HC Deb 05 August 1966 vol 733 cc881-5

11.8 a.m.

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

On Wednesday, 3rd August, I spoke to the House about the arrangements made for searching areas off the coast of Cornwall for the missing pleasure vessel "Darlwin". As the House will be aware, there have been further developments of which I should like to give an account. On Wednesday, the Shackleton which I reported as airborne at midday actually arrived in the area at 3.30 p.m. and remained on task until last light. The search was resumed at first light on Thursday, and at 6.22 a.m. a Shackleton located wreckage and two bodies in the search area, south east of Dodman Point, which is virtually the datum point on which the search was based.

Two further bodies in the same area were subsequently located by an R.N. helicopter. The four bodies and a lifebelt were subsequently brought to Falmouth by R.N.L.I. lifeboats. Some of these have now been positively identified as having been passengers on the "Darlwin".

The Shackleton search continued until last light yesterday. All day R.N. and R.A.F. helicopters were also out. Today, Friday, the search is being carried out by a Shackleton, and helicopters will be used to investigate any wreckage or bodies found.

When I spoke to the House on Wednesday, it was at short notice and I was not able to check every detail as closely as I should have wished. On that occasion, I said that on 1st August the Shackleton was on task from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., whereas the actual times were from 10 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. The changed times do not reflect delay. The first helicopter was despatched from Chivenor to the search area at 6.5 a.m. within 13 minutes of the request for air assistance. It was when the initial search area had been covered without sign of the vessel, wreckage or survivors that it was decided to extend the search area. It was for this reason that the Shackleton took off at 10 a.m. in order to make sure every contingency was covered. The inshore search was continued with helicopters.

The wreckage found yesterday came to the surface in the middle of the initial search area. I hope this will be accepted as vindicating the judgment of the experts who determined what this area should be. The search is still going on under the direction of the R.A.F. Rescue/Co-ordination Centre at Plymouth as it has since the search began.

I am sure that the House will wish me to pay tribute to the Navy, the R.A.F. the Coastguards, the Lifeboat Service and all who have helped in any way in this operation.

Once more I want to express also the sympathy of the House to the relatives and friends of the victims of this tragedy.

If I may add something for the convenience of the House, as I was coming into the House I was informed that at the moment a helicopter is also out and that very recently, I can give no precise information, further wreckage has been found.

Mr. Sharples

May I from this side of the House add our tributes to all those in the Services, the coastguards, the lifeboat services and others who have taken part in this operation. It certainly seems that everything possible was done and that all those concerned acted in the highest traditions of the Services to which they are connected.

There is one question that I would like to ask, and that is whether the House can be told if the wreckage was found in the area of the dangerous shoals and reefs which lie off Dodman Point?

Mr. Rees

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. With regard to his question, I can say that this is so. I am informed it is two miles off Dodman Point.

Mr. Bessell

May I also, on behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends and my constituents, express deepest sympathy with the relatives of the missing persons, and may I further add that I am satisfied that everything possible was done in the circumstances to effect this search. May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he accepts that the facts which I gave to the House, as they were supplied to me, by his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, on Wednesday, were substantially correct?

Mr. Rees No, Sir. I have inquired into this very carefully, even in the last hour. The hon. Gentleman quite correctly telephoned the private office of my right hon. Friend. There are two aspects of this. First of all, with regard to the information which the hon. Gentleman gave in the House concerning what happened on Monday, which I denied in the House on Wednesday, it is denied absolutely that these facts were given to the hon. Gentleman. With regard to the Wednesday aspect of things, the hon. Gentleman telephoned the private office and it telephoned the office of my noble Friend the Minister. The office's instructions are to be as helpful as possible, and it gave the hon. Gentleman information as it was happening. I have looked at a television broadcast in which the hon. Gentleman took part last evening, and all that I can say in this brief moment is that he has misunderstood what was happening at that time. So far as the events of Monday are concerned, I said in the House on Wednesday that a Shackleton and a helicopter were flying all day and that there was no question of it being withdrawn or even recalled. That is in the record of the House two days ago.

Mr. Bessell

In view of the hon. Gentleman's statement, may I affirm again, without any equivocation whatever, that the information which I gave to the House about the events on Monday was that which was supplied to me by the private office of his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade? I have a witness to this conversation. Furthermore, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the facts as I gave them to the House relating to the subsequent events on Tuesday and Wednesday morning were correct?

Mr. Rees

I repeat again that there can be no question about what happened on Monday, because I gave the facts of the matter to the House two days ago. I am only sorry that last night, I am given to understand, the hon. Gentleman used the earlier information yet again. It is very difficult to deal with particular points across the Floor of the House at the moment, but I dealt with the circumstances of Tuesday and Wednesday on Wednesday, and I am quite satisfied that everything possible was done to deal with this case. There is no doubt in my mind whatever. I understand that it has been suggested that the R.A.F. took off only because private aircraft were taking off. That is not true. Statements of that kind only do a great deal of harm to the morale of a very great group of Service men and R.N.L.I. and coastguard men who have been working extremely hard for the last week.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement