Pleasure Craft (thames)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am glad to be able to make some brief comments, because I appreciate that other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on her excellent speech, which brought all the issues out into the open.

I obviously represent a central London seat, which is at the heart of the Thames and the City. Tragically, it was in my constituency that the horrendous events involving the Bowbelle and Marchioness took place 18 years ago. All London Members on both sides of the House have a great passion for our city, and the Thames is at the heart of the city. That is particularly true of hon. Members in the centre, although the same applies, of course, to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), whose constituency is not quite in the centre, but which is, none the less, a Thameside constituency.

We recognise the importance of the Thames, which has been at the heart of London’s economic and recreational growth. As the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) rightly said, however, it has also become increasingly busy in recent years. Five million passengers and 50 million tonnes of goods are carried on the Thames every year. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Rhine, and I hope that the Minister will give clear consideration to that issue. The same point also applies to the Danube, which is an important part of Romania, one of the new EU nations. Special rules apply on those two rivers, so it would seem sensible that such rules should also apply on the Thames.

There has been a long struggle over this issue. In considering the 10-year struggle of those who lost loved ones and near ones on the Marchioness, we recognise our impotence and powerlessness as Members of Parliament. At times, those people must have thought that they were having to break down the walls of bureaucracy?to some extent, that is one thing that I hope all of us, as Members of Parliament, can do on behalf of our constituents?to bring in new rules and regulations.

All Opposition Members look with a certain scepticism at any new regulations, and there is always a sense in which business should not be over-regulated. Above all, however, there is an issue of public safety. Of course, we do not want such stringent rules on any of our rivers?or, indeed, on any form of transport?that it is impossible for people to go about their everyday business. Inevitably, any form of transport will always involve an element of risk, and the idea that we can entirely eliminate risk is unrealistic. Equally, however, we need to ensure that, as far as possible, we strike the right balance between ensuring that the Thames is a great place for pleasure and commerce and a safe place.

I therefore entirely endorse the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. She was right to say that we need to consider the Thames alongside the Rhine and the Danube, and I hope that the Government will make strong representations on the issue in Europe. We do not expect special treatment, and it is quite sensible to apply the proposed rules to many of our other rivers, but the Thames will be increasingly important.

Another important issue will be some of the river’s tributaries, most importantly those around the Lea valley. I spent last Sunday walking around the Olympic site, although, rather depressingly, little work seems to have been done in the 17 or so months since we won the Olympic bid. However, significant work has been done on the towpaths in the upper Lea valley to make them safe and to ensure that the site is attractive for the many millions of people who will visit the Olympics, as well as for those who will live and work in the area in the years ahead, when the site ceases to be an amalgam of former industrial sites. That shows the important role that water will play for London’s economic growth in the future, and we need to have an eye to the safety aspects.

I have just one other comment at this juncture. It has been suggested that the watermen and lightermen’s company is some sort of trade union that is looking after its own interests. It is probably fair to say that that was its underlying raison d’être when it started up in the 16th century. However, it now plays an important part not only in London’s history, but in ensuring that the Thames is safe and that those working on it can go about their business. I praise the watermen and lightermen’s livery company for playing an important social role, as do many of our livery companies in London. Indeed, if one walks down Penge high street, one will see almshouses going back to the 17th century, which were run by the watermen and ligthermen’s company. The company is now working with the London borough of Bromley to ensure that many dozens of people can live happy lives in one of our London suburbs.

When it began its life, the watermen and lightermen’s company, like many livery companies, may have focused on acting as a guild for its members, but it now plays a much more important social role. Part and parcel of that role are the representations that the company has made to Members of Parliament in London and beyond, and I hope that the Government will give clear consideration to what it has to say. It is the expert in this field, and I sincerely hope that the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster will see the light of day in the Minister’s comments and, more importantly, in what is done in the months and years ahead.