HC Deb 02 May 1957 vol 569 cc373-5

Sir E. Errington (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he will make a statement about the accident to the Viking aircraft at Blackbushe on 1st May.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing)

A Viking aircraft of Eagle Aviation crashed in flames shortly after taking off from Blackbushe airfield at twenty minutes past ten last night. The pilot had reported engine failure and was attempting to return to the airfield.

The aircraft, which was on charter to the Air Ministry, was on a trooping flight to Idris, Tripoli. In addition to a crew of five, it carried 25 Army officers and soldiers, two War Office civilians, and one civilian's wife. There were also two children. The five members of the crew, 21 of the Army personnel, and the civilians died in the crash. Another soldier has since died of the injuries he received. The three survivors suffer from severe burns.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation has decided that a public inquiry shall be held.

A message of sympathy with the relatives of those who have lost their lives and with the injured has been received from Her Majesty the Queen. The House will, I know, wish to add its own expression of sorrow.

Sir E. Errington

May I ask my hon. Friend whether, in view of previous accidents which, admittedly, do not seem to have any factor in common, he will, in order to allay anxiety, ensure that the inquiry will pronounce on the safety or otherwise of Blackbushe Airport?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

That is a question for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation. I have no doubt that he will bear in mind the point which has been made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. de Freitas

All of us join the Under-Secretary of State in his expressions of sympathy as a result of this accident. Will not the Secretary of State now re-examine the serious charges which have been made in this House in the last year or so against the present system of air trooping? Is it not a fact that in the last three months, in three separate crashes, over 70 people have been killed? Will the Secretary of State compare the accident rate of the present system of air trooping, both Service and charter, with that of B. E. A. and B. O. A. C.?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I have no detailed comparative records of the safety of the Corporations as compared with the independents, and I rather doubt whether any comparisons of this type are likely to bear fruit. I can say, however, that the record of the independents gives no cause for concern in this respect.

Mr. de Freitas

But will the hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State to do what I asked, to see how the present system of air trooping, both Service and charter, compares with the Corporations in the rate of accidents?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

My right hon. Friend will be delighted to do exactly that.

Mr. H. Morrison

Will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that he will report to the House the facts that appear? Is it not the policy of the Government to have a bias against the use of public Corporation aircraft? Is it not time, even if no preference is given to the public Corporation aircraft, to remove the embargo against the latter, so that they can have a share, and in the hope that there will be some useful competition?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that this is rather a wide question. On the specific question of the crash, a public inquiry is to be held, so all the facts will become available to the public. I feel that the other matters want more mature consideration.

Mr. Strachey

Will not the Under-Secretary of State here and now repudiate the statement, which is reported in the evening newspapers as made on behalf of the company concerned, that the proper lesson from this dreadful disaster is that still more contracts should be given to the private operators? We really cannot but believe that this grave accident, which affects a number of soldiers particularly, must have a grave effect on recruiting for the Services if these accidents go on. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh] Certainly, if these accidents go on any conclusion of that kind would be quite the opposite from the conclusion which the House would naturally draw.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I am not responsible for any statement put out by the company, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree. He is raising matters which are better debated at an appropriate moment, and not by Question and answer. The original Question was directed to a specific crash, into which there is to be a public inquiry.

Mr. J. Griffiths

May I ask the Prime Minister whether, in view of the anxiety which is felt both inside and outside the House, he will consult with the Minister responsible to ensure that there is the fullest public inquiry and a full report to the House afterwards?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I understand that there is to be a full public inquiry into this accident. On the larger questions which have been raised, at the appropriate time, whether by Question and answer or by debate, all those matters can be inquired into by the House. I can assure the House that the Minister of Defence, the Service Ministers and myself take full responsibility for ensuring that these questions are properly looked into and, so far as possible, the right decisions reached.