HC Deb 22 January 1931 vol 247 cc498-508

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]


I rise to draw attention to a series of somewhat disturbing events, to which there has been attached a great deal of public anxiety, with regard to the air accident which occurred so long ago as 2nd July at Meopham in Kent to a civilian aircraft with a British pilot, carrying a German certificate of airworthiness, and plying for hire in this country. It is necessary in order to draw attention to the events in question that I should, very briefly, run through certain consequences and circumstances following that accident. Following the accident an inquest was held in accordance with the law of the land, and at that inquest counsel representing the relatives of those killed, attended, and quite naturally, wished to cross-examine the Air Ministry representative. He wished to do so with two objectives. The first, with which I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for Air is quite in agreement, was to elucidate, if possible, the cause of the accident, and the second was to get an assurance that the regulations which the Secretary of State is responsible for making and carrying out, as regards carrying passengers in aircraft, are sufficient and that if sufficient they are being adequately carried out.

I submit that the public are quite entitled to an assurance that those two factors, namely, the sufficiency of the regulations and their efficient carrying out, are being satisfied. They are entitled to have that knowledge given in a public court by sworn evidence. Counsel for the relatives wished to prosecute that line of thought, but he was told that there was no evidence of negligence, that he must leave it at that, and that he could not be allowed to probe into the circumstances. I submit that there is no reason for counsel representing the relatives, or the public, to accept the categorical statement that there were no signs of negligence, from a single representative of the Air Ministry, unsubstantiated by any evidence and for counsel being stopped from putting questions, advancing theories and obtaining information as to the circumstances of this accident.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."


The counsel for the relatives pressed for this opportunity for asking questions and eliciting information, and he was told that he must not press for the information and that the Air Ministry had decided to refer the circumstances of the accident to the investigation of a sub-committee of the Aeronautical Research Committee. He kept on pressing for this information, in a perfectly legitimate manner, in accordance with the interests of those wham he represented, and he was told by the Air Ministry representative, Major Cooper, that there would, without ques- tion, be an opportunity for asking questions, advancing theories, and obtaining information. On the strength of this, counsel at the inquest refrained from pressing the matter further.

Nothing further was heard by the representatives of those who were killed, and on 14th August, they wrote to the Air Ministry, asking for this undertaking for an opportunity to ask questions to be implemented. On 25th August the Air Ministry replied, repudiating the undertaking given in the public court by their accredited representative. I have here the Agency report and I have looked up the "Times" report of what that representative said at the inquest, and the report of Major Cooper's statement is as follows: I think there is no question about your having an opportunity of putting questions, advancing theories, and obtaning any information you require at the meetings of the Committee. The Air Ministry refused this opportunity which their representative had given at the inquest, and took refuge in the statement that Major Cooper's words did not bear the interpretation which was placed upon them by the Solicitors for the relatives. They also said that the technical committee of high experts to whom they had submitted the investigation of this accident did not lend itself to the attendance of representatives and the giving of evidence. They offered to consider any theories that were advanced, but they would not allow representatives to attend this investigation. They further stated that if no cause for the accident was found, and no blame to be attached, there would probably be no further action, and that if the Court of Inquiry did find that there was some negligence, it was within the province of the Secretary of State for Air, at his own discretion, to convene a public inquiry.

I do not know what the findings of this court of inquiry will be; they are not yet out. Whatever they are, whether they show that there was negligence or no negligence, they should not be issued to the public until those who are most intimately connected, most deeply hurt, and most sorely tried by this accident, should have the opportunity of fulfilling to the utmost their natural desire in the interests of those whom they have lost, and in the interests of the public at large, to probe to the bottom the question whether the regulations were sufficient and were adequately carried out, and whether there was any negligence in any direction. The interim report of this technical committee was issued on 4th November, and we have not yet had the final report. It is not for me to prejudge what it may be, but it can be only one of two things—there was or was not a cause. I suggest that such a committee is not suitable for investigating air accidents in the broadest sense of the term. The committee consists of highly skilled experts, but they are not able—it does not come within their terms of reference—to investigate the ground organisation of air lines, whether a machine is examined adequately before it starts, and whether the regulations for such examination are sufficient or otherwise.

