HC Deb 27 January 1947 vol 432 cc613-6
Mr. Lennox-Boyd

(by Private Notice) asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation if he has any statement to make regarding the Dakota crash at Croydon on Saturday, 25th January.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (Mr. Lindgren)

My noble Friend desires me to express his profound sympathy with all those who have been bereaved or injured through the recent accidents, whether in this country or abroad. These tragic events have once again emphasised what is, and always has been, our policy—namely, the over-riding need for ensuring that safety considerations prevail; and the Government will not be backward in taking all steps necessary to rectify inadequacies. The House may be assured that so far as accidents in this country are concerned, the investigations will be thorough, and' the causes determined, so far as is humanly possible, with a view to preventing any recurrence. I am bound, however, to remind the House that British civil aviation has a fine record for safety. For example, until the accident at Stowting on nth January last, now the subject of public Inquiry, the British Overseas Airways Corporation had not had a fatal passenger accident for over two and a half years. Moreover, there has been, so far as the United Kingdom is concerned, no accident with Dakota aircraft which could be attributed to the total weight at which the aircraft was being operated. The Stowting accident was clearly due to other causes, whilst the accident at Croydon on Saturday last occurred to an aircraft operating on the register of the Union of South Africa.

Nevertheless, my noble Friend recognises the public anxiety which exists in this matter. It is fully shared by us all, but it is essential to avoid misconception as to possible causes. The question of all-up weight is but one of many considerations, and throughout 1946 there has been no body of technical opinion in the United Kingdom which suggested that the authorised all-up weight of 28,000 1b. was not satisfactory. This figure was authorised by the statutory and independent Air Registration Board, in full knowledge of all the relevant data, as an appropriate limit, itself an appreciable reduction on the United Kingdom war limit of 30,000 lb.

My noble Friend is particularly concerned that there shall be no possibility of doubt on this matter, and, having regard to the varying practice in other countries, he had already remitted the matter for special and urgent consideration by the Air Safety Board. At the same time, he invited the views of the pilots' associations, namely, the British Air Line Pilots Association (B.A.L.P.A.) and the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators of the British Empire (G.A.P.A.N.). The Board is meeting tomorrow, when it is hoped the views of the pilots' associations will be available. I can assure the House that no delay will occur in reaching a final conclusion, and that the basic principle will be that safety considerations must prevail whatever economic consequences may be involved.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

While associating us all with the expression of sympathy which the hon. Gentleman has just made, may I ask whether it is proposed to have a special inquiry into this particular crash; and whether that inquiry will be a judicial inquiry, under a judicial chairman, with power to send for witnesses and to hear evidence on oath?

Mr. Lindgren

The accident on Saturday at Croydon, I take it, is the subject of the supplementary question. Of course, any investigation into that accident is a matter for consultation with the Union of South Africa, under which the aircraft was registered, and my noble Friend and the Ministry will associate themselves in any and every way with the desires of the Union of South Africa.

Mr. Bowles

While welcoming the Government's policy of having public inquiries, may I ask whether the investigating officer could have more powers, as was suggested by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), namely, power to send for persons and to extract evidence on oath, and also to allow cross-examination? Every question is now put through the mouth of the investigating officer.

Mr. Lindgren

So far as inquiries into accidents are concerned, they arise under the provisions of the Air Navigation Acts, and they are investigations into accidents, and are not courts of inquiry. It is possible, in addition to the investigation, to have a court of inquiry which would be a judicial court; and that may arise in addition to the question of investigation, which is for the purpose of fact finding, to ascertain the causes of the accident; and the court of inquiry is not ruled out.

Air-Commodore Harvey

In view of the small size of the Croydon aerodrome, and the fact that it has no concrete runways, and that the flying approaches are reckoned to be poor, is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied that Croydon is a suitable airport for the operation of large aircraft? Will he consider immediately transferring such aircraft to Northolt and the London Airport?

Mr. Lindgren

That, certainly, will be immediately considered, but, in fairness to the House and to my noble Friend, I ought to say that the technical information and advice which have been available up to the present time, so far as the operation of Dakota aircraft is concerned, have been that Croydon is a safe airport on which to operate, both inwards and outwards.

Mr. W. J. Brown

Pending the outcome of these various inquiries, will the Minister consider, as a temporary measure and with a view to reassuring the public of this country, reducing the total luggage load of the Dakotas to a lower maximum level?

Mr. Lindgren

I appreciate that, on first hearing the answer to a Question such as this—which was raised only this morning, quite naturally—it is difficult to assume all that is implied in the answer. But the answer states that, in fact, the matter is now with the Air Registration Board, and my noble Friend takes the view that it is better to allow the Air Registration Board and the Air Safety Board, with all the relevant factors, to give him advice in regard to the matter. I think it is unfair to assume that loading is a factor in these accidents. In over emphasising loading one may gloss over other important contributory factors of the accidents.

Sir Alan Herbert

Will the hon. Gentleman say what is meant by "all-up weight"?

Mr. Lindgren

The total weight of the aircraft when it is in the air—passengers, mail, freight, petrol, and the' aircraft itself.