HC Deb 21 February 1952 vol 496 cc433-7
The Minister of Transport (Mr. John Maclay)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and with the leave of the House, I should like to make a statement about the Gillingham accident.

In reply to a Private Notice Question on 5th December last, I informed the House that I proposed to hold an inquiry under Section 23 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, into the tragic accident which had occurred at Gillingham when 24 cadets were killed and others were seriously injured. At that time I had no detailed information about the accident and I was not of course aware of, nor could I foresee, future developments.

Since then, as the House will be aware, the driver of the bus concerned has been prosecuted on a charge of dangerous driving and all the circumstances of the accident have been thoroughly and impartially examined in public in the course of these proceedings. Hon. Members will recall that the trial took place at the Central Criminal Court before a High Court Judge sitting with a jury.

It has accordingly been necessary for me to reconsider the desirability of holding any further inquiry into the cause of this accident in pursuance of the powers conferred on me by Section 23 of the Act of 1930. The cause of the accident has already been determined by the criminal proceedings brought against the driver. Apart from the human implications of all concerned, I have reached the conclusion that no useful purpose would be served by holding an administrative inquiry which could only cover the same ground as that already covered by judicial proceedings. I can assure the House that I have only reached this decision after the most careful and anxious thought.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley

Is the Minister aware that his decision not to hold an inquiry, after having promised to do so, is a matter giving rise to great concern, particularly to those most intimately connected with the accident; and further, will the Minister tell me whether it was with his authority that the Gillingham Corporation reduced the power of public lighting in the road where the accident occurred?

Mr. Maclay

In answer to the first part of the supplementary question, I feel that those most intimately concerned must realise that my powers under the Section of the Act which I have quoted are restricted solely to inquiry into the cause of the accident, and from my statement and from hon. Members' knowledge of what happened in the High Court proceedings, it will be seen that everything relating to the accident was most thoroughly ex- amined. On the second point, I have no knowledge of the matter which the right hon. Member has raised.

Mr. F. A. Burden

Is the Minister aware that his decision will be welcomed by a great number of people in the Medway towns who consider that there has already been sufficient suffering by the parents of the boys and the driver of the omnibus, and will he give an assurance that this accident has focussed his attention on the constant need for ensuring that a committee sits to look into the question of maintaining road safety at all times? If he will do so, I am sure that those who have suffered most will be the first to admit that some good has arisen out of this accident.

Mr. Bottomley

May I first of all say that the fact that the Minister cannot say whether the Gillingham Council did make inquiries or not shows that there is need for further investigation; and is the Minister aware that the court proceedings were against a driver who was convicted of dangerous driving, but that there are other aspects which have not as yet been examined and which ought to be?

Mr. Maclay

May I clear up a misapprehension in my reply to the first point in the right hon. Member's previous question. I do know that there have been no requests from that local authority to my Department in relation to lighting in that street. That, of course. I know definitely.

Mr. Herbert Morrison

I follow the point which the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) raised, and I think that there is something in it, but may I put this point to the Minister? It was the case that in the criminal proceedings the sole issue before the court—and this was stressed by the Crown—was whether or not the driver of the omnibus was guilty of dangerous driving. I visited this road myself, as I happened to be in the town. There are other considerations which arise and which will have significance in the future in the prevention of these accidents. May I put it to the Minister that there are elements concerned with street lighting, the Highway Code, the way in which pedestrians should approach oncoming traffic, and the way in which the authorities or other people in charge of young people and others should handle these occasions? I submit to the hon. Gentleman that to set all that aside and not to pursue some form of appropriate investigation or inquiry would be a neglect of the duties of the Minister of Transport.

Mr. Maclay

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that all these considerations which have come out of this accident have been very carefully noted. Such considerations are being examined the whole time by the Committee on Road Safety which sits as a permanent body for the examination of just these things. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman has really made my point that all the evidence that can come out has come out already.

Mr. Morrison

I wish to put to the Minister this point: Is it not his duty, in the light of the fact that this was an accident of importance and has caused a great deal of sorrow, to consider whether there ought to be a systematic investigation on a wider basis of the accident? I am not saying that it should necessarily be of a public character, which might revive unhappy memories, but there should be an adequate investigation and a report, with public advice as to what should have been done in this case and what should be done in future. That is the point I am on—not merely that the Minister takes note but that the public knows. There should be an authoritative investigation which should pronounce views upon this matter for the guidance of people in the future.

Mr. Maclay

I suggest, with respect, that these are precisely the considerations which will be examined by the continuing Committee on Road Safety. That is the purpose for which it exists. I would add that I myself am quite determined that the lessons about road safety which have been learnt, not only as a result of this tragic accident, but in recent months as a result of the serious figures, will continue to be examined and that everything possible shall be done to improve the position so far as Government Departments can help.

Mr. Leslie Hale

Will the Minister look at his answer again? His opening sentences were based on a complete misapprehension of the law. It is not possible for contributory factors to be thoroughly investigated in the course of the proceedings on a criminal charge of dangerous driving. The jury at the Old Bailey considered the speed of the bus and the manner which it was being driven, but it could not have regard to any circumstances in relation to the way in which the lads were being marched, the lighting of the road, the condition of the road, or the weather conditions, and so on. Those matters can only be brought out by means of an investigation.

Sir Herbert Williams

On a point of order. I wish to ask my customary question: What Motion is the House discussing?

Mr. Speaker

I am in the difficulty that there is no Question before the House. Therefore, we cannot debate the matter here. Nevertheless it is common practice, and the desire of the House, that we should allow a few supplementary questions. That does not mean that we can continue this. Mr. Maclay.

Mr. Maclay

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale), referred to the early part of my statement. I would re-emphasise that under Section 23 of the Act the Minister may direct an inquiry to be made into the cause of the accident. In the course of the proceedings in the Central Criminal Court, certain factors came out absolutely clearly and all the contributory conditions were very thoroughly examined. Precisely the points which the hon. Member has made came out. The really important thing for the future is that the knowledge which has been gained should be used to ensure that this kind of accident can never happen again.

Mr. Speaker

If the House wishes—

Mr. Bottomley

On a point of order. I beg to give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adojurnment.