The Committee again are not suited to go into those very pregnant questions which will have to be faced sooner or later as to whether we should accept blindly the certificates of airworthiness of German aircraft which are not up to the standard—we all know it in the aircraft industry—of the skill and technical strength of the aircraft of this country. The Government have shirked the issue on this point deliberately because they know that if they go into this question, they will be involved in the complicated proceedings of the International Convention of Aerial Navigation which we have signed at Geneva. That Convention forces us to recognise German certificates of airworthiness, and to recognise them for the year in which they are issued, irrespective of whether we have certified the aircraft as airworthy or not. If it were necessary in the case of the great disaster to the R.101 to reassure the public by having a public inquiry conducted by a high legal expert, it was equally necessary in this case. The problems to be solved are no more technical or involved than in the case of the R.101, when the Government considered, in the light of public opinion and public pressure, that it was necessary to have a full report. They have not considered it necessary in this case, although it is quite as justifiable. You cannot decide whether to have a court of inquiry by the size of the casualty, but by the needs and rights of the public as regards safety.

The Air Ministry seem determined to treat civil air accidents in the same light as Service accidents. The Service accidents personnel at the Air Ministry look after civil aviation, and it is only natural that they should look at all accidents from the Service point of view. It is not in the interest of the public that the present procedure of a private inquiry, without the opportunity for witnesses to be examined should continue. It is not in the interests of aviation, because civil aviation in this country can progress only through public confidence and the knowledge of the public that regulations are adequate and are being carried out. In marine and rail accidents the Board of Trade immediately hold a full public inquiry. I know that the presiding officer at those courts can call what witnesses he likes, but if witnesses who were considered necessary were not called, the public would soon ask the reason why. I am not making any charges. I am only asking that the Air Ministry and the Government should he frank in regard to this terrible air disaster.

I wish to ask the Minister three questions, which I hope he will answer. In the first place, is the Air Ministry not repudiating an undertaking made in a public court by one of its representatives? If the Minister denies that, if he says that the representative was not entitled to say that, or that he went beyond his brief—I do not mind what excuse he makes—then I ask him, secondly, why are the Ministry afraid of the same publicity and the same procedure in regard to this air smash as that which they considered necessary in the R.101 crash? The third question opens up a very large point on which I should be glad if the Minister would give indications of the policy of the Government if he cannot answer the question straight out. It is: Does not the Minister consider it necessary, in the case of an air accident, to have the same public inquiry as is held in all cases of railway and steamship accidents? That is a public inquiry, not one which it is within the discretion of the Secretary of State to order if he thinks it right to do so, but one which is held in accordance with the rights of the public, and for the benefit and safety of the public in general.


I would like to say a few words in support of the case put by my hon. and gallant Friend, because I do not think there can be any doubt that very definite promises of a public and private nature have been made to persons in connection with this accident. I understand that the report has been received by the Air Ministry and I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to say that a public inquiry is to take place. Quite apart from the question of any promise having been made, it is very much in the interests of everyone that a public inquiry should take place, because if the public once get the impression that when an accident of this kind takes place it is hushed up and no public statement is made, they are certain to think there is something to hide and will be more likely to be frightened and to stay on the ground than if they were told the whole facts, however unpleasant they may be—and I am not suggesting anything in this case—because they would know that whatever was wrong was known, and that steps were being taken to prevent anything of the kind happening in future. That is the best way of giving full assurance to the public and encouraging them to go into the air.

