HC Deb 06 March 1952 vol 497 cc873-82

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

2.53 a.m.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)

The Gillingham bus accident occurred on 4th December, resulting in the death of 24 cadets and serious injury to many others. The nation was shocked, and Mr. Speaker accepted from me a Private Notice Question. Following that Question, the Minister of Transport promised a public inquiry. I asked whether that inquiry could be convened at an early date, and that question was answered in the affirmative.

I waited for some time, and subsequently put a question asking when the inquiry would be held. The Minister then made the surprising announcement that he did not propose to hold an inquiry into the accident in pursuance of the powers conferred upon him by Section 23 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930. That Section states that where an accident arises out of the presence of a motor vehicle on the road, the Minister may direct inquiry to be made into the cause of the accident. The Minister, when making his announcement, explained that the cause of the accident had been determined by the criminal proceedings brought against the driver. He went on to say: 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 436.] I told the hon. Gentleman at the time, and I repeat, that his decision caused widespread concern in my constituency, where most of the victims lived. The need for an inquiry has been supported by the national newspapers and by organisations like the Pedestrians' Association and the British Road Federation.

I quite understand the concern of the Minister for what he referred to as "the human implications of all concerned." He had in mind, I imagine, that a further inquiry would mean another ordeal for the parents and the driver. But let me say first that, as far as local sentiment goes, the Transport and General Workers' Union in the district wants the inquiry as promised: it is strongly backed by the powerful Trades Council in the Medway district, and I myself have had an opportunity of meeting all but two of the parents concerned and they are unanimously and strongly of the opinion that the inquiry should be held. Indeed, I find they have since sent a letter to that effect to the Minister.

Nobody, of course, wants to submit the parents or the driver needlessly to further suffering, but surely the character and the atmosphere of this inquiry would be different from that of the coroner's court or an Old Bailey trial. The inquiry could be conducted in such a way that written statements could be accepted from those who were concerned, instead of having them appear in person as they did at the inquest and at the trial. The inquiry, I feel, could be modified to meet the very natural humane considerations of the Minister. As I have said, it is natural that we should all wish to spare the feelings of those so tragically involved in the accident.

I want to deal with the Minister's suggestion that an administrative inquiry could cover only the same ground as that already covered by judicial proceedings. It could hardly be suggested that proceedings in a coroner's court or a trial at the Old Bailey provide an adequate substitute for an inquiry under the Road Traffic Act, 1930. The function of the coroner's court is circumscribed. It is concerned with how the victims died, and whether there was gross negligence leading to death. The proceedings at the Old Bailey are only to find out the facts which result in a prosecution. That happened in this case, as we know, the driver being prosecuted and found guilty. But there were many contributory factors which as yet have not been considered. Let me give one illustration.

There was a point made in a letter from the Pedestrians' Association to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Association raised the question of the Highway Code and the Director of Public prosecutions, in a letter to the Pedestrians' Association, said that the defending counsel tried to draw a distinction between a body of small boys and a body of troops. The Director of Public Prosecutions, in his reply, said that this was irrelevant in the opinion of the prosecution, and then went on to say that in these circumstances the prosecution did not pursue the question whether it was right or wrong to march the boys according to the Highway Code. Clearly that has not been investigated and should be.

The Minister may have in mind that the wording of the Act limits the investigation to ascertaining the cause of the accident. He may later argue that the conviction of the driver shows that the accident was caused by careless driving. I suggest to him that this is only the proximate cause. There are many contributory factors. Surely the underlying purpose of any inquiry is that a report shall be produced which will lead to measures being taken to prevent such accidents in the future. I think we have a precedent in the sense that expert inquiries are carried out when there are accidents in the air, at sea, on the railways, in the factories, and in the mines. I agree that in this case the Minister is given a discretion.

Surely, it is an odd decision for him to take not to hold an inquiry into the worst accident that has ever happened on the roads in Britain. I would say that this accident provides the very opportunities for that full inquiry to be carried out. There were present all the factors involved in road accidents. There was the Highway Code and whether it was culpable or not, the question of street lighting and whether or not it was up to the standards required, the state of the highway itself, and the dangerous driving. All those things, if there were an examination in the form of an inquiry, would do much to enable us to see what could be done to prevent accidents.

The Minister will say that many of the factors have already been considered by the Committee on Road Safety. All I can say is that this Committee on Road Safety will have to do much better in the future. The Committee has met only nine times in the last four years. It might be said that it could hold other kinds of inquiries, but to my mind it is not the body to do the job that we have in mind. An inquiry would show the cause of the accident and the Committee would be able to make suggestions on how future accidents could be avoided. That would be their function, but it is not their function to do the work of an expert inquiry.

