HC Deb 15 July 1959 vol 609 cc402-5
42. Mr. Hamilton

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation whether, in view of the recent Report on the Southall air disaster, he will now introduce, as a matter of urgency, new licensing arrangements to ensure higher standards of equipment, personnel, and efficiency on civil air lines.

46. Mr. Strauss

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what steps he proposes to take, in the light of Mr. Justice Phillimore's Report on the Viking air crash on 2nd September, 1958, and his criticisms of the aero-plane's owners, to ensure that no similar state of affairs can ever again exist in an aircraft operating company.

47. Mr. Beswick

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation if, in view of the public disquiet about the conditions, as revealed in the inquiry Report, under which Independent Air Travel had operated, he will detail the steps he has taken to ensure that such conditions are not again permitted by companies licensed by his Department.

The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

The aircraft, premises, operational equipment and organisation of British civil aviation firms engaged on scheduled service work are already inspected by my professional officers who exact a high standard. I have also been considering for some time a system of additional licences whereby no firm could engage in any public air transport operations unless they held an appropriate licence. Detailed proposals are now being prepared but they will involve new legislation.

Mr. Hamilton

How does the right hon. Gentleman square the first part of that Answer with the happenings in this disaster, which has deeply shocked the nation, and still more with the Report on it, which has deeply shocked every thinking person in the country? What does he think the reaction on his own side of the House would have been if a publicly-owned airline had been involved? Does he not think that it is a reflection on his own Department that this kind of murder by private enterprise has to take place—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—before the right hon. Gentleman is goaded into action?

Mr. Watkinson

The hon. Gentleman should not allow his dislike of private enterprise to colour his judgment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] If the hon. Gentleman studies this matter very carefully he will find that this company had already been prosecuted by my Ministry and that, in fact, another prosecution was pending when the accident occurred. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Other than that, I have no comment to make on the Report of Mr. Justice Phillimore.

Mr. Strauss

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the shock which is felt in the country about this accident is very largely on account of the apparent lack of control which the Minister has, and has had for a very long time, over all these companies that operate in the air and which in fact can indulge in tourist activities? Why is it that the right hon. Gentleman has not taken action before? Although no one doubts that, on the whole, the safety of these companies is very high, how do we know—in the absence of inspection by the right hon. Gentleman—that there are not several other bad firms of this sort that may bring about further disasters? Is not the negligence of the right hon. Gentleman, in not taking action before, a contributory factor in bringing about this tragedy?

Mr. Watkinson

Of course, that is nonsense, if I may say so. The fact is that all these firms are already inspected, including the air Corporations and every other firm, and, as I said in my original Answer, they are inspected to a very high standard. The right hon. Gentleman should not draw broad, general conclusions from one isolated instance.

Mr. H. Morrison

If it be the case that this airline was prosecuted and the Ministry was dissatisfied with the firm, why did the Ministry let it go on flying? Had this firm any trooping contracts on behalf of the Government for the transportation of troops? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the Ministry comes clean out of this? This was a terrible disaster. I would renew the question which was asked earlier, which is, what would Government supporters have said if this airline had been B.O.A.C. or B.E.A.? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Why do the Government cover up, merely because this was a private enterprise company?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not propose to pursue this matter on party political lines. My Department is completely impartial—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—in the technical tests that it makes to, as I have said, a very high standard. This company was not engaged in trooping, if that interests the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), but that is not my concern. My concern is to be impartial about air safety. I have come to the conclusion, as I have said, that there would be some advantage in having a general licence, as indeed the independent operators have so asked me. That legislation is being prepared, but it is legislation, and time will have to be found for it.

Mr. Beswick

The Minister talks about a new form of licence, but is not the problem here not new regulations but the enforcement of the old regulations? In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman makes a point about the stringency of the inspection which he carries out, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware that, although he has this confidence in those inspections, there is evidence, which I can give him, that Lloyds underwriters had refused to insure this firm, even at the time when his Department was allowing the firm to operate?

Mr. Watkinson

The hon. Member must give me the evidence and I shall consider it.

Mr. P. Williams

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all responsible sections of the industry will welcome what he has said about licensing and that, indeed, members of the British Independent Air Transport Association are keen that the regulations should be tightened so that this sort of unfortunate occurrence should not happen again?

Mr. Watkinson

I quite agree that B.I.A.T.A. has been very active in seeking broad safety in the air, as it is also the duty of my Ministry, and I do not accept that this one very tragic accident is capable of the conclusions the Opposition are trying to draw from it.

44. Mr. Strauss

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what reply he sent to the letter of 28th April last year from the British Independent Air Transport Association asking for new licences which would ensure a high standard of operation among all airlines.

Mr. Watkinson

I welcomed the Association's initiative, all the more because my Department was already considering the same problem, and I arranged for detailed discussions. At the Association's dinner last year I indicated how my ideas on this problem were developing. Detailed proposals, taking into account the Association's views, are now well advanced but, as I have just said, will require legislation.

Mr. Strauss

Is not it clear that if the Minister had acted much earlier, by legislative means and/or administrative means, to bring about an effective control of these small companies, it is quite likely that this tragedy might never have occurred?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not accept that for a moment.