House of Commons Debate

House of Commons Debate on Cruise Ship Safety and the Rebecca Coriam Case

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Read the Transcript below.

 

1.29 pm

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): In March this year, a constituent of mine, 24-year-old Rebecca Coriam, disappeared while working for a British employment agency on a Bahamian-registered, American-based, Disney cruise ship in international waters off the coast of Mexico. Rebecca was living her dream, working as a member of the youth staff on the cruise ship, Disney Wonder, which was cruising out of Los Angeles on a seven-day cruise along the Mexican coast. Rebecca was last seen shortly before dawn on 22 March. She failed to report to work at 9 am and the alarm was raised shortly afterwards. The crew initiated a search of the ship, and she was listed as missing at sea. While the Disney Wonder sailed on to her next destination, the Mexican coastguard searched the waters behind the ship and found nothing. The Disney Wonder is registered in the Bahamas and, under international maritime law, it is the responsibility of the Bahamas Maritime Authority to investigate Rebecca’s disappearance. Despite an ongoing investigation of more than seven months, Rebecca’s family are still awaiting news of what happened to their daughter.

The reason for calling the debate is the recognition that while international maritime law requires cruise ships to take every possible measure to provide safe passage, those measures are often ambiguous and are incorporated into UK and international law through a variety of legislation. When something goes wrong at sea, it is frequently impossible to establish responsibility and to ensure a thorough investigation. Victims are often left without protection, without support and with little prospect of securing justice.

Cruising is now one of Britain’s favourite holidays, with around one in nine package holidays being cruise vacations. The number of people cruising has doubled in the past 10 years, including around 1.62 million British people last year. Despite the global recession, the UK cruise industry expects to reach a total of 2 million passengers by 2014. Cruising also has the massively beneficial effect of bringing tourists to the UK. In 2010, a record 116 ships visited 47 UK ports from 53 different cruise lines, bringing 541,000 visitors to the UK. Those figures are more than double those recorded as recently as for 2003. Yet how many of those holidaymakers, passengers and crew realise that, if something goes wrong on their ship, they may be almost totally unprotected?

The first issue with incidents at sea is that national jurisdiction extends only so far beyond a nation’s border. Once a ship is more than 24 miles from any coastline, it is on the high seas, in international waters, and the law of that ship is then the law of the country whose flag it flies and responsibility for crimes on board the ship lies with the legal authority of that country. That in itself creates a number of problems, because, to avoid stringent safety rules and regulations and for tax purposes, many cruise companies register their ships in countries with little affiliation to the actual operation of their company. For example, nine of the largest cruise companies operating in the UK, which regularly carry hundreds of thousands of British citizens every year, have a total fleet of 93 cruise ships: 42 are registered in the Bahamas, 25 in Bermuda, 15 in Panama, four in Malta and one each in Cyprus, Italy, Ecuador and Liberia. As for the three remaining ships, when preparing for the debate, I could not track down in which country they were registered.

In Rebecca’s case, the Disney Wonder cruise ship was registered in the Bahamas. If I briefly describe the investigation that took place into Rebecca’s disappearance, it will become obvious why I have serious concerns about the protection of British citizens while at sea. One officer from the Bahamas Maritime Authority boarded the ship—one officer, three days after Rebecca’s disappearance, for a ship with a capacity of 2,700 passengers and 950 crew. Little formal questioning of the ship’s crew or passengers occurred, little effort was made to gather or secure evidence and little if any forensic investigation took place on board. After seven months, Rebecca’s family are still awaiting news of what happened to their daughter. How could we have allowed that to happen to a British citizen? We have the disappearance of a young Englishwoman, hired by an English corporation to sail on a cruise ship out of a US port, and yet not a single British or American police or forensic team went on board the cruise ship in the days following her disappearance.

Contrary to that pitiful investigation, however, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, under “Travel & living abroad” then “Cruise ship passengers”, states:

“Significant crimes against British nationals on any ship can in certain circumstances be reported to UK police and may be investigated even though they occurred outside the territory of the UK.

A crime may also be reported to the authorities in the port/country in which the ship was docked (or was headed) when the crime was committed with the result that local law enforcement agencies may also be involved in the investigation”,

yet only one officer from an authority that is internationally recognised as almost toothless investigated the disappearance of a British citizen. In my opinion, that is appalling.

