HC Deb 02 February 1953 vol 510 cc1477-80
Mr. McKie

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Transport if he can make any statement regarding the loss of the British Railways steamer "Princess Victoria" which occurred off the coast of Northern Ireland on Saturday afternoon.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd)

Yes, Sir. The British Railways m.v. "Princess Victoria" of 2,694 gross tons left Stranraer for Larne at 7.45 a.m. on Saturday morning with 123 passengers and a crew of 49 on board. An hour later a radio message was received that she was in difficulties and not under command. At this time she was reported to be in the mouth of Loch Ryan. Requests for help were sent out. The destroyer H.M.S. "Contest" and other vessels went to her assistance. Just before 1 o'clock the "Princess Victoria" wirelessed that she was on her beam ends and was about to be abandoned. At 2.50 p.m. Lloyd's received the message that wreckage, oil, lifeboats and rafts had been sighted 5 miles off the Copelands.

Forty-four people were saved, including 10 of the crew. The master and all the officers were lost. So far, 63 bodies have been brought ashore. As the House will be aware, I have ordered a formal investigation, which will be held in public, into the tragic circumstances attending the loss of this ship and the necessary preliminary inquiries are already in hand. The House will wish me to express its deep sympathy with the relatives of those who have lost their lives. They include, I am very sorry to say, Major J. M. Sinclair, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance for Northern Ireland, and Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles, the hon. and gallant Member for Down, North.

The House will also be aware that the Fleetwood Trawler "Michael Griffith" is missing off Barra Head and all search for her has been unavailing. I have ordered a preliminary inquiry. The House will wish me to extend its sympathy to the relatives of her crew of 15 and also to those of the two members of the crew of the Islay lifeboat, who lost their lives while engaged in this search.

A number of ships, aircraft and lifeboats gave their help in most dangerous and trying circumstances, and to those who manned them our most sincere thanks are extended. We can only regret that their efforts were not rewarded with greater success.

Mr. McKie

While thanking the Minister, may I ask him—and I do this as representing the home port of the "Princess Victoria" at Stranraer—if he is aware how very much his words of sympathy, which the House has just so feelingly supported, will be appreciated by all those who have been bereaved by this appalling disaster?

Mr. Woodburn

Will the right hon. Gentleman take care that the inquiry takes into account the statement that there was no effective means of this ship broadcasting generally an S.O.S., or its position, and that there was only a shore-to-shore link of communication? In saying how much we join with the right hon. Gentleman in our expression of sympathy with all those who have suffered, I should like to add that this is one of the closest links between Scotland and Ireland, which has been valued by people for many generations, and that it would be a great tragedy if confidence in this great link should be lost.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am sure that all the relatives of those who lost their lives will value the sympathy of the Opposition, as well as that of Her Majesty's Government. With regard to the detailed questions which the right hon. Gentleman has asked me, I think that they, quite properly, must be taken care of at the inquiry.

Sir D. Savory

While reserving detailed questions for the subsequent inquiry, may I join with my colleagues in thanking the Minister, on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, for the sympathy which he has expressed with the relatives of those who have lost their lives? At the same time I think it is only right that we should add a very great tribute of admiration to the heroism of the crew, which was worthy of the very best traditions of British seamen.

Mr. Bowles

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman what consideration he had in mind which caused him to decide that in the case of the loss of this ship a public inquiry should be held, when, in the case of the "Empress of Canada," a week ago, he decided on a private inquiry?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I felt that in this case, in which there has been such a tragic loss of life, I ought to proceed instantly to the announcement of a formal inquiry. This does not mean that a preliminary inquiry will not also take place; it is already taking place. In the case of the "Empress of Canada," I shall await the findings of the preliminary inquiry before deciding on a formal inquiry, and as I cannot, by long tradition, publish the findings of a preliminary inquiry, I think that to proceed along the same lines would be ill-suited in the case of this most tragic occurrence.

Sir H. Williams

Will my right hon. Friend order an immediate survey of the not very large number of ships which have loading doors, having regard to the apparent evidence that this disaster was entirely due to the bad design of the loading doors?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I think it would be very unwise to jump to such a conclusion now. I am sure that the best thing that we can do is to proceed with the formal inquiry with the utmost expedition.

Mr. Callaghan

On a question of fact, may I ask the Minister, in view of some of the misunderstanding about this ship's name, whether she was a post-war ship, launched since the war.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

It was built by Denny Bros. and launched, I think, in 1947.

Mr. Hobson

Will the Minister say whether there is a report that a request was received by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners for tugs, in view of the proximity of this ship to Belfast?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

There is a certain amount of conflicting testimony, and I think that it is as well to await until the inquiry is started.