HC Deb 25 June 1936 vol 313 cc2096-105

1. The limits of liability under sub-section (1) of section thirteen of this Act in respect of such loss or damage as is mentioned in that sub-section shall, in the case of an aircraft of any such description as is mentioned in the first column of the follow- ing Table, be an amount to be ascertained, in relation to that description of aircraft, by reference to the second column of the said Table.

Description of Aircraft. Limit of Liability.
(a) Airships £25,000.
(b) Balloons (whether fixed or free). £5,000.
(c) Gliders £2,000, so, however, that not more than £1,000 shall be payable in respect of loss of, or damage to, property.
(d) Other aircraft—
(i) if the weight of the aircraft fully loaded does not exceed 5,000 pounds. £10,000, so, however, that not more than £5,000 shall be payable in respect of loss of, or damage to, property.
(ii) if the weight of the aircraft fully loaded exceeds 5,000 pounds but does not exceed 10,000 pounds. £10,000, so, however, that, in respect of loss of, or damage to, property, there shall not be payable more than £1 for each pound of the weight of the aircraft fully loaded.
(iii) if the weight of the aircraft fully loaded exceeds 10,000 pounds but does not exceed 25,000 pounds. £1 for each pound of the weight of the aircraft fully loaded.
(iv) if the weight of the aircraft fully loaded exceeds 25,000 pounds. £25,000.

2. References in the foregoing table to pounds of weight shall be construed as references to pounds avoidupois; and the Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe the manner in which the weight of an aircraft fully loaded is to be ascertained for the purposes of this Schedule, and direct that, in the case of an aircraft of any particular description, such document as may be specified in the regulations, being a document which purports to show the weight of the aircraft fully loaded, shall be evidence of that weight.—[The Solicitor-General.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Schedule be read a Second time."

This new Schedule is consequent on the Amendment to Clause 13 which we have already discussed.

10.15 p.m.


I am bound to say I view with regret the insertion in the Bill of a Schedule fixing limits of liability. I understand that this is on the basis of the Merchant Shipping Act, but I always understood that that was one of the most unsatisfactory Acts that had ever been passed. The hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson) shakes his head, but what he would regard as a satisfactory Measure might be regarded by laymen as being very unsatisfactory. I regret this provision because the Road Traffic Act imposes no limit of liability, and I should have thought that in these days we should be more likely to take that as a precedent than the Merchant Shipping Act. I sincerely hope that this will never be quoted as a precedent for inserting limits in the Road Traffic Act or similar legislation. I had hoped that we should have divided against the earlier Amendment to insert the new Sub-section (1), but I realise that, as we did not do that, it is difficult now to raise the question in an effective form. I want, however, to utter my protest against reference to the precedent of the Merchant Shipping Act when the precedent of the Road Traffic Act was in existence and would have been more in accordance with modern ideas.

10.17 p.m.


I regard this Schedule and the Clause relating to it as most important provisions which will have to be considered in relation to the Road Traffic Act and liability on the roads. It is well known that the question of damages in relation to road accidents is becoming extremely chaotic, and for that reason I hope the Minister in charge of the Bill will review this matter, in the light of what I said earlier, before the Bill goes to the other House. I cannot see the slightest reason why the liability should be limited in this way. It was made perfectly clear that the reason for limiting insurance to a certain maximum was because it would be impossible to insure for unlimited liability, but it seems to me that the whole question of this Schedule and the Clause relating to it should be reviewed, and that it could be considerably simplified if the basis were converted into one of compulsory insurance within fixed limits and the question of liability left open.

10.18 p.m.


I desire to refer to the first item in the Table, namely, Airships, where the limit of liability is £25,000. I should like to ask the Solicitor-General how that figure of £25,000 is fixed for airships. Airships are of three types. There is the ordinary flexible small airship, like the S.S. airships and the coastal airships that we had in the War; there are the semi-rigid airships of different types; and there are the rigid airships. If a rigid airship like the "Hindenburg" were forced down, with 5,000,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, on a city like London, and if that were fired, a great deal of damage would be done, and I cannot understand how it could be limited to £25,000. I should like the Solicitor-General to explain how that figure is fixed.

10.19 p.m.


My hon. Friends do not seem to appreciate the fact that the liability is only limited in cases of pure accident. If the damage occurs through the fault of the owner, then the liability will be assessed by a jury in the ordinary way, but where the owner is in no sense responsible for the accident—and, of course, responsibility has a very wide extension—the same principle which obtains in the case of ships at sea has been adopted. It is not really a question of insurance, which is quite a different matter. The principle here is that, in case of accident where no fault or privity rests upon the owner, it is reasonable that there should be a limit to the sum which that owner should pay in damages.

