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Fury as document suggests removing safety measures brought in following Herald of Free Enterprise disaster

By Emily Stott

Life-saving measures introduced after the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster could be removed under new government proposals.

The regulations were introduced to prevent similar tragedies after the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized on March 6, 1987 - resulting in 193 deaths.

Now a document suggests some of these safety measures should be scrapped, including weighing cargo prior to loading and passenger ferries being required to carry an emergency equipment locker.

The Herald of Free Enterprise in Dover Docks, 1984. Library picture
The Herald of Free Enterprise in Dover Docks, 1984. Library picture

This is part of the Red Tape Challenge, an initiative to get rid of "unnecessary" legislation.

Dover and Deal MP Charlie Elphicke said: “None of us who live in Dover would ever want to risk this happening again. It’s important that our ferries are the safest in the world.

“Every year we mark the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster with a service of remembrance and we will never forget the horror of what happened.”

Nautilus International, the union for maritime professionals, has accused the government of putting costs before safety in its “repugnant” plan.

Senior national secretary Allan Graveson said: “Emergency equipment lockers are in fact more important than ever because of the increasing size of ferries.”

The union has also warned against the proposed scrapping of weighing cargo.

The Herald of Free Enterprise. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The Herald of Free Enterprise. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Mr Graveson added: “These essential measures are an integral part of a safety package drawn up in response to the Herald disaster and we must continue to learn from such accidents.

“We believe these proposals have been driven by commercial pressures and by those who have little regard for the lessons of history.”

Gwyn Prosser, former MP for Deal and Dover who was a seaman at the time of the Herald disaster, said: “There is always the temptation for ship owners and ferry operators to choose cheaper ways of running the vessels and sometimes that impacts on well placed safety precautions.

“In my view anything that detracts from the important safety measures brought in after Zeebrugge should be treated with caution.”

However, P&O Ferries says these proposals will have no implications on the ferry company.

MP Charlie Elphicke.
MP Charlie Elphicke.

Spokesman Brian Rees explained this is because the type of ships they operate can not be loaded to their weight limit.

He added: “A full load of fully laden lorries doesn’t take us anywhere near our limits. That’s why we never have a weight issue.

“Yet on the UK side we are formally required to weigh lorries, so we do. On the continent we don’t.”

Mr Rees also explained that regardless of proposals to remove watertight lockers, which he says are essentially tool boxes, P&O Ferries will keep these on the open deck.

He added: “So the effect of these proposals on P&O Ferries, if they are passed, is exactly zero.”

The document states that the Maritime and Coastal Agency believes modern regulations more appropriately address the cause of the disaster and these new proposals will not adversely affect safety.

Former MP Gwyn Prosser
Former MP Gwyn Prosser

Hugh Robertson, senior policy officer for health and safety at the TUC explained that the reasons behind the removal is because other countries do not have these requirements and so removing them will make it easier for ferries to travel between.

He added: “Of all the pieces of stupid, dangerous, ideologically-driven, anti-regulatory, claptrap, this is up there along with the proposals to exempt the self-employed from the Health and Safety at Work Act.”

“Instead it should be demanding that other countries introduce these standards and raise international requirements so we can prevent the huge toll of deaths from ferry disasters world-wide.”

This view has not been shared by Steve Stevenson, an ex-crew member of the Herald, who claims it will not make a difference.

He said: “The real problem was the ship went over so fast. People were disorientated, didn’t know where they were. One minute you’re on the level then the next you’re upside down or walking on the side.

“They wouldn’t have been able to find the boxes.”

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