HC Deb 11 June 1947 vol 438 cc1035-7
2. Air-Commodore Harvey

asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation if, having regard to the findings of his Department's reports on the air crashes at Speke in August, 1946, and Gambia in September, 1946; he will give an assurance that in future air accidents will be inquired into by a judicial body.

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

For the reasons given in my reply to the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers) on 28th January last, my noble Friend proposes that a court of inquiry in connection with an aircraft accident should be appointed only if the case presents problems of exceptional difficulty and public importance. No such appointment has been made since the inquiry in 1931 into the destruction of the airship R.101. My noble Friend has no power to appoint a court of inquiry to be held in any of the Colonies.

Air-Commodore Harvey

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the British Air Line Pilots Association is very dissatisfied with the findings of the inquiries, and can he say how, if an official from his own Department should be held to be responsible for an accident, another official from the Ministry of Civil Aviation can possibly inquire into that accident?

Mr. Lindgren

Though, technically, the officer conducting the inquiry is an employee of the Ministry of Civil Aviation he is, quite rightly, apart from the Ministry and is not interfered with in the course of his duties in any shape or form either by the Minister or anyone else So far as the courts of inquiries are concerned, they are fact-finding bodies, and there is often disagreement as to the facts at the end of inquiries.

Mr. Quintin Hogg

Could the Parliamentary Secretary consider the analogy of railways accidents, because there is a well-known procedure in respect to them which has been followed with great success for a very long time?

Mr. Lindgren

Yes, Sir, this is exactly the same principle, and if my noble Friend can only establish the same confidence with regard` to civil aviation accidents as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has established with regard to railway accidents, we shall be very happy. But I would point out that railway inquiries are by no means judicial inquiries. They are fact-finding investigations, and, should court proceedings follow, they follow independently of such inquiries.

Mr. Rankin

In view of the fact that the tendency of these reports has been to lay the blame more and more on the pilot who, naturally, is seldom there to answer the charges, would not a judicial body allow his interests to be better represented?

Mr. Lindgren

No, Sir. This is a fact-finding body, and does not in any way rule out a court of inquiry, if the Minister thinks that the public interest demands it. It is an inquiry to find the facts, and to publish a report, as the inspector decides.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that the confidence which he very properly desires for these inquiries is more likely to be obtained if persons whose interests or reputations are concerned were given the full right to cross-examine witnesses, so as to avoid the kind of farce that took place at yesterday's inquiry?

Mr. Lindgren

No, Sir, my experience has always been that the informal inquiry—man to man—is a far better way of securing real information as to cause, and that where court proceedings were likely to follow what a man said at the inquiry as to cause, the man was like an oyster, and, indeed, was told to be like an oyster by those who represented him.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Is there not this very important difference between a railway inquiry and an air inquiry that, whereas a passenger in a train who is injured by the negligence of the railway company or its servants can bring an action for damages against the company, the aircraft passenger is excluded by the terms of his contract from ever getting a penny by way of damages, whether there has been negligence or not?

Mr. Lindgren

That is a legal question entirely outside the scope of an inquiry into the cause of an accident.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

The hon. Gentleman says that it is a fact-finding body, but does it not express an opinion at the end of its inquiry, and, indeed, something very nearly approaching a verdict?

Mr. Lindgren

It expresses an opinion as to the cause of the accident according to the facts as the inspector finds them.

Air-Commodore Harvey

In view of the very unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I propose to raise the matter on the Adjournment.