I do think that in this case there are serious grounds for having a searching investigation and a public inquiry. I understand for example, that there is evidence to show that the passengers by this machine were not given information as to the state of the weather. At the time the flight was made the weather was very bad, but my information is that they were not told of this. I think the Air Ministry ought to take into consideration very seriously whether it ought not to be a duty laid upon the shoulders of those responsible for each aerodrome in this country—and I admit that this was a foreign aerodrome—to give passengers a full and correct report of what the weather is like on the route over which they are to travel. It ought not to be left to the interested parties connected with the air line, who are naturally anxious for the flight to take place if they can persuade the passengers to go. I believe, also, there is some evidence to show that the pilot flying this machine at the time the accident took place was the second pilot, was not the pilot who was generally thought to be in charge of the machine. That certainly needs to be looked Into. I think the Air Ministry ought to lay down very clearly, for the benefit of the public, exactly what the functions of second pilots are, so that the public will know who will be flying the machine during the flight, whether it will be one pilot or one or two pilots; and they ought to lay down very strict regulations as to the qualifications possessed by any pilot who may be called upon to fly the machine during its journey. I have not made these observations without having thought the matter out carefully, and I submit from a public and private point of view that there is a strong case for holding the public inquiry that was promised.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for AIR (Mr. Montague)

I thank the hon. and gallant Member for the courtesy with which he has put his case this evening, although I think it was hardly necessary to go into the very wide subject of the validation of certificates. I do not think that he was altogether accurate in the matter, because the granting of certificates for airworthiness does not depend upon whether the nation comes within the convention, but upon arrangements made definitely between certain countries, and actually this country I know validates in the sense of issuing what is, in effect, our own validation of the foreign certificate only in the case of Germany and Holland. The larger question is one which requires consideration and debate upon its merits. It really does not enter into the subject which has been raised this evening. A statement that was made at the inquest by Major Cooper has been open to a considerable amount of misunderstanding. That statement was to the effect that any evidence which interested parties might wish to bring forward or any theory they might wish to advance would be considered by a subcommittee of the Aeronautical Research Committee, to which this particular investigation was to he remitted. It was actually a fact that so far from anything being hushed up, the greatest possible publicity would he given to the reports and the committee would actually receive evidence of that character. I should like to point out to the House that this accident was one of a very special character indeed. It was a different type of accident from those which have happened before. I do not think it has been paralleled in the history of civil flying. There was no direct witness, and the whole of the evidence would have to be of a highly technical character. As the hon. and gallant Member has already stated, the committee which reported was of high technical efficiency. No one could quarrel with the names, because everyone agrees that the committee was thoroughly competent to investigate this question from the technical point of view, which was really the only point of view available. In this particular case the investigation was of a character which could hardly be partaken of by the public in the form of an ordinary public inquiry of the character which takes place in the case of railway accidents or the mercantile marine or any other public inquiry.


Will the hon. Gentleman apply that argument to the R101 inquiry, where highly technical evidence was equally required? In that case the evidence was submitted by the president of the inquiry to the special technical experts, and the results came before the public.


I was going to refer to that part of the hon. and gallant Member's speech. The inquiry into this accident involved, as he mentioned, wind tunnel experiments, and also metallurgical and other highly scientific tests—tests of stress and strain and so forth—which could not be undertaken in a public court. It was altogether away from the type of inquiry that could be suitably carried out in a public court. It is hoped to publish a fully documented report within the next few days. I have had the opportunity of reading the report, which is now in the hands of my Noble Friend, and I feel sure that, when the hon. and gallant Member and others read it, including the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), they will find that it thoroughly explains and accounts for the attitude taken up by the Air Ministry on this matter.

