HC Deb 01 December 1949 vol 470 cc1331-42
The Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Arthur Henderson)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement with regard to the action taken by my noble Friend the Minister for Civil Aviation in issuing a statement, with which I was associated, commenting on the conclusions of the court which investigated the regrettable accident to a K.L.M. aircraft at Prestwick on 20th October, 1948.

I propose to explain to the House on his behalf the relationship of the Minister to the court and his right to dissent from its conclusions and then with the grounds of this dissent. But I should like first to express to the House the regret which he—and I—feel about the method adopted in making this dissent public. The object of my noble Friend was to place his dissent on record publicly at the earliest possible moment in what he thought was the least controversial manner. He now recognises that the correct course would have been to express his dissent and make his explanation to Parliament, and he is making this clear in a statement which he is making this afternoon in another place. I should like to associate myself with this expression of regret.

I deal now with the relationship of my noble Friend to the court. I cannot help thinking that much of the misunderstanding which has arisen, not in this House but in the public mind, is the result of an impression that this tribunal of inquiry being called a court was one the findings of which were binding on all parties, including the Minister himself. This is by no means the case.

The Minister's responsibility for accident investigation is discharged in accordance with the regulations made under Section 12 of the Air Navigation Act, 1920. Under these regulations the Minister has power to appoint a competent person, described in the regulations as "The Court", sitting with assessors to carry out a public investigation. A public inquiry is a special form of machinery set up to assist the Minister to carry out certain of his Ministerial responsibilities. The appointment of a court at his discretion does not divest him of his final responsibility as a Minister and to Parliament.

The normal procedure in any such inquiry is, first of all, to examine the evidence and the witnesses, and to ascertain the facts. From these facts conclusions may be drawn as to the cause of the accident, and the regulations expressly provide that the court is entitled to make such recommendations as it thinks fit with a view to the preservation of life and the avoidance of similar accidents in the future. It also has power to recommend the cancellation, suspension or endorsement of licences or certificates. The Report of the court is clearly intended to be advisory.

As to the Report itself, there can rarely be any dispute as to the facts found from the evidence, but in view of the complexities of aviation there is often room for a difference of opinion on the conclusions to be drawn from the facts and on the recommendation. The Minister cannot, therefore, regard himself as being bound in advance in every case to accept the conclusions and recommendations of such an inquiry.

The Report, when received, is carefully examined in the Ministry of Civil Aviation with the object of advising the Minister generally on the Report and as to the action, whether disciplinary or remedial, which should be taken. If any other public Department is involved, for example, the Air Ministry, in regard to meteorological services, that Department is, of course, consulted. All reports of public inquiries are published; and where there are compelling reasons which lead the Minister to differ from the findings or recommendations of the court, it is equally his right and, indeed, his duty to satisfy the public interest by a suitable measure of public explanation.

One of the conclusions at which the court had arrived was that a contributory cause of the disaster was a failure on the part of individual members of the ground staff concerned properly to discharge their responsibilities. It was the Minister's duty to consider this finding and, if he agreed that it was well-founded, to take energetic steps, in conjunction, if necessary, with myself, to see that nothing of the sort should occur again.

In the event, for reasons which seemed to him to be compelling and which I will explain in a moment, my noble Friend came, after the most anxious consideration, to the conclusion that no failure on the part of the ground staffs had occurred which contributed or could have contributed in any way to this tragic accident. That being so, he deemed it his duty to say so publicly, not because he was in the least concerned to defend anyone who had been at fault or to cover up anything which should be known, but because the morale and efficiency of the ground services on which safety so largely depends, demand that any allegation of failure should be followed by disciplinary action and reform if it is justified or by rebuttal if it is not.

I come now to the grounds on which my noble Friend found it impossible to accept certain of the conclusions in paragraph 173 of the Report. I quote now a sentence from that paragraph which deals with a number of contributory causes: The failure of the. Meteorological staff at Prestwick to enforce obedience of the order that reports of weather deterioration should be given in plain language to the Air Traffic Control Officer and the latter's failure to pass on the information which he had received in code resulted in the omission of the words ' deterioration ' and ' deteriorating ' from verbal radio messages to the aircraft. It is this sentence which led to the issue of the dissenting note with which I am dealing today.

