HC Deb 14 April 1948 vol 449 cc1124-34

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

11.50 p.m.

Air-Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

Before Easter I was fortunate enough to draw this date in the ballot for the Adjournment. At that time I notified the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation that I had drawn this date in the ballot and that I intended to deal with inquiries into air accidents. He acknowledged that by letter, and added that he would be glad to take part in the Debate. I am surprised that he is not in his place tonight. I do not know whether the Chief Whip would like to make a statement as to his whereabouts.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Whiteley)

I had hoped my hon. Friend would have been here. I will make inquiries to see whether he is about.

Air-Commodore Harvey

I appreciate what the Chief Whip has said. In the past on these occasions the Parliamentary Secretary has been very courteous in replying to these Adjournment Debates. In the meantime I will proceed and perhaps the Solicitor-General, who has some knowledge of inquiries into air accidents, will pass on my points to his hon. Friend when he arrives.

Last July we had an Adjournment Debate on the question of air accidents, and the Parliamentary Secretary agreed that there was a strong case for renewing the procedure as it now exists. Under Statutory Rules and Orders, 1922, 650, certain rules were laid down. I am very pleased to see that the Parliamentary Secretary has arrived. I had only started my remarks, and I was saying that last July had a Debate dealing with air accidents. The hon. Gentleman admitted at that time that the Statutory Rules and Orders, as they stood then, required revision. I will quote what the hon. Gentleman said We have negotiations going on at the moment with the Chief Inspector of Accidents and the Inspector of Railway Accidents, with a view to bringing the best of the railway accident machinery into our own. He said later: Equally we accept the suggestion which has already been acted upon, that the matter should be submitted to the Consultative Council for Civil Aviation, and a paper is being prepared for my noble Friend to submit to them and get their views. Everything possible will be done, every point of view will be canvassed and considered, because it is our desire that we shall get a form of inquiry which will give absolute confidence to the air operators, to the men who fly the machines, to the ground staff who assist and to the public who travel by them."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd July, 1947: Vol. 439; c. 1671–72.] I take it that that means that the Parliamentary Secretary and his noble Friend felt there was a strong case for bringing about an up-to-date method of going into these accidents.

I quite agree—and the Parliamentary Secretary will agree—that civil aviation is going through a most difficult time so far as accidents are concerned, and there is public concern that the matter should be brought up to date. The Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have repeatedly stressed the question of safety. The public must know the full details of these accidents, and not just the opinion of one man carrying out an investigation. Last August, the Newton Committee was set up, following the Adjournment Debate in July, to inquire into the method of investigation, as a sub-committee of the Consultative Council for Civil Aviation at the request of the Minister. I gave evidence to that Committee last autumn. The terms of reference, as I understand them, were quoted in a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary in "The Times," in which he said: The terms of reference of this sub-committee were to inquire into the procedure governing investigations into accidents to civil aircraft in the United Kingdom and to British civil aircraft abroad. In that letter to "The Times" on 5th March he also said: The decision not to publish the report on procedure is in no way connected with the publication of investigations of individual accidents. The main point is that many of us are not satisfied with the present method of carrying out these investigations. In fact, we are most dissatisfied, because the findings of technical inquiries into air accidents are still being published, and in some cases imputing responsibility or attributing blame without any opportunity of being heard being given to the person in question, or in the case of death, to his representatives, or relatives, to cross-examine any of the witnesses.

I will not at this late hour repeat what I said last year, but I say again that as the Chief Inspector of Accidents is employed by his own Ministry—I quite agree his investigations are always unbiased, I do not suggest otherwise for one moment—I think it is quite wrong that the Minister should employ a man who is carrying out his own investigation. It may already have happened that he has had to criticise people such as airfield controllers employed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, who may be found to be at fault. It is accepted that the inquiries are (a) purely fact finding, (b) have no power to subpoena witnesses, (c) evidence is not given on oath, (d) witnesses cannot be cross-examined. I think that the procedure is particularly unfair to captains of aircraft and aircrew who have lost their lives. I really believe that.

There was the case of the accident which took place in Northamptonshire a few months ago, which has been debated on the Adjournment, and in which it was a question of the pilot having had some drinks. Well, no one said how many drinks he had. After 45 minutes he went off with a very experienced pilot as passenger and they were both unfortunately killed. No evidence was given by the barman who had served the drinks and yet it was stated in the Press and in the findings that this man was under the influence of drink. It was most unfortunate for his young widow and it caused great distress. I say that it is quite wrong to investigate accidents in this way.

So I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary why his noble Friend has refused to accept the findings of the Newton Committee. He may have very good reasons for not accepting them. It is entirely a matter for his Minister. But is he afraid of losing some authority if he accepts these recommendations? If so, will he say so frankly to the House? Will he publish the recommendations so that those in civil aviation and hon. Members of this House may know what they were? That Committee worked extremely hard to get all the facts available and make their recommendations. Finally, may I ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he or his noble Friend has received any communication from the chairman of the Newton Committee since the investigation? We have had numerous inquiries on these points in the House. The statutory rules and orders are over 20 years old. It is important that the inquiries should be made in the right way. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to be quite frank with the House and let us know what the position is.

