HC Deb 03 August 1966 vol 733 cc486-91

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)

I wish to raise a matter of the utmost gravity. I hope that hon. Members will listen to me for a few moments, although I have no desire to delay the House in the matter which is to be debated later and which I recognise is also of great importance.

I wish to refer to the mysterious loss of the pleasure ship "Darlwin", which, as the House knows, has been missing for some days off the coast of Cornwall, adjacent to my constituency. Perhaps I should mention at this point that I gave notice to the President of the Board of Trade at 2.30 p.m. today that I would be raising this matter.

As hon. Members are aware, this vessel left Fowey harbour at approximately 4.30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, and on board were 31 persons, including seven children. The boat was returning to Falmouth, from whence it had set sail on a pleasure cruise. The weather on leaving Fowey was bad and there is ample evidence to show that it worsened as time went by. It worsened to the extent that a Force 8 gale sprung up between 5 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. that same afternoon.

According to Press reports—and I have no reason to doubt their accuracy, for I have gone to some trouble to check them—no search was attempted until 2.30 a.m. on the following Monday morning, that is 9½ hours after the ship had set sail from Fowey in what is now known to have been rough seas and bad weather. Furthermore, the Search and Rescue Department at Plymouth was not alerted until 6 o'clock on that morning.

Unfortunately, much worse follows. On Monday, one Shackleton Rescue Command aircraft searched the area for an unspecified period. As far as I have been able to discover, that was the only attempt at an air search that took place on that day. Furthermore, the aircraft in question was recalled for unspecified duties. A second Shackleton was standing by, but that aircraft developed engine trouble and was not able to take off. Therefore, no air search continued yesterday or, indeed, has continued today.

It is quite untrue to suggest that the weather continues to be unfavourable. On telephoning the Board of Trade at 1.30 p.m. today I received a message confirming that although the air search had not been officially called off the Shackleton had gone on other duties on Monday; that the replacement aircraft had developed engine trouble, and that those concerned were at that stage seeking another aircraft. A quarter of an hour later I received information that they hoped that another aircraft would take off at approximately 2.30 p.m. G.M.T.—3.30 British Summer Time. I have also checked with meteorological experts in the area. It appears that at present we have a ceiling of 5,000 ft., which would enable aircraft to make a proper search.

I suggest that this is a matter of very considerable urgency. I suggest that there has been a totally inadequate rescue attempt made by the Departments concerned and responsible. I suggest that it is vital that the search be extended to take in a much larger area of the sea than that which is being searched at the moment. It has been suggested to me that it is quite possible that in the time that had elapsed this ship could have floated or sailed away as far as the Bay of Biscay. There is no evidence of wreckage. No boats have been recovered. There is no reason to suppose that this boat has sunk. It is a boat of strong construction, and I am assured, again by expert opinion, that it is very unlikely that she would founder even in heavy seas, and even though very badly overloaded.

I shall not delay the House by going into the question of the searching inquiry which I am sure the President of the Board of Trade will institute, or has instituted. I am certain, too, that everyone who has been responsible for allowing the ship to sail will be answerable for this tragic incident. But what I am deeply concerned about—and I believe that every hon. and right hon. Member in the House will be concerned about it—is the degree of effort being made by the Defence Ministry, by the Board of Trade and by every responsible person to see that the maximum possible effort is being made, and to ensure that the lives of these people are being cared for, in the sense that the search is being continued by every possible means at the disposal of the Departments concerned.

In view of the unwarranted delay, in view of the history of the calling-off of the one Shackleton aircraft, in view of the fact that no search was made yesterday and that no search is being continued by air today, quite clearly the entire resources of Air Command should now be placed at the disposal of the rescue squads in order to do everything possible to try to track down this boat.

The lives of 31 people are at stake. It is quite possible—although, I admit, doubtful—that those people are alive. I believe that the whole House will demand a searching inquiry into this matter. It is not enough to have a smooth Ministerial answer. We want an assurance that everything humanly possible will now be undertaken, for at this moment the relatives are so concerned that they are actually hiring private aircraft to carry out a job that should be done by the Royal Air Force.