Perhaps I could describe briefly the duties of those on the aerodrome concerned with advising the assisting of an aircraft in landing. There is, first, the officer of the Meteorological Service who prepares the weather reports; secondly, the traffic control officer in the control tower who communicates with the aircraft by radio-telephone and controls its movements; thirdly, a representative of the air line, in this case K.L.M., who is in the control tower with the control officer to watch the company's interests during the approach and landing; and finally, the controller responsible for the ground controlled approach who is located in a caravan on the aerodrome and is also in communication by radio-telephone with the aircraft.

The duty of the officer of the Meteorological Service is to pass weather information to the broadcasting unit, which is outside the aerodrome, for broadcasting at half-hourly intervals, and also to the control officer in the control tower. At the time of the accident it was the approved procedure for the meteorological officer to prepare two forms. The first provided information under various heads, both in code and in plain language in two adjoining columns. The column in code was supplied for wireless telegraphy transmission at long range, and at short range in the case of aircraft not fitted with radio telephone; the column in plain language was originally intended for use in radio telephony communications from the tower to aircraft as they approached the vicinity of the airport and came within range of the radio telephone system.

For short range radio telephony use, however, this first form had, at the time of the accident, been superseded at Prestwick, London and elsewhere, by a second form which was in fact a separate short form in plain language under fewer heads giving the information recommended internationally. This shortened form was approved by the Ministry of Civil Aviation for normal use by air traffic control officers in the tower, and was in fact the operative document on which the air traffic control officer at Prestwick acted in carrying out his instructions.

There was no instruction, and there is no international requirement, that the word "deteriorating" should be included in this form. All the information on this form was passed to the aircraft by radio telephone. There was in fact a technical breach of the regulations in that the meteorological observer should, under the strict letter of the regulations, have completed the plain language column in the first form. But as this form, as I have just explained, was superseded for radio telephone purposes by the shorter simplified form, this technical breach could have no significance.

Quite apart, however, from the question whether members of the staff acted in accordance with their instructions, my noble Friend is satisfied that the omission of the word "deteriorating" from the radio telephone conversation had no bearing on the accident. The Report contends that if in addition to receiving this word at 23.06 hours on the wireless broadcast the pilot had also received it on the radio telephone two minutes later at 23.08 hours, it would have completely changed his course of action and that he would in fact have diverted to another aerodrome.

My noble Friend is unable to accept this view. From the time of his briefing at Schipol until the half hourly wireless broadcast at 23.06 hours, the meteorological information made available to the aircraft showed steadily worsening conditions and the last broadcast at 23.06 hours included the word "deteriorating" as an indication that conditions had become worse during the period of observation. Even if this word had been repeated in the radio telephone conversation two minutes later, which was not required under the approved procedure, it would have added nothing to the continuous weather picture already passed to the aircraft from which the substantial deterioration of cloud conditions was self-evident. The omission of this word from the radio telephone message at 23.08 hours could not, therefore, have had a bearing on the accident which occurred 24 minutes later.

It may be asked, what of the period between 23.08 hours and the occurrence of the accident at 23.32 hours? It will be seen from paragraph 117 of the Report that until 23.26 hours the aircraft was engaged on its Ground Approach Controlled descent. commonly known as the "talking down" system which is, of course, conducted by radio telephone. No further request for information as to cloud conditions was received during this period, but the descent through cloud to conditions of visibility afforded the crew an opportunity of judging the weather for themselves.

The court does not suggest that there was any dereliction of duty by any individual during this period. It does, however, mention in the first sentence of the conclusion in paragraph 173 the absence of a uniform system regulating the conditions in which intermediate (deterioration) weather reports are sent out. In fact, at the time of the accident a uniform system had been agreed internationally and recommended to individual countries for adoption. This system was in operation at Prestwick and did not provide for the issue of intermediate reports in the conditions prevailing at the time, and indeed in paragraph 108 of the Report the court accepted the position that there was no such deterioration as required the issue of an intermediate report.

There have, however, been developments since that time in the system of weather reporting, which is under constant review and on which full information can be made available at any time to the House; in particular new and improved arrangements have just been made for sending intermediate weather reports to aircraft.

To sum up, as regards the system, the internationally agreed procedure was being carried out, leaving it to a pilot to seek any further information he may require or to the representative of the air line in the control tower to communicate any additional information he may consider necessary to satisfy the company's requirements.