10.20 p.m.


I should like to utter a word of regret on behalf of some of my friends of the Light Aeroplane Club at the fact that the Minister has altered the original figures that appeared in the Bill. This part of the Bill is based on the recommendations of a committee upon which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wallasey (Lieut.-Colonel Moore-Brabazon) and I, among others, sat. I should like to read a short paragraph from our report which shows the position that we were in. After careful consideration we have arrived at the conclusion that it would be in the general interests of the community to introduce a scheme of compulsory third party insurance, or adequate alternative indemnity, against the damage caused by civil aircraft to persons or property on the ground provided that the liability is limited as proposed in paragraph 84. In paragraph 84 we said: We consider, from the evidence which we have taken, that the lower limit of 600,000 francs (£7,700) proposed in the Con- vention at Rome is too high. In order that premiums may not constitute an undue burden on private flying in this country, the lower and upper limits should not exceed £5,000 and £25,000 respectively. After very careful consideration our figures were arrived at, very largely on the basis of the Rome Convention, which was a Convention of all the great flying Powers of Europe, but some of us would have considered quite seriously whether or not we could accept the principle of third party insurance if we had realised that the figures were to be as high as they are in the Bill. Although it is true that under the provisions of the Bill, a private owner is to receive some relaxation of control, nevertheless, if he has handed himself over to the insurance interests entirely, he is going out of the frying pan into the fire. We are very anxious, particularly from the point of view of the light aeroplane club movement, that no embarrassment should be put on an already extremely difficult financial undertaking by way of increased premiums, but we regret that this alteration should have been made, entirely contrary to the findings of the committee.


Surely the committee's report relates to liability to insurance? It indicates the limit of liability for which insurance can be effected.

10.24 p.m.


I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether the members of the committee considered the effect of raising the insurance in regard to life, because the House felt that the limit was much too low in regard to life. I put forward the suggestion that it ought to be increased and the Government accepted that suggestion. Now my hon. Friend complains that his committee has been thrown over. The House had a very long Debate about it. An object falling out of a machine might break through a glasshouse or a roof or something like that, and might not hit a person. But if a man was hit and was killed he might leave a widow who might have very little money to support herself, and we felt that we could raise the liability with regard to life without hitting the aeroplane industry. We felt that the premium could be increased by such a small amount that it would not prevent people from flying. I would remind my hon. Friend that the Solicitor-General has admitted it. He said that, after con- sulting with the insurance people, it was probable that the premium would need to be increased by only very little. Surely it is worth while increasing premiums by that very little, if you are to get the whole of the country behind you. We all want to help the development of flying. The whole feeling was that we would not get the assistance we would like if the limited liability was kept as low as it was. I again thank the Government for accepting the Amendments, the effect of which will be not to limit flying but, by getting the good will of the country, to help flying.

10.26 p.m.


The statement has been made that this increase—in my particular case from £5,000 to £10,000—is only going to affect premiums by a very small amount. I hope that that is so. I ask the Solicitor-General whether that is really true, whether he has discussed the matter with the interests involved, and whether he has had any negotiations whatever with the insurance companies in older to prevent an undue rise in premiums.

10.27 p.m.


The points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hertford (Sir M. Sueter) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hulme (Sir J. Nall) really have been answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Everard). The reason why we get any limitation in the Bill at all is that the Gorell Committee recommend that there should be compulsory insurance and that there should be a limitation of liability. The recommendation is that every aircraft should be insured against this liability for an amount calculated on a pound for pound basis. That was the origin of these proposals. But there was also another origin. Broadly speaking, it followed the scheme of the Rome Convention. It does not follow it literally, and in many respects it is a good deal more generous than the Rome Convention. We have not ratified it yet, but it is undesirable to have two codes of law which are completely in conflict operating in the same areas if you can possibly avoid it. It may very well be, even now, with these more generous scales that we have provided for in the Bill, it will pay anybody to be hit by something falling from a British aero- plane coining from Paris over the Kent coast, rather than hit by a French aeroplane going back to Paris, because the terms provided in that Convention are not as generous. I have said enough to indicate that this outline, whereby there is a limitation of liability of fixed figures, does not come so entirely out of the blue. It was matured by the Committee, and was considered under the Rome Convention.


Did they consider the question of rigid airships being forced down, as the R. 101 was forced down, and so firing a great area of buildings? I cannot understand how they selected the sum of £25,000.


