THE Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), the Marchioness Action Group and others demonstrated on Tuesday against the lowering of age and training standards on the River Thames, as proposed by the New Boatmasters Licence.
They sailed past the Palace of Westminster aboard a 150-foot passenger vessel decked in banners saying ‘Keep the River Safe’.
Margaret Lockwood Croft told News Line: ‘My son Shaun was 26 when he died aboard the Marchioness, one of the 51 victims on 20 August 1989.
‘This is the first time I have been on the river since then.
‘It was a Sunday morning at 1.45am when the incident occurred, when the Bowbelle dredger struck and sunk the Marchioness at Southwark Bridge and then left the scene of the incident, not rendering any assistance.
‘By this action they broke an international maritime law, that any nation or craft in the vicinity of a boat or ship is in distress, they go to their assistance.
‘Even in the Second World War, when either enemy destroyed another ship, if there were survivors they still went to pick them up.
‘No-one from the disaster has been successfully prosecuted for the crimes committed that night.
‘However, the changes in safety legislation on the river have come about as a result of the campaign of the Marchioness Action Group.
‘There are no ifs or buts, if the new boatmaster licence is implemented on the river, replacing the stringent practical and college training now in place for the Waterman and Lighterman licence, safety will be gone.
‘The new licence only requires two years or less. People could be qualified at 18 to skipper craft as long as 120ft with 40 tonnes on board.
‘We welcome the EU proposals for other small inland waterways but emphatically not for dangerous tidal waters. We won’t let it go. These waters are very dangerous.
‘There are no ifs or buts, If the minister Stephen Ladyman lets this go through then there will be an even worse disaster than the Marchioness.’
John Potter, Freeman of the River with 47-and-a-half years experience on the Thames, said: ‘It’s 20-25 feet from high water to low water, there is a three-and-a-half knot tide, currents are forever changing and local knowledge is imperative.
‘Most continental rivers flow only one way, but the Thames comes in for five-and-a-half hours and goes out for six-and-a-half hours.
‘The Thames is not a river you can learn in five minutes. Most Freemen of the River have done a 5-7-year apprenticeship.
‘The motto of Thames watermen is At the Command of Our Superiors, meaning at the command of wind and tide.
‘The watermen have actually been licenced to carry passengers for 500 years and it’s all being swept away.
‘I am terrified of the consequences. They have said an 18-year-old can take a 120-ft vessel onto the river with cargo.
‘When I was 18, as an apprentice, I was only allowed to load 20 tonnes of cargo under supervision.’
Paul Baker, River Thames RMT Branch Secretary, said: ‘When you’ve got a vessel carrying 250 people two years experience is not enough.
‘At the moment you have a qualified waterman on the bridge at all times.
‘Under the new proposals he just has to be on the boat, so the person navigating could be a 16-year-old with no requirement for a medical or anything, just that the master is satisfied that he can cope.
‘That’s analogous to getting on a plane and the pilot saying I am going to have a break, the stewardess is taking over.
‘There are 120 watermen and lightermen in my branch. As trade unionists we are not just concerned about our members but also members of the public.
‘Commercial interests are pushing for the new boatmaster licences.
‘You’ve got proposals for bringing in freight for building the Thames Gateway and the Olympics and the expansion of commuter services along the Thames.
‘There’s an ageing population of watermen and lightermen and the commercial pressure is to bring younger people in with a shorter training period.
‘The lessons learnt from past disasters are all too soon forgotten. With passenger vessels getting larger the potential for new disasters with less experienced boatmasters is only too evident.
‘The RMT and my branch will do all that it takes to maintain safety standards.’
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said: ‘We have to get over to MPs not to weaken the legislation, making it easier to get a boatman’s licence.
‘There must be no dilution of safety. We will be constantly policing it and if we find our members are put in danger then there will have to be some industrial action over it.’
RMT Executive member Peter Trend said: ‘It is dangerous work on the Thames and the public does not want to see the dumbing down of skills. Effectively it’s the deregulation of the industry.
‘The EU directive opens up the river for any EU operator to operate on the Thames.
‘We have no problem with anybody operating but it has to be in line with the current standards of safety and skills.
‘The directive will result in a dilution of those standards which we are very concerned about.
‘We will provide our members with all the resources to resist it whenever required.