As regards the individual officers, my noble Friend came to the conclusion, which he firmly holds, and in which I concur, that the two or more officers concerned had in no way failed in their duty and that it was therefore wrong that they should have cast upon them in a public document any measure of responsibility for the loss of life involved in the disaster.

Finally, I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my deep sympathy with the families or friends of all who lost their lives in this tragic accident.

Mr. Eden

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree as to the seriousness of the matter we are now considering, not only in so far as it affects our own responsibility, but in so far as it affects international confidence in the reception of foreign aircraft in this country and for their conviction that in the event of a disaster an impartial inquiry may be held. As to what ministerial action has been taken, we have had an expression of regret as to the method of handling by the Minister concerned. This House is always generous in accepting statements of regret of that order, so that I do not want to pronounce now. I should like to inform the Leader of the House that we would like to consider the statement further. I have had the advantage which other hon. Members have not had of seeing the statement, and it is a very technical and difficult matter. It may be that later next week we shall have to ask for time for Debate, and I think the Leader of the House would be willing to make arrangements to that end.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I understand the point of the observations of the right hon. Gentleman. We will consider the matter in the light of the reflections of hon. Members opposite on reading the statement and we can discuss it through the usual channels, if the Opposition so wish, to see what can be done.

Mr. Eden

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. There are two questions I want to ask in order to clarify a Debate, if we have one. The first is important. The Minister, in explaining his reasons for acting as he did, said, among other things, that he wanted to place his dissent on record publicly at the earliest possible moment. How can he reconcile that with the fact that the Minister had the Report for four months before he made any statement at all?

Mr. Henderson

Yes, but the desire of the Minister was to make public comments as soon as possible after the publication of the Report.

Mr. Eden

It is not quite the same as what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said just now—[Interruption.] No, it is not. I am trying to be fair in this matter. The second matter about which I want to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman is this. A great number of technical arguments have been employed in the reply. Can the Minister tell us whether these technical arguments were all available to the court which issued this Report; can we know that?

Mr. Henderson

On the first point the right hon. Gentleman raises, I quite agree that the phrasing I used was not altogether explicit and I think he has raised a very fair point. On the question of whether all these technical considerations were before the court, it is very difficult for me to say that all the relevant technical considerations, facts and implications were clearly before the court, because so much depends on the emphasis, and the emphasis does so much depend on the intensity of the cross-examination. But so far as I am aware, the basic facts were before the court.

Mr. Eden

Were not all the Government Departments and others concerned represented by counsel, and if that is so ought not we to see the minutes of evidence? Could they be made available to us, either in the Library or by a White Paper, so that we can examine replies to the arguments now addressed to the House?

Mr. Henderson

I can see no objection at all to having all the relevant documents.

Mr. Eden

Can they be published?

Mr. Henderson

The minutes of evidence are very extensive, but would not it meet the need of the right hon. Gentleman if a copy were placed in the Library of the House?

Mr. Eden

I think something of that kind might be considered through the usual channels. All we desire is that the House shall be in possession of all the facts before they debate the matter.

Mr. Henderson

I should point out that the comments which were made were based on the conclusions set out and the facts set out in the Report itself.

Mr. Eden

All I ask is that we shall see the evidence, and if the Minister could make two copies available in the Library I think that would meet the sense of the House.

Mr. Edgar Granville

May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he will make it clear that the technical evidence he has produced today in his statement with regard to the forms was available to the court, either through the meteorological or Ministry witnesses, or the K.L.M. witnesses? Does it now mean that what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is telling us is that the chairman of the court of inquiry made his recommendations with all this knowledge in front of him?

Mr. Henderson

I must again point out that the comments that the Minister has made have been made upon the conclusions contained in the Report of Mr. McDonald, and Mr. McDonald's conclusions were based on the facts set out by him in his Report.

Air-Commodore Harvey

In the meantime, and pending a possible Debate, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether or not the Government are considering a new method of conducting these inquiries? Time is important in these matters. Does not he realise that in the intervening period the method by which this inquiry was conducted has caused extreme bitterness in Holland, and will he make his peace with the authorities there?

Mr. Henderson

I am not able to say at this moment that any such consideration has taken place. Perhaps that is a question which would be better put down to the Minister of Civil Aviation.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is the Minister aware that the instructions for this inquiry were given on 30th November and the inquiry took place in January, in Ayr, but the Report did not come until 7th July? Can he do something to expedite these inquiries and ask counsel not to pursue the go-slow tactics—[Interruption.] Prestwick was under a cloud all the time, and this Report was not issued by the lawyers until the end of June.