I myself am an enthusiastic cruiser, and I do not intend to berate the British cruise industry. I like to think of myself as someone who pays attention to detail when taking my family abroad, and yet before I was approached by the Coriam family in March of this year, I had no idea, if anything happened to me or my family on board a cruise ship, that the UK authorities or even the authorities in the countries that we were visiting would be impotent to help me seek justice. The Minister must acknowledge that the risks associated with the practice of flagging ships in obscure countries, such as the Bahamas, Panama, Liberia or Ecuador, are unknown to the vast majority of those 1.6 million British citizens who cruise each year. Passengers must be made aware of the jurisdiction that they will be sailing under before they book a cruise holiday and of the potential downsides of sailing under a flag of convenience.

If people go on holiday to the Bahamas and something happens to them, they expect it to be investigated by the Bahamian police. If people were to fly from London to Hong Kong in an aircraft, they would quite rightly not expect the Bahamian police to investigate a crime that happened on board. For crimes in the air, because of the Tokyo convention of 1963, the country of landing has jurisdiction. Similarly, if people go on a cruise ship owned by a US company sailing off the coast of Mexico, they do not expect to be totally reliant on the Bahamian police. If airlines can sort out the problem of jurisdiction through the Tokyo convention, why cannot cruise ships? Rebecca’s case highlights the urgent need for greater clarity of jurisdiction if we are to sufficiently and swiftly seek justice on behalf of British citizens.

I want to make it clear that not only cases of missing people must be considered when discussing crimes at sea. Violence, theft and sexual assault also occur on cruise liners, and investigations are often as fruitless as in the cases of missing persons. There are no centrally collated records of crimes at sea. In fact, many cruise ships are not even required to keep their own logbook of incidents on board. It is not unsurprising that cruise ships and cruise companies do not publish the number of offences that occur on board, and only by trawling through international records and news reports and through contacts with victims and their families can campaign groups such as the International Cruise Victims association and Victim Support collate figures. International Cruise Victims states that at least 165 people have gone missing at sea since 1995, with at least 19 so far this year alone.

Sexual crime on board cruise ships is also a problem. Incidents of sexual assault and sexual victimisation are significantly more common on board cruise ships than on land. The south Florida newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, obtained copies of FBI reports of serious crimes on board cruise ships between December 2007 and October 2008. The sexual assault and sexual contact reports from just one ship, the Carnival Valor, which is registered in Panama, indicates the possible scale of the problem: 15 January 2008, female passenger victim; 21 January, female passenger victim; 6 March, female passenger victim; 21 March, 16-year-old female victim; 24 March, female crew victim; 8 June, female crew victim; 13 June, 16-year-old female victim; 9 September, female crew victim; 17 September, female passenger victim. Just one ship in less than one year reported nine sexual assaults and sexual contacts to the FBI.

Improving the prevention and investigation of crimes at sea needs a twofold approach, which includes tightening safety regulations governing cruise ships and clarifying international co-operation when investigating crimes. Last year in the United States, President Obama signed into law the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act 2010, which is designed to increase security, law enforcement and accountability on cruise ships in international waters and for ships that visit US ports. I urge the Minister to consider implementing a similar Act in the UK. Bringing together the variety of laws that currently govern cruise ships into one concise and comprehensive set of regulations would go some way to improving the safety of cruise ships. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Minister will doubtless tell us about the extremely high standards that pertain to ships flying the red ensign, and he will be totally right. However, by the end of this year there will be no cruise ships registered in the UK. The last three ships—the three Cunard Queens—have re-registered in Bermuda in the past few days. He will also tell us about the high standards imposed on ships registered in Crown Dependencies, and he will be right about that, too. I am sure that he will also tell us about the high standards that the UK imposes on cruise ships that dock in the UK, about which he will also be right. However, the vast majority of British cruise passengers sail ships registered in different jurisdictions, which might be the Bahamas, Panama or Liberia. The majority of British cruises now sail from ports outside the UK, of which there were almost 1 million in the past year alone.

When it comes to crime against British subjects on ships registered with a flag of convenience from ports outside the UK, British nationals such as Rebecca can be almost alone and unprotected if they are the victim of crime. They may not even be aware of that until it is too late. It is vital that passengers be made aware of the jurisdiction they will be sailing under before they book a cruise holiday, and they must be made aware of the potential downsides of sailing under a flag of convenience.

