation with the boat owners.

An inquest had begun in April 1990 but was halted when the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that the Bowbelle's captain, Douglas Henderson, would be charged with an offence under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 - failure to keep a proper lookout. Two trials of Capt Henderson ensued. The jury was unable to reach a verdict in either and he was acquitted in July 1991.

At that point the MAIB report was published. It contained no list of witnesses who had given evidence to it nor any factual account of the evidence as given. It was full of speculation and contradictions. Dubious opinions were mixed with facts. The main issue in the report was whether the lack of regulation by the Department of Transport itself could be blamed for the disaster but the department was sitting in judgement on itself. When relatives protested that the section on the rescue operation did not deal with why the wrong location had initially been given for the disaster, a two-page addendum was made to the report but still no detailed evidence emerged.

The families, angry at the obvious flaws in the report, met Malcolm Rifkind, the then Secretary of State for Transport, and presented him with a critique of the MAIB report they had commissioned themselves from an expert, Dr Brian Toft. In December 1991 Mr Rifkind announced that the Secretary-General of the Law Society, John Hayes, had been commissioned to do a report into river safety generally. Mr Hayes published his report in July 1992, making it clear it was not a report into the causes of the Marchioness disaster, and recommending an early review of the availability of rescue services and rescue service equipment on the river. In a press release the same day as the publication of the Hayes report, on 7 July 1992, the then Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor, said "a further review of this kind would not be justified".

In July 1992 the first coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, considered responses from families about whether to resume the inquest. Incredibly, he decided it would be inappropriate to do so. It took a Court of Appeal ruling to alter that decision: Dr John Burton, when appointed, took a different view from Dr Knapman.

It was not until December 1993 that the families finally understood just how little of the eyewitness evidence had been presented in the MAIB report. A television programme in Channel 4's Dispatches series challenged the Government's claim that the facts about the disaster were known. Using eyewitness evidence that had never been heard before from people who saw what had happened from another boat, the Hurlingham, it suggested that the disaster happened under Southwark bridge rather than between Southwark and Cannon Street bridges.

It pointed out that the MAIB's claim that the disaster was caused by the Marchioness changing course at the last minute was not credible if the vessel had been going under the central arch of Southwark bridge at the time of the collision. Moreover, the same eyewitnesses described on the television how, immediately after the collision, they tried to save people from the Marchioness who were drowning. They were jumping on to rafts to save people and leaning out through portholes they had smashed to pull people in. They saw people they could not reach drown. The rescue services had not arrived.

Relatives watching the television programme knew that 27 of the 51 people who died had escaped the wreckage but still drowned. However, they had read the MAIB report, which had glibly stated: "lt is strongly suspected that the effort of escaping had so exhausted them [i.e. the 27 who died outside the wreckage] that they perished very soon after entering the water."

The MAIB report did not mention any evidence suggesting the contrary, despite the fact that it had interviewed the eyewitnesses "discovered" by the TV programme.

At the inquest the families will want to know that action will be taken to stop this happening again. They will want to know about safety procedures, life-saving equipment and safety training on both boats. They will want to know about the co-ordination of the search and rescue operation. An inquest is a more limited form of inquiry than a public inquiry. However, the coroner does have power to make recommendations under Rule 43 of the Coroners Rules to prevent the recurrence of future fatalities, and the families will be hoping that he understands the importance to them of hearing enough of the evidence to put him in a position to make recommendations. Any lawyer who frequently represents bereaved people, as I do, knows that their concern is to ensure that lessons are learnt from needless deaths.

It seems to me that another lesson needs to be learnt from the appalling manner in which the Government hastreated the Marchioness relatives.

As we are learning elsewhere, the Government cannot be relied on to police itself. The demand of Disaster Action, a body that co-ordinated the families in the various disasters of the Eighties, has always been for a statutory right to a public inquiry in all major incidents. I hope that, if the history books have to be even slightly rewritten as to the causes of the Marchioness disaster, there will also be a rewriting of the law to ensure that bereaved people are never again subjected to such treatment by the Government.

The writer is a solicitor acting for the `Marchioness' families.

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