Mr. Henderson

I do not wish to cast any aspersions upon the" president of the court, except to state the fact that there was an interval of approximately five months between the conclusion of the hearing and the receipt of the Report by the Ministry.

Mr. Eden

And an interval of four months before the" Government made up their minds.

Mr. Henderson

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well from his own experience that when there are international aspects of a particular problem it would not do for us to deal with that problem without regard to considerations ' affecting, possibly, another Government.

Mr. Clement Davies

May I get one point clear? As the Government are about to lay in the Library a full transcript, may we have it quite clear that the Minister did not rely upon anything other than what appears in that transcript—that there was no fresh evidence whatsoever?

Mr. Henderson

I think I can say, "Yes," to that.

Brigadier Thorp

Has the Minister apologised to Mr. McDonald for the slight error he made?

Mr. Sydney Silverman

May I ask the Minister to consider between now and the date when we have this Debate, how far this whole matter bears upon the representations which have from time to time been made about the desirability of having inquiries of this kind in public, as in the case of railway and maritime accidents?

Mr. Henderson

My hon. Friend is under a misapprehension. This inquiry was a public one.

Earl Winterton

I wish to ask a question regarding procedure. I think the answer will be satisfactory to the House. Is not it the case that papers laid in the Library, or a statement laid in the Library, is to some extent subject to the law of privilege, whereas a Command Paper can be published by any newspaper? Is it clear that a statement put in the Library will be open to report, to reproduction in the newspapers, and that it will, for example, be available to citizens of the Netherlands who might be interested in the matter? It is important that this document should be available to the public.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that the mere laying of a paper in the Library makes it a public document.

Earl Winterton

That is exactly my point, that a Command Paper may—at any rate by disregarding the law of privilege—be published in full in a newspaper. I wish to be clear about the fact that a document laid on the table in the Library will be equally open.

Mr. Speaker

I understand, as a matter of fact, that the Press were present and heard all the evidence at the inquiry, and therefore it is public. It should have been in the papers.

Mr. John McKay

Is it not correct that whilst the meteorological officer is responsible for supplying all the information about weather conditions that are existing, whatever the conditions may be, the meteorological officer gives no indication as to whether the pilot should land or otherwise, and that the pilot takes the whole responsibility for that upon himself?

Mr. Henderson

To separate the responsibility of the meteorological officer from that of the control officer, the responsibility of the meteorological officer is merely to report the weather to the control officer.

Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew

The Minister said that the delay in the publication of the Report was caused because international interests had to be consulted. Does that mean that if any foreign country had objected that Report would have been suppressed?

Mr. Henderson

I am not suggesting that at all. As a matter of international courtesy it is the usual practice—it is certainly the practice of His Majesty's Government—to contact and have discussions with any other friendly Government which may be interested.

Sir C. MacAndrew

But why discussion? Surely the Report should have been published. Whether they like it or not these are the findings in the Report. It seems quite wrong that somebody should be asked whether they like it or not and have discussions on it. That is the point.

Group-Captain Wilcock

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that all those closely concerned with aviation recognise who is responsible, or who was responsible for this accident? [HON. MEMBERS: "Who was?"] Does he realise that the people who are concerned with aviation do not consider it was the responsibility of the ground personnel at Prestwick?

Mr. Nally

Will my right hon. and learned Friend, and his noble Friend, in considering all the questions which have been asked today, and the questions which are to follow, bear in mind that, whether it is a child killed on the road or whether it is people unfortunately disastrously killed in an air accident, the point of view of the Opposition is designed all the time—

Mr. Speaker

These contentious questions, when people have been killed, are very much out of place.

Hon. Members


Mr. Nally

Further to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, may I say with respect that I have had some experience of people being killed? Also with respect I would say that I resent the imputation in your comment.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is not allowed to resent any imputation in a comment that I make. It is most improper. He will withdraw that remark at once.

Mr. Nally

I withdraw absolutely and unreservedly and I would ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker. Am I, or am I not, entitled in a case, even if it involves questions of life or death, to put a direct, clear and explicit question to the Minister responsible suggesting that some of the questions that he has been asked have not been based upon a regard for the facts but on a desire to suggest that the organisation under the present Government, responsible for the protection of life, is far less efficient than it would be under the Opposition?