HC Deb 12 June 1939 vol 348 cc933-9

3.58 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

I beg to move, That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, that is to say, to investigate and report upon all the circumstances surrounding the loss of His Majesty's Submarine "Thetis," and the sub-sequent attempts to save the lives of those in the ship. In a statement which I made in the House a few days ago I indicated the procedure which the Government would follow in the setting up of an inquiry into the disaster to His Majesty's Submarine"Thetis." I hope that the statement which I made then will have commended itself to hon. Members, and, if so, it is not necessary for me to say very much in support of this Motion, but there are one or two additional items of information which I think the House would like to have, and which I shall be glad to give on this occasion. I stated then that the inquiry would be conducted by Mr. Justice Bucknill, and I said that he would probably have with him certain assessors to assist him in the inquiry. The judge has expressed a desire to have three assessors, one of whom should be a naval officer with experience in the submarine service, another one of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House, and the third a person skilled in the science of naval architecture. Accordingly, it is proposed to appoint as assessors the following gentlemen: Captain George Cunningham Paton Menzies, R.N., a submarine specialist in the Royal Navy, Captain Archibald Hamilton Ryley, one of the Elder Brethren, and Professor Thomas Bertrand Abell, professor of naval architecture in the University of Liverpool. The appointment of these gentlemen meets with the full approval of Mr. Justice Bucknill. Of course, I need not remind the House that while the technical knowledge and experience of the assessors will be of the utmost value in carrying out a full inquiry, their function is merely to assist Mr. Justice Bucknill, and they will have no responsibility for the findings of the Tribunal.

The purpose of the Motion is to apply the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921. Under that Act a tribunal appointed by His Majesty or a Secretary of State in pursuance of a Resolution of both Houses of Parliament is invested with the powers of the High Court to take evidence on oath, to enforce the attendance of witnesses and to compel the production of documents. Of course the Government will give the Tribunal all the assistance in its power, and as a considerable amount of preliminary work will be necessary before the inquiry can be opened, the Treasury Solicitor has been instructed to place his services at the disposal of the Tribunal for the purpose of collecting all the evidence and other material which the Tribunal may require to have submitted to them.

The next point on which, I think, information will be desired is as to when the inquiry will take place. It is not proposed to postpone the inquiry until the salvage of the"Thetis" has been completed, because it is impossible to say how long that will now take. Therefore, I may tell hon. Members that every effort will be made to open the inquiry as soon as possible; that is, of course, as soon as the necessary preparations have been completed. There is one other point and that is, where the inquiry should be held? With regard to that, the Tribunal will endeavour to meet the convenience of the parties who have to attend the inquiry, and accordingly it will be opened in London, but some part of it will be held in Liverpool, where I think a great deal of evidence is available, and it will be found much more convenient if sessions of the Tribunal are held there.

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood

This happens to be one of the few occasions when I do not find myself in direct conflict with the Prime Minister. It was the desire of all hon. Members on this side that there should be a public inquiry into this very dreadful disaster on the lines which the Prime Minister has recorded. The com- position of the inquiry will, I think, meet with general approval. It is wise, in my view, that the inquiry should be opened here in London, but there may be good reason why some of its sittings should be held nearer the scene of the disaster. That will make it possible, perhaps, for evidence to be taken more easily from the relatives of those who are deceased—they might have something to contribute as to what happened before the accident—than would be the case if the inquiry were held in London.

I gather from what the right hon. Gentleman said in answer to questions to-day by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher) and a supplementary question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) that it is the intention of the Government to see that His Majesty's submarine"Thetis" is salved. In the Press last week there appeared certain statements of a purely sentimental character which, I think, we can all appreciate, but in any disaster of this magnitude we regard it as the foremost duty of His Majesty's Government to produce, after the human material is available, what is the primary evidence in this case, and even if there be delay because of tide and weather, we regard it as essential that the inquiry should not be completed, at whatever cost it may be to those concerned, before the "Thetis" itself has been examined by Mr. Justice Bucknill and the assessors. I raise no controversial note to-day, because this is a tragedy which all of us deplore, and I am sure it is the wish of Members on all sides of the House that the truth should be ascertained, and as far as may be methods found which will avoid an unfortunate occurrence of this kind.

Commander Marsden

There is one question which has not so far been raised. Will the committee have power to make recommendations in addition to finding what were the actual facts of the present case?

The Prime Minister

It is not properly described as a committee but rather as a Tribunal. I have already given the terms of reference to the Tribunal, and from these my hon. and gallant Friend will see exactly what it is they are desired to do.

4.7 p.m.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

In supporting the Motion I would express the satisfaction of my hon. Friends and myself at the course which the Government are taking in this matter of the Tribunal and the appointment of Mr. Justice Bucknill and the assessors whose names the Prime Minister has announced. I would further express our satisfaction with the Prime Minister's announcement that the inquiry is to start at once and not to wait for the salvage of the "Thetis." At the same time, if the Prime Minister is to reply at the end to any short discussion on the Motion, I would ask him to give a very definite promise that the Government are determined to see that the "Thetis" is salved. I understand that the responsibility is now being left to Messrs. Cammell Laird to salve the ship. I hope the Prime Minister will make it absolutely clear that, if necessary, the Admiralty will assume the responsibility for the salving. I think it was the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut- Commander Fletcher) who mentioned—

Mr. Speaker

I do not think a question of that kind arises upon this Motion, which deals only with the setting up of a Tribunal of inquiry.