4.5 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I should like first, to say that all the facts of this matter will come under scrutiny through the proper channels, as was announced yesterday, but I say at once that I regret, given the serious nature of the accident which has taken place this week and which has touched the hearts of many people in this country, that the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) should seek to refer to it in the manner in which he has just done.

All I can hope is that the hon. Member can justify the times and facts that he has given to the House, which are contradictory to those I have obtained—very recently, I grant, and in haste, because of the nature of the way in which the inquiry came to me.

I should like now to give the facts as I have had them at this very short notice. The coastguards alerted the Royal Air Force through the usual channels at 0600 hours on Monday, and from that time onwards four sorties were carried out by helicopters from Chivenor. At 8 o'clock, a Shackleton took off from St. Mawgan. I make it clear that the crews of the Shackletons at St. Mawgan are properly trained for square searches in the Western Approaches. This is their job. It is something they do every day. They are properly trained in doing it.

I hope that there is no suggestion now that the job could be done better by a larger number of Shackletons, because this is the work that the crews are trained to do with one aircraft. I have been advised that one aircraft from these squadrons was sufficient to do the job. This was on Monday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I am also advised that during that day the "Ark Royal" was in the area and did a track search, and I am also advised that the "Fearless" was in the area, and did likewise.

On Tuesday morning, a Shackleton took off at 8 o'clock, but ceased searching at mid-day. I am also very firmly advised that because of the Force 8 gale, because of very, very bad visibility, it was impossible to carry on the search. At about the same time, the other aircraft, the helicopters, also gave the same advice that it was impossible to carry on the search. I would also point out that the nature of the sea at such a time makes it extremely difficult, whatever the visibility is, to see what is going on on the water.

I have pointed out that at about midday the search was withdrawn, but not because of any lack of urgency. On the contrary, this is not the nature of the Royal Air Force at St. Mawgan, or of the helicopter aircraft at Chivenor. There was no lack of urgency, and I regret the implication that has been made——

Mr. Bessell rose——

Mr. Rees

I will give way in a moment.

I am also advised that today a Shackleton has been searching since mid-day, that visibility and weather conditions were also bad this morning, and that the search is still taking place.

Drift is something that men at the Shackleton R.A.F. station know how to measure. They take wind and drift into measure. A square search has been carried out, and I have seen the track on the map. Quite obviously, no politician can say, as an airman or sailor can, what is right in this respect, but I am advised that the ground covered by the aircraft must cover the area where this boat could be if it were still on the water.

I regret what the hon. Gentleman has said about lack of urgency. That is not the case. We shall go on searching, this is our job, and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has told me that it is the work of the coastguards and of the lifeboats as well. Everything possible has been done, and it is grossly unfair to the relatives of these people to suggest that there is any dereliction of duty at this time.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understood that the general feeling of the House was that the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill would be taken formally and that we might get on to the very important debate ahead of us. This matter has now been ventilated. I think that we might proceed with the Second Reading.

Sir Robert Cary (Manchester, Withington)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the sentiments expressed in his opening remarks by the Government spokesman on this matter, surely there was nothing reprehensible or improper m the hon. Member on the Liberal benches raising this matter?

Mr. Speaker

Obviously, if the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) had been out of order he would not have been called. He was in order.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro) rose——

Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Member insist on speaking?

Mr. Wilson

I do not want to delay the House for more than a few moments, Mr. Speaker. I do not want to associate myself with any criticism of the R.A.F., but I heard from Mr. Rainbird, the proprietor of the hotel from which most of these people came. Yesterday, I spoke to him on the telephone. He told me that he knew this boat well and that it had lifeboats and other moveable material on the deck. He raised the question whether it could have been sunk without some trace being found. He thought that it might have drifted towards the Bay of Biscay.

I inquired from the Board of Trade what search had been made and I was told that the R.A.F. had searched a square area obtained by projecting a line 33 miles due south of Start Point and another line 17 miles due south from the Lizard, and joining the ends, a very considerable area and beyond which the vessel would not have drifted. I hope that the search will be continued in case there is any possibility that it has gone in the Biscay direction as Mr. Rainbird thinks.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee Tomorrow.