It is also imperative for the UK authorities to take greater responsibility for investigating crimes against UK nationals that occur on the high seas. I urge the Minister to work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to co-ordinate with the International Maritime Organisation and with international law enforcement agencies such as Interpol to help synchronise a more coherent structure for criminal investigations in international waters and on ships flying flags of convenience.

More needs to be done to safeguard British citizens on cruise ships. I hope that the Minister and his Department will take on board these concerns and ensure that action is taken to do just that.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning):It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on securing this debate. He will acknowledge that I have met Rebecca’s family, and I have made promises, which I will keep.

I pay tribute to Rebecca’s family. They have had a tragic loss, which has been exacerbated by not knowing what actually happened to her. However, that has not stopped them campaigning for justice for Rebecca and for other victims in not only cruise ships but the whole maritime fleet.

Cruising is a boom industry; it is popular. My hon. Friend mentioned the figures: 1.7 million Brits went on a cruise this year, and the figure is 20 million around the world. The vast majority of them have cruised in safety, although I accept my hon. Friend’s point. The figure of 1.7 million is due to rise to 2 million in the next three to four years. We must not be complacent. There are things that we as a nation have control over and things over which we have no control. Sadly, Cunard has recently announced that the three Queens have been re-flagged outside the UK. Weddings were a particular issue for cruise lines. I got married in an old-fashioned church, but these days people want to get married in myriad different places, including on cruise ships. Under British law, people cannot get married on a British ship, but I will amend the legislation as soon as I can so that people will be able to marry on board a ship. Weddings can be held in many different places in this country, but not on a British ship, which is ludicrous.

There is no doubt that the infraction proceedings and the mess I inherited from the previous Administration on differential pay has meant that we are having some ships flag away. That is very sad, and I have done everything possible to help, but the blame lies firmly with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Nautilus union. They took the British Government to the European Commission for not implementing legislation. I hope that they have seen the error of their ways, because we are now seeing British jobs and British ships being flagged abroad.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that crime takes place not only on cruise liners, but in merchant fleets around the world. One of the most serious crimes, rape, has taken place, and has clearly not been investigated properly. Cases of missing persons, as in the case of Rebecca, have also not been properly investigated. The simple truth is that the country in which the vessel was flagged is not capable of doing the sort of investigation that we and Rebecca’s family would like. As far as I can work out, it did hardly anything; it was very half-hearted. I am sure that Disney is conscious of its image, but it was more interested in getting the ship back to sea than in investigating the case of the missing member of their crew.

I pay tribute to Rebecca’s family and the dignity that they have shown. I made promises about what I could do immediately, which included writing to the Bahamian authorities and asking them to inform me exactly where the investigating was going. I also instructed the marine accident investigation branch to register the UK as a substantially interested body. I have instructed the branch to register a substantial interest in every case where there is a British citizen involved on any ship anywhere in the world. That is a significant move. It is not something that we had been planning on doing, but this particular case has opened our eyes as a country. We are using the skills of the marine accident investigation branch, which is world-renowned. If a British citizen happens to be on holiday on a cruise liner—not on a beach—they should get the protection that we would normally expect from a British Government.

We have also been supportive of the Cheshire police, to whom I pay tribute. They have picked up the mantel and been heavily involved, but they have been frustrated by the way the case has been handled. We and the Foreign Office will continue to support them in the ongoing investigations.

Last year, I attended a conference of red ensign Crown dependencies in Jersey—I am the Minister responsible for the red ensign not only in the UK but in other Crown dependencies. I stated that flag states have a detailed, moral and ethical responsibility towards those who travel on their flagged ships; I do not think that point has been highlighted in that way, and I shall continue to emphasise it. At the conference, a senior police officer made exactly the same point as that raised by Rebecca’s family and my hon. Friend. Who takes responsibility for an investigation into something that did not happen on a flagged ship? That is a difficult question, and we have had many meetings to look at where the responsibility lies.

My hon. Friend alluded to the Americans and, like me, President Obama is in an interesting position. Although I have a large number of flagged vessels, I do not have any cruise ships under me, and neither does President Obama. When we talk to the rest of the international community about how to join investigations together and be taken seriously, we must be careful not to preach to people about things for which we are not responsible in the same way. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, the American flagged fleet is small and insignificant in world terms, which is unusual for such a huge nation. That is because many years ago, America flagged off many of its ships to Panama and the Marshall Islands for political reasons. We must not be hypocritical in telling countries what they should do when we do not have responsibility for cruise ships.

