Marchioness Public Inquiry
01 June 2000
Bereaved and survivors of the Marchioness disaster have finally been granted a public inquiry, over a decade after the small pleasure launch was hit and sunk by the much larger dredger Bowbelle in August 1989. Secretary of State for Transport and the Environment, John Prescott (DoETR 2000) made the announcement following receipt of the Final Report of the Thames Safety Inquiry by Lord Justice Clarke (Clarke 2000). This had been tasked with assessing whether a public inquiry was necessary and if so, what form it should take and what it should examine. Although the Marchioness disaster led to inquests and prosecutions, only a private inquiry was originally held, under the auspices of the then newly formed Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB 1991).
Clarke (2000:7) is clear that "no member of the public has a right to a public inquiry". The public, bereaved relatives' and survivors' legitimate interest "in learning the truth of what happened, without anything being swept under the carpet [will] in some cases...necessitate a public inquiry, whereas in others it will not" (Clarke 2000:7). He refers to the expense of public inquiries and states that they "should only be ordered in exceptional cases" (Clarke 2000:8). The Marchioness disaster was, in his view, such an "exceptional case". He is clear that "if ever there was a suitable case for an FI [formal investigation] after the MAIB was set up, this was it" (Clarke (2000:32). Yet, it is clear that his arguments do not rest upon any principle of a general right to openness or scrutiny.
Clarke's argument for a public inquiry rests not on the emergence, post-1989, of new evidence, but on the fact, "that the MAIB investigation [was] private [and therefore] that the evidence considered by the inspectors has never been publicly scrutinised." (Clarke 2000:35). The Report also notes that the public was particularly disadvantaged by the removal of names, marginal references to evidential sources and appendices in the process of amending the original inspector's report into the published Chief Inspector's Report. The reader of this final MAIB Report therefore "cannot identify the evidence upon which it is based. He (sic) does not even know what evidence the MAIB had available to it" (Clarke 2000:34).
Although not reliant upon "new evidence, or upon a detailed analysis of the material considered by the MAIB" the case for a public inquiry is underlined by a number of features:
"They relate principally to the primary facts, to the issue of alcohol and to the position of the owners of the BOWBELLE" (Clarke 2000:36).
In turning to each issue Clarke does not do so "with a view to criticising the MAIB inspectors...or indeed the MAIB Report itself...[as he does] not see it as part of [his] role to do so" (Clarke 2000:36). This reluctance to criticise the initial investigation, on the parts of both the MAIB and the police, presages the most disappointing (if not entirely surprising) conclusion of his Report, that he is not "persuaded that it would be appropriate to investigate the investigations" (Clarke 2000:65).
The irony is that Clarke's Report itself convincingly demonstrates how appallingly inadequate the initial MAIB inquiry was. It also reveals some of the reasons why. The reader is left aghast that eleven years later, we still don't know. Uncertainty is not only, as might have been expected, over broader contextual questions. Official inquiries commonly under-examine these areas in focusing upon individual failings. The inadequacies of the MAIB Report however, extend even to the "primary facts" of the tragedy. The respective courses of the two vessels, for example, and the location of their collision remain contested. Clarke (2000:67) suggests that "more forensic tests should have been carried out" as this is sometimes of assistance in establishing angle of collision and relative speed. The evidence available on this question however was not gathered by the police or t