I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Sir M. Sueter) that in any one of these cases if you cared to look at it as a pure matter of logic, great damage might be done. For instance, any aeroplane that came down in the City of London might do damage which would be incalculable. The sum of £5,000 or £10,000 which is here provided would be quite irrelevant in cases of that kind. For reasons which were explained on the Second Reading risks of that kind could not be insured against without burdening aeronautics with such premiums that it would not be possible to carry on. Therefore the principle of limitation had to be faced; there was nothing else to be done. The same argument applies to airships, of which my hon. and gallant Friend spoke. Of course, the damage might in certain instances be fantastically high, but if you are not going to cripple airship development entirely by incurring high premiums you must do something of the kind here proposed. This is the best compromise at which we have been able to arrive.

10.31 p.m.


I had hoped that those who have been engaged on this subject would have brought forward something much more fair and that the statement which has been made by the Solicitor-General would have been preceded by more reference to human life as apart from property. I think that the human life side should be given more consideration and that those who have property should take out their own insurance. As the Clause is now drafted there is a limit. Suppose we get to the stage where we carry more individuals and consequently more people may be killed. What will be the position then? Take the case of a, subsidised company carrying 30 or 40 passengers in one aeroplane. When we consider the amount of £25,000 or even £50,000 we are faced with this difficulty, that while the damage to property may in the City of London amount to £2,000,000 or £3,000,000 the question of life loss is even greater than the question of the sum of money represented here. I look upon this as a futile method of trying to make a calculation. How can you calculate the amount of damage done by a measurement of that which does the damage? It is a mathematical impossibility. Since you cannot do that, we should put life before property. Let us make a calculation on the basis of human life lost and let property stand by itself and insure itself. There is reference in the Schedule to balloons, whether fixed or free.

What is meant by the phrase "whether fixed or free"? Does it mean that if it is free it will do more damage than if it is fixed, or does it mean that if it is fixed it will do more damage than if it is free. I am afraid that those who drafted this Schedule have not been thinking out clearly what may take place. I can understand the fixed one. A balloon with a heavy basket underneath may do more damage than a glider in full flight out of control. The matter must be straightened out if we are to prevent the many legal trials which are bound to take place, and which will mean a great deal of unnecessary expenditure. Wise men always try to keep the laws out of the hands of the lawyers, but so far their wisdom has not succeeded in preventing lawyers from getting on top. I hope that something will be done to rectify what I consider a great blunder in the Bill.

10.36 p.m.


I have a very lively memory of what happened in Committee. The Solicitor-General is quite right when he says that the alteration in the figures has been made in response to a promise made by the Government in Committee. The charge made against the original Bill was that it was unreasonable there should be any limitation on the liability of a company in respect of loss of life. There was some argument against a limitation of liability in respect of property, and the Government gave a promise that they would raise the figures. I suggest that they have gone the wrong way to achieve their object. The reason given is that if there is no limitation at all the premiums will be so high as to put an intolerable burden on an experimental and developing industry. The hon. and gallant Member for Thornbury (Captain Gunston) put the point that there was far less liability in respect of loss of life than in respect of loss of property. By raising the maximum liability you will also raise the premiums. I am not moved to deep emotion about property, but if the possibility of loss of life is much less than the loss of property I should have thought that you could make the liability for loss of life unlimited, reduce the maximum liability in respect of loss of property, and thus keep the premiums down.

It seems to me that we are making the worst of both worlds. We are not keeping the premiums down, because we have to put the maximum figures up to cover both categories, whereas we could put the figures lower, leave the liability in respect of loss of life non-rigid, and thus meet both cases. I think the Solicitor-General should make inquiries from insurance companies to find out whether if the maximum figures were lowered—I do not mind that—and the liability for loss of life was unlimited the premiums would be materially affected.

I put to him the specific point: Will not the insurance companies tell him that by raising the maximum figures he is, in fact, increasing the premiums more than they would be increased if there were unlimited liability for loss of life? The point has been made from various sides of the House and in Committee that on this matter we have not got exact information from the insurance companies and that the Government have not informed themselves on the matter sufficiently to enable them to put a proper Clause in the Bill. There is a very great amount of feeling on this matter, and therefore, I would ask the Solicitor-General to consider between now and the time when the Bill goes to another place whether it would not still be possible for him to meet the recommendations of the Committee and also our requirements that there should be no limit of liability in respect of loss of life.

10.42 p.m.


I am certain that inquiries have already been made as to whether these increases would involve increased premiums. The answer is that they would. I followed the hon. Member's point. Some inquiries have already been made as to whether in the circumstances to which he referred there would also be an increased premium. I do not wish to mislead the House. I am not suggesting that even in those circumstances we should be prepared to alter the scheme, because there are the other considerations that were given, one of which is that in the case of internationally competing aircrafts it would be a dangerous thing to put British aircraft at a complete disadvantage compared with the aircraft of other countries. However, the matter shall be looked into with a view to seeing whether there is anything that can possibly be done.

Schedule added to the Bill.