Another matter for serious consideration is that, in view of the Minister's promise to hold an inquiry, many interested parties refrained from attending at the coroner's inquest, where they would have been represented by counsel. The Medway Trades Council were interested, but because of the Minister's promise to hold an inquiry, they decided not to go. The same is true of the Pedestrians' Association. In their case they had briefed counsel for the inquiry. These bodies feel that they have been cheated of the opportunity of making their representations. The feelings of the constituents whom I represent are, as I have said, strongly that the inquiry should be held.

There are many questions which they feel are unanswered. They are not desirous of finding scapegoats, but are only concerned to see that accidents like the one in Gillingham do not occur in future. There is an old saying that not merely must justice be done, but it must be manifestly done. In the same way, it is not enough for private consideration of this accident to be conducted by Departmental officials, by the Committee on Road Safety, or by any other body. The inquiry must be searching and must be held in the full light of day. "The Star" evening newspaper, on 26th February, said: Since Chatham the public conscience has been thoroughly aroused. People are no longer content to leave this grave problem to the private ruminations of the Standing Committee on Road Safety. That is the feeling in my constituency.

The Bishop of Rochester, in his funeral address, said: My dear parents, your children will not have died in vain. They shall yet save numberless lives by their untimely passing. It is in the desire that their children's sacrifice shall serve that cause that the parents are calling for a public inquiry. I appeal to the Minister to see that their request, and the request of many others, does not pass unheard. I am awfully sorry that yesterday the Minister did not seize the opportunity to answer a question by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls), about the appointment of a Royal Commission. The answer might be the same as the one he gave me, but if we are to avoid road accidents we must have the full searchlight of public opinion upon the subject, and that can best be achieved by the appointment of a Royal Commission.

3.5 a.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I should like to thank the right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) for giving me this opportunity to intervene, because this unfortunate and dreadful accident happened in my division. I think the whole country was shocked and horrified at the fact that out of a column of 52 little boys, marching along the road in the early evening of 4th December, 10 only evaded injury or death.

It is true that there has been from the hon. Gentleman pressure for an inquiry into this particular case, but I have found in my division, which also suffered, that there is not that widespread request for an inquiry. I do not believe that any new facts brought to light can in any way assist more in keeping death off the roads. I know of no further real information which can come to light than that which is already known. I attended the funeral and the trial at the Old Bailey, and because of this I have a sharper appreciation of the terrible nature of the tragedy than most people.

I believe that the pressure for an inquiry into this accident is misplaced. The matter has been before three courts, and all the relevant factors have been unfolded during the exhaustive investigations which were undertaken by the police before the prosecution. The accident inspectors of the Ministry of Transport also went fully into the condition of the vehicle and the circumstances of the accident. I believe that the speeches by counsel and the long summing up by the judge at the Old Bailey indicated clearly what were considered to be the relevant factors in causing the accident.

The cause was clearly established. The major reason for the accident was the failure of the driver to take the elementary precaution of putting on his headlights at a time when they should have been on. Many people think there were contributory causes; indeed the Prime Minister made it clear that he considered one cause was that this marching column did not have lights at both front and rear. As a result of an instruction issued immediately afterwards, marching columns on the roads now have lights at the front and back.

It may be that there were other contributory causes, but the main and contributory causes are all known to the intelligence and statistical departments of the Ministry of Transport, whose job it is to work in close touch with the Department of Industrial Research in studying material for general information, watching the trend of events, and throwing light on casualties. I hope the Minister will assure us that that information has in fact been received and will be put to the best possible use by his Department.

In view of that information, why have another inquiry into this accident which, no matter how sympathetically it may be conducted, will once again cause the driver and the parents to live again the horrors of that afternoon in December? I do not think any inquiry narrowed down to this particular accident can serve any useful purpose. Nothing we can do can restore those 24 little boys to life. If the tragedy stirred the public to a consciousness of the awful toll of the roads, if it means that the Minister will take active steps to look into the whole question of road safety, and, as a result of his actions, lives that would otherwise be sacrificed may now be spared, those little Marine cadets will certainly have given their lives for others.

If I held the view before that an inquiry should not be narrowed down to Chatham, that view has been strongly reinforced by the tragic accident which occurred in Manchester only two days ago, as a result of which four little schoolchildren were killed and six others injured. If there is to be a separate inquiry for Chatham, why not a separate inquiry for the Manchester accident? If the Minister is not satisfied with the activities of the Road Safety Committee, I am sure he will look into this matter with the utmost sympathy and do all he can to ensure that the toll of the roads is arrested.

I believe there should be a constant appeal to the fear and emotion of the people and I believe that continuous propaganda is essential. One of the best posters which ever appeared in this country was the picture of the woman in black. There are 24 women in black in Gillingham as a result of this ghastly accident. That poster was withdrawn because it struck stark horror into the minds of many people. I believe that is the sort of impact we must make on the people of this country before they will take the necessary steps to stop these tragic road accidents.

If the Minister would agree to set up an inquiry on a broad basis into the whole question of road safety, it would serve a much better purpose than if it were narrowed to the Gillingham accident, and would carry into effect what the people of Gillingham require.

3.12 a.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. John Maclay)

The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley), who opened this discussion, and the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) have put their arguments in a most balanced and proper manner. After the tragic accident at Gillingham and then the accident at Manchester two days ago, everyone approaches the problem of death on the roads with the one desire to make the right decision and with the determination that from this type of accident we shall learn a lesson which will stop similar happenings again.

I must deal with the question of an inquiry, having said that I proposed to hold a public inquiry, and then, after most careful and searching thought, said that I had come to the conclusion that I should not do so. I know that hon. Members will realise that that kind of decision could only be made after the most anxious consideration of what purpose an inquiry would serve if we continued with it.

The Section of the Road Traffic Act to which the right hon. Gentleman referred lays down quite clearly that when an accident arises out of the presence of a motor vehicle on the road, the Minister of Transport may direct an inquiry to be made into the cause of the accident, to establish the cause of the accident, with the object of deciding what steps shall be taken to secure that a similar accident does not occur in the future. That can be the only purpose of such an administrative inquiry.

When I made that statement originally in the House, the accident had just happened and I could not tell what would come afterwards. The various proceedings brought to light very clearly the main contributory factors to this accident. Any road accident is nearly always the result of complex factors. My duty as Minister was to decide whether a further public inquiry could produce more evidence than had already been disclosed. What it had produced was pretty comprehensive, and I do not see how it could have produced more, in view of the nature of the proceedings that went on.

The road conditions were most thoroughly examined, and the lighting of the road was quite clearly established as being very poor; the column of cadets were marching along without lights or look-out; the condition of the bus was very carefully examined; the side-lights were on and not the headlights; the driver's eyesight had been tested only a few days before the accident—point after point which one would have expected to come out at a public inquiry had been most clearly established.

What I had to ask myself was whether, if we had another public inquiry—and I confess freely that the question of the human implications had to be in my mind—it would establish anything more that could help to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. I came to the conclusion that we could not establish more facts than had already been disclosed. The real question was the followup—how it could be brought home to the country and how this kind of thing, if it were humanly possible, could be avoided again.

I submit that the action which we are taking and which will be taken in the months to come is the most effective action. The Committee on Road Safety, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, has already made a preliminary examination of all the factors that have emerged, and will be considering the matter further. They have already made certain suggestions to me, but they are only preliminary suggestions and I think I should take more time to consider them.

Let us take the question of the column marching on the left side of the road without lights. The Services have already taken action, and I have prepared something which will go out to all organisa tions which may have individuals going about in groups, whether in columns of four or two, and any similar movement on the main roads must be covered with appropriate protection by lights at the forward and rear ends of the column or by proper look-outs. It is not at all easy to find exactly what advice to give, but we want to make certain that anybody with responsibility for such a column or group understands the dangers and so prevents another tragedy of this kind.

Take the question of the lighting of the road. Alas, we know that in this case the lighting was very poor, but too many of our roads all over the country have lighting which is not good. That is a thing which can be put right only over a long period of time, and improvement comes all too slowly. I could go through a number of other details, but I would emphasise that it is the duty of all of us to try to make certain that the lessons are learned with a view to avoiding any similar situation recurring. That is what really matters.

I will give one other detail concerning the question of sidelights and headlights. That clearly was a major contributory factor, and we have to consider very carefully what advice can be given. One of the most difficult things is to got wise advice on headlights in built-up areas where the lighting is different, because obviously, in certain lighting conditions, to put headlights on at the same hour of night with a wet road might produce more dangers. This matter will be most carefully examined by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, or whatever body is most appropriate, and we have to be cautious, because the facts are known. There is a problem, and we have to get the right kind of advice. The Highway Code is being examined now on the question whether there should be amendment and what kind of advice should be given in it.

Finally, there is the question of what kind of wider inquiry might be conducted to cover not only the tragedy of Gillingham but the more recent tragedy in Manchester. I have a big responsibility there, too. A Royal Commission does sound like a very desirable method of dealing with this, but I have to have in mind the right body to get urgent and continuing opinions and results. I have said in reply to Questions that I am not satisfied that I should be justified in recommending a Royal Commission.

It would be absolutely wrong if I said my mind was totally closed, it is not. But I must satisfy myself, with a full sense of responsibility, that I am not myself running away from the problem by making a recommendation in that direction. My mind is not closed to anything that might help to cut down this desperate toll of life which has been brought so markedly to public attention by these two tragic accidents but which is, alas, going on in our streets all over the country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two Minutes past Three o'Clock a.m.

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