I do not want to enlarge very much on the question whether it is desirable as a matter of general principle to hold public inquiries in the case of civil air transport accidents, to which I think the hon. and gallant Member was referring rather than to private flying accidents. That is a question on which I think there is a good deal to be said on the side taken up by the hon. and gallant Member. Those arguments are in the mind of my Noble Friend. I have not the authority to say that he will at any particular moment give a pledge on the matter, but I am sure that everything will be done to meet the wishes of the House and of the country in matters of this kind. So far as this accident is concerned, there was every reason, from the peculiarity of its nature, for remitting the inquiry to a technical committee, and it is impossible to go into these highly technical considerations in the atmosphere and under the conditions of an ordinary public court of inquiry. So far as any theories may have been forthcoming—as, indeed, theories were forthcoming—or any direct evidence could be brought before the Committee, the Committee was willing to consider, and in some cases did very thoroughly consider, such evidence as was put before them.

The whole report will be in the hands of the public within a few days. The Committee held 21 meetings. It was a very protracted technical investigation. The results of the work of this Committee categorically dismiss a number of very sensational rumours which were current regarding the accident. Hon. Members will be better able to judge from a study of the report, and there will be, of course, an opportunity of dealing with the larger issue raised by the hon. and gallant Member on the Estimates in a few weeks' time. My Noble Friend has just received the report, and a statement will be made shortly on the question whether, in view of the fully documented technical evidence, it will be necessary to hold a public inquiry. That is apart from any larger question, which, as I have said, is receiving the consideration of my Noble Friend. As to the question raised by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton, of announcing to the public the kind of weather they may expect on their trips, so far as the Air Ministry has any control or authority in this country that is done, and if my hon. Friend will pay a visit to Croydon aerodrome he will see a very large chart of the weather conditions arranged in a very practical way for the, benefit of the public. They know exactly what weather conditions exist at every point of their journey.


At all aerodromes?


That is another consideration. Croydon and one or two other places in the country are controlled directly by the Air Ministry. Other aerodromes throughout the country have to do largely or mainly with private flying, which is, of course, another and entirely different matter. It is obviously impossible for the Air Ministry to determine the conditions at aerodromes abroad, in regard to that matter. As far as the other point is concerned, from the evidence in the report, it is presumably correct that at the time of the accident, the second pilot in charge was actually controlling the plane. It was a dual control plane and the two pilots were sitting side by side, and it was part, and always is part, of the practical work of flying that where there are two pilots they share their duties. I do not think that the hon. Member can make a complaint about that matter. Both pilots were thoroughly competent, and there is no question at all, from my reading of the report, about any miscalculation or lack of qualification on the part of the pilots being responsible for the accident. The larger question will come up for discussion and is in the mind of my Noble Friend. I feel sure that when the hon. and gallant Gentleman reads this very large and fully documented report he will be satisfied that justice has been done and that the thing has been thoroughly competently managed by the sub-committee to which it was remitted.

Major ROSS

Although everyone was horrified at such a dreadful disaster, I am more concerned than many owing to the connection of one of the victims with that part of the country from which I come. The statement that the hon. Gentleman has made has, perhaps, not wholly satisfied those who are interested in the matter, although it may be possible that the report of which he has spoken may put a different complexion upon the whole situation. This is one of those disasters which is peculiarly necessary to be fully explored and about which there should be no secrecy, and there is a suspicion of secrecy and of the public being deprived of knowledge of what has happened because it is one of those disasters in regard to which you cannot put your finger on one point and say there was a lack of skill, phenomenal weather or failure of material. It is a matter which, if it is not properly explained, may strike at the root of all civil aviation. It is a matter of more general concern than even the disaster to the R101, because airships are few and rare, and the future of aviation rests predominantly with the aeroplanes. Those who are to entrust themselves to this form of transport, and those who are dear to them, would wish to be assured as to the reasons for, and cause of, this disaster and would wish the fullest publicity. Unfortunately—and I urge the hon. Member to appreciate this fact—there is a feeling abroad that for some reason or another there is a desire to curb the investigation of this matter and not let the public into the confidence of the Ministry and of the Government. I beseech the hon. Member, who I know carries out the duties of his office conscientiously, to do his utmost to let everyone know the full technical results of this inquiry and to give opportunities for further investigation if such should be deemed or appear to be necessary from the Report.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.