As I stated earlier, however, this issue goes beyond cruise liners. It is crucial that people feel safe on a ship, whether they are at work or travelling for leisure, and whether they are on a cruise liner or, speaking more loosely, a cargo freighter going round the coast on a regular basis. The issue is also crucial for women—I will be slightly sexist on this point—because historically women did not serve on ships in the way they do today. I have had the pleasure of presenting the cadet of the year award for the past two years—I have managed to survive that long in this job—and each time the merchant navy cadet of the year was a lady. That shows where the industry is going, and the skills and expertise that women can bring to it. At the same time, however, women need to be protected. Sadly, I have read about an instance of a female crew member who was raped. The incident was not investigated properly and was followed by a suicide. That did not happen in our territorial waters, but that is not the point. Such things do happen.

I promised Rebecca’s family that I would do everything I can to help, and that I would go to the top when looking at international responsibility. The International Maritime Organisation is based just across the river in a Department for Transport building—my colleagues will love my mentioning that—which is the only United Nations establishment in the United Kingdom. As promised, I wrote to the IMO’s outgoing secretary-general detailing not only Rebecca’s case but the other cases that we have heard about. I had a follow-up meeting with the secretary-general and his officials, together with the incoming secretary-general from Japan, who will take over in the new year. That meeting was very positive and unlike in previous attempts by the US, we appear to have started to pull a consensus together.

The IMO safety committee agreed guidelines previously at the 89th committee, and we will table a motion, to which I hope other member states will agree, asking the security council within the committee to look formally at the whole issue on an international basis. That will not, of course, take away from the responsibilities of individual member or flag states within their territorial waters, but it will start to implement a correct procedure for events that occur on what we commonly call the high seas. That is hugely important to Rebecca’s family and others who, in many ways, have had their lives destroyed by events on the sea.

The international community can no longer ignore its responsibility to ask, through the IMO, how we can better deal with such situations. Countries used as flags of convenience—for want of a better word—need to cope with the investigations that are necessary when certain events happen, as sadly we know they will. Some of the ships are like small towns; the largest has 7,000 guests and 2,000 crew members. That is bigger than many of the towns we represent; it is like two wards in my constituency, all on one ship. When there is such a cramming together, there will be good and bad people there, just as in any other society.

People go on holiday, just as I did as a young man when I went to Benidorm all those years ago. They want to have a good time, but others spoil it for them. That happens, and there are criminals in our society. If someone rapes, they are a criminal; if they are involved in crime on a ship, no matter where in the world, they are a criminal. It is therefore important to pull together and look at how to address the situation. The crux of my hon. Friend’s argument is that where we do not have responsibility for the ship and the flag nation is not capable of addressing its responsibilities, we must look at how the international community can pull together.

I passionately believe that we have some of the greatest police authorities in the world. The Association of Chief Police Officers has shared guidance on best practice, which is used extensively around the world. My hon. Friend will probably agree that we also need to name and shame some of those cruise operators that do not take their responsibilities—for want of a better word—as carefully as they should.

We must not, however, denigrate all ship companies. I have a cutting in front of me from the Evening Standard. It mentions a P&O-registered ship that had a man overboard the other night in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. A passenger saw what they thought was someone in the water and raised the alarm. The ship dispensed three lifeboats and many lifebuoys, made a complete U-turn and—miracle of miracles—the man was pulled out alive. I think that P&O should be praised, and particularly the captain of the ship involved, the Ventura. The ship obviously had a code of best practice and a set of skills in place so that it could respond to such an event.

I have also heard of instances where a ship has hit a trawler in the English channel and a fisherman has died. The ship knew it had hit someone, but carried on. Those are two extremes in an industry that is expanding not only because there are a greater number of cruise ships, but because of the sheer size of the ships to which our ports now have to adapt. The largest ship in the world, the Emma Maersk, can function with a crew of 13 or 14 people. How can they respond to certain situations?

We must also not take away from the responsibilities of the one person who I have not yet mentioned—the captain of the ship. The captain of a ship on the high seas is the sole person responsible for the ship. If the ship is flagged by any country, including the UK, that country also has responsibility, as does the international community.

We have fulfilled the promises I made to Rebecca’s family in my office a few weeks ago, but we will not be complacent in any shape or form. We will push on. There is an IMO conference in London later this month. There are some indications that, as I hope, our proposals will be supported, and we can show the rest of the world that, yet again, the UK is leading in safety on the high seas.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

 

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