Sir A. Sinclair

My point was that if this inquiry is to yield the results we all hope, it is very necessary that the "Thetis" should be brought to the surface and that the Government and the Admiralty should, if necessary, assume responsibility for bringing the submarine to the surface. In my own constituency we have seen many of the former German fleet brought to the surface in the Pent-land Firth, and we find it difficult to believe that there can be any excuse for depriving the Tribunal of the evidence which the salvage of the "Thetis," and only the salvage of the "Thetis," could provide, of the causes of this terrible accident. I also ask the Prime Minister to tell us whether the opportunity of giving evidence at the inquiry will be open to members of the public. I refer to persons, many of them retired officers of the Navy, some of them officers who have been employed in the submarine service, who have written to me and to other hon. Members about this accident. Will it be open to such members of the public to submit memoranda to the chairman of the Tribunal and to give evidence before it? In that way I think a great deal of evidence would be forthcoming from people who have every qualification to speak on these matters. If the Prime Minister could give us an assurance on these points it would fortify us in the support that we propose to give to the Motion.

4.11 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

I would ask the Prime Minister to give an assurance that the Admiralty will consider taking over the salving of the "Thetis" in the event of Messrs. Cammell Laird abandoning it. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether his attention has been called to statements in the Press made by the managing director of Messrs. Cammell Laird, giving his opinion as to the causes of the accident. Without any wish to criticise the managing director, may I ask whether it is not very desirable that no such statements should be made concerning the cause of the accident pending the holding of the inquiry?

Mr. Tinker

When it was announced in the Press last week that there was some idea of not salving the "Thetis" a feeling of consternation went through everyone. I trust the Prime Minister will see to it that, whatever happens, the salvage work is not abandoned. If the work is abandoned that fact will lend itself to the feeling that there is fear of what would be disclosed. It will be a sad reflection on our engineering skill if we cannot raise a vessel at that depth. There would be only one inference to be drawn from it, and that is that there was something to hide. Whatever else happens, I hope that the submarine will be brought to the surface so that a full examination can take place.

Mr. Logan

With regard to the Merseyside there is a feeling expressed, not by way of criticism, that the "Thetis" should be brought to the surface. It would ease the mind of many of those who have lost their dearly beloved ones in the accident. In the words of the Prime Minister, I think every effort should be made to see that the ship is raised.

Mr. Greenwood

With regard to the question put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher), would the Prime Minister say, in accord with the feelings of everyone in the House, that he is against declarations being made at the present time either by responsible people in Messrs. Cammell Laird's or by newspapers, which can only and unnecessarily harrow the feelings of the bereaved people or arouse suspicions which may not be well founded at all? It would be in the interests of the bereaved and in the public service if this kind of propaganda were damped down on all sides.

Mr. Silverman

I want to raise a question as to the right of dependants and relatives of the men who went down to be considered to be a party before the Tri- bunal, to have representatives thereat and to give evidence if they so desire. I am certain that as the Tribunal is to have all the powers of a High Court, these things will be well within their contemplation, but it would be satisfactory to be assured now that that is the case and that people who have interest in the matter will be received by the Tribunal as parties to the inquiry, will have a right to be heard and a right to call evidence.

4.14 p.m.

The Prime Minister

In reply to the questions that have been put, first of all let me say that no one is more anxious than the Government to see this vessel raised, for the reasons that have been put forward. While the vessel is at the bottom of the sea there may still always be doubts as to what happened, and those doubts might be cleared away if the vessel were raised. Therefore, for that reason alone we are extremely anxious to see the vessel brought to the surface and properly examined. The matter is at present in the hands of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, who are employing the Liver-pool and Glasgow Salvage Association, and I have no reason to think that they will fail to bring the vessel up. I do not think we ought to contemplate that hypothesis at the present time. If such a thing did occur one would have to consider the circumstances and the reasons why it was thought necessary by them to abandon the attempt. Therefore, at this stage I cannot go any further than to express the hope and the expectation that success will be achieved. Secondly, I do most sincerely and earnestly deprecate publication in any form or in any conditions, of any speculation as to what happened, now that a court has been set up to investigate the circumstances. It clearly will be impossible to obtain any indication of the real causes of this terrible disaster until the evidence has been given and considered by the Tribunal. I hope, therefore, whatever people may have thought or said in the past, that they will now say no more about it until the Tribunal reports. With regard to the evidence before the Tribunal, of course I imagine that it is open to anybody to communicate with the Tribunal and say that they have something which they desire to put before it. I think it will be for the Tribunal itself to decide what evidence it should call and what should be relevant to the inquiry.

Mr. Naylor

Will the Tribunal have power to make a recommendation?

The Prime Minister

The Tribunal is asked to report, and that report may contain a recommendation or not. There is nothing to prevent the Tribunal making recommendations.

Question put, and agreed to. ,

Resolved, That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, that is to say, to investigate and report upon all the circumstances surrounding the loss of His Majesty's Submarine "Thetis," and the subsequent attempts to save the lives of those in the ship.