11.58 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

I imagine that hon. Members on both sides of the House are in thorough agreement with what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey). We are on the threshold of great activities in the air. We are obviously expanding our activities, and the Minister himself, time anti time again, has said that the main objective is safety. Travel in the air is going to increase enormously. In order to get our people air conscious, we must be absolutely cer- tain that all the facts about the difficulties of these air accidents are brought before the public. Some of us in the House tonight had experience in the war years in the R.A.F. and know how these accidents took place day after day and night after night, and owing to the secrecy of war circumstances, they had to be kept within the bounds of the R.A.F. If the full publicity had been thrown on these accidents an improvement might have been brought about greater than we in the R.A.F. could have brought about ourselves.

Until the railways were nationalised, whenever there was a serious accident an independent inquiry was always held at the first opportunity. There was an absolutely independent investigation. There was no bias that could be brought to bear at all. What we want in these circumstances of increasing travel by air, a developing air industry, and the bounds of civil aviation widening day by day, is that the public should be perfectly assured that every time there is the slightest slip up, every time there is a departure from the policy enunciated by the Minister of "safety, safety, safety," investigation into these accidents shall be free and unfettered, and not conducted by an employee of the organisation. I speak for a lot of hon. Members on this side when I say that we give absolute support to the contention of the hon. and gallant Member opposite.

12.2 a.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I support what has been said, and I would like to remind the House of the way in which the unsatisfactory procedure in these air accident inquiries was demonstrated a few months ago, in the case of an aircraft chartered in the Channel Islands which crashed on the way to England, with the loss of all lives except that of one woman passenger. The inquiry showed that many regulations were broken. There were several offences by the pilot or his owners. The pilot was carrying passengers without a commercial licence, and he had previously for many months flown without any licence at all. The aircraft had been operated without any maintenance schedule having been approved, and without any proper inspections having been made. There were also several offences by Ministry officials—and this is very important. Unauthorised methods of stating time in signals were used, which caused the expected time of the aircraft's arrival to be misunderstood, and that led to long delay before any search was made; and there was no proper traffic control at the port of arrival.

Here was a serious state of affairs which demanded searching inquiry, yet the Chief Inspector at the inquiry said: All questions will be put by me. There will be no cross-examination of witnesses. By that ruling he was, consciously or unconsciously, shielding his own Ministry, which had been guilty of several offences, as I have shown. No wonder that counsel appearing before him, one of whom was an hon. Member on the opposite side, made vigorous protests. One counsel said: We were assured in the House of Commons that legal representatives would be permitted at these inquiries. If none of the legal representatives are to do any of the things for which legal representatives are customarily employed, there is no effective implementation of that promise to Parliament. And the other counsel said: If I cannot cross-examine in the way that has been good enough for courts of justice for hundreds of years, I do not propose to take any part in the inquiry at all. These administrative tribunals—because the fault is not confined to the tribunals set up by the Ministry of Civil Aviation—seem to be a law unto themselves. There is a far more satisfactory system in the United States, where such tribunals are subject to a code of procedure laid down by statute. It is high time we had a similar system here, so that these tribunals may come into line with the principles of natural justice and with the procedure of the courts, so far as it is applicable. Unless that is done the public uneasiness which undoubtedly exists about these air accidents will continue and will increase.

12.5 a.m.

Wing-Commander Millington (Chelmsford)

I came into this House as a pilot, and as a pilot I intervene in this Debate. I am primarily concerned with the protection of the employees in the aircraft, when investigations are made into air accidents, but, as one who has spent some years of his life flying aeroplanes, I am interested also to see that there shall be a fair, full and proper development of flying as a method of transportation. My desires in this respect—and the desires of many Members of this House—are being frustrated by the suspicion that is being caused by the attitude taken by the Ministry of Civil Aviation towards air accidents. That suspicion is that there is not full and proper investigation of each and every accident as and when it occurs.

I would ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary whether he will make overtures to his noble Friend—who is, indeed, our noble Friend—to see that the Report of the Newton Committee is made available to Members of this House. In particular, I think it is important that it should be made available with the comments of the Minister himself, after he has had a proper opportunity to study it. We want to know what is the verdict of the Newton Committee; and, in particular, we want to know what is the opinion of the Minister upon the findings of the Committee, so that, upon the Report and the Minister's comments upon it, we can make up our minds, as Members of the House, whether or not the Minister's comments fit the circumstances properly, and whether or not we should take effective Parliamentary action to extend and develop accident investigation.

12.7 a.m.

Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

I want to indicate my fullest support of what has been said, and to thank the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) for raising this subject tonight. The one point I want to emphasise has been touched upon to some extent already by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling). The one individual who can give information or evidence as to the cause of an accident to an aircraft is the one individual who is generally not there to give that evidence—that is, the captain of the aircraft. He is usually the victim. Because of that the one voice that could utter the most important evidence is the one voice that is not heard.

We want tonight an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that the interests of the captain of the aircraft machine, in the event of an accident, will be fully safeguarded, and that he will be completely represented. There is a feeling today in the minds of the public that time and again there is a tendency to cast a large share of the blame for the accident on the one individual who can make no reply to the slur that may be cast upon his capacity as a pilot. We want to have a complete assurance that precautions will be taken to ensure that the pilots are fully represented at the inquiries, which, I think we all agree, ought to be held.

12.10 a.m.

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

We are all indebted, as we so often are, to the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) for raising this matter, and for the manner in which he did so. I think we are much nearer agreement than Debates and Questions sometimes lead one to believe. Everyone is agreed that the present system of inquiry into air accidents is in need of overhaul. The difficulty arises when we have to decide what system is to replace it.

Reference has been made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) to railway accidents. My noble Friend was associated with the legal profession and has a very high regard for that profession. I was a railwayman before entering the House and have had some experience of railway accident inquiries. I may say that I am in favour of the railway type of inquiry and I am not so much inclined towards the legal view. Thus, even between my noble Friend and myself, from a difference of approach there arises a difference, of opinion. These differences do not imply any criticism of the Chief Inspector of Accidents. I think he has done a first-class job. I think the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling), although I am sure he did not mean it, was a little unkind to him. He has carried out his job in accordance with the terms of reference within which he has to work and, if anything is wrong, it is the system.

Mr. Keeling

May I point out that the hon. Gentleman denied the other day that the Chief Inspector of Accidents had any instruction from the Minister to refuse to allow cross-examination of witnesses?

Mr. Lindgren

He has no instruction, but acts under the terms of reference laid down in the Air Navigation Act. The Chief Inspector is not a lawyer: he is a technician. If any non-legal person started to allow a semi-legal court to take place, he would be in a great difficulty. What we have to get is a system of inquiry into accidents which will ascertain the facts, in order that those responsible can prevent future accidents; and which will give confidence, especially to those who operate in the air, that the facts have been fully and fairly ascertained.

It was because my noble Friend realised there was disquiet that he decided to get advice on future procedure in air accident inquiries. He referred the matter to the National Civil Aviation Consultative Council, which set up a sub-committee—the Newton Committee—whose Report is at present under consideration by the Council. Since the subcommittee presented its Report, I may say, as the hon. and gallant Member directly asked me, that I do know that the chairman has written a further letter to my noble Friend. I do not know the exact terms of that letter, whether there was any criticism of the Report or any further comment on it, but my noble Friend mentioned to me that he had received a letter in this connection.

The responsibility for making a decision is the Minister's. Every Minister, in making a decision, or most Ministers in making a decision, take or seek advice from members of their departmental staff. But a Minister, either before or after he makes a decision, does not reveal to the House or to anyone else the terms of the advice he has received. To do so would destroy the confidential relationship between the person who is responsible for making the decision and those who, in another capacity, have the responsibility for giving advice. A Minister must take responsibility for making a decision; he must make it, explain his reasons for it, and bear the entire responsibility.

This sub-committee has exactly the same advisory relationship to the Consultative Council as that council itself has to the Minister. Since the Consultative Council has not yet considered the matter fully, I feel, and my noble Friend feels, that it would not be right to publish the Report. I think the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. Cooper) put the problem in a nutshell when, at Question Time today, he asked if the Minister was not in a position to publish the Report, would not the Minister let the House know what his decision was, so that the House might discuss it.

This, then, is the present position—that the Minister, upon the advice he has received, will make a decision, and that decision will be reported to the House. His decision, I have no doubt, will require revision of the existing orders. I am not quite certain whether revised orders have to be laid on the Table and are subject to a negative Prayer or not; but, though I do not want to be bound to this, I will give an assurance—because I am certain that my noble Friend is anxious that it should be given—that when these orders come to the House, there will be an opportunity for the House to discuss the Minister's decision in regard to future procedure in air accident inquiries.

Air-Commodore Harvey

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman, but does that mean that when his noble Friend has taken the decision, the contents of the Report will be published at the same time?

Mr. Lindgren

I cannot give an undertaking in regard to that.

Wing-Commander Millington

Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister?

Mr. Lindgren

I have already stated that I will do so, and I will report the desire of the House to him. After all—and I want to emphasise this—the Report is, in the first place, a report to the Consultative Council. It is not for the Minister, nor is it for me, as Parliamentary Secretary, to give an undertaking in regard to a body which is advisory to the Minister. The Report is the property of the Council and the Council certainly has some say about whether it feels the Report should be published: it may disagree with every point in the subcommittee's report, and it would be very embarrassing if it had to publish something with which it disagreed. But can give an undertaking that the decision, for which the Minister is responsible, and which it will be my duty, or at least I hope it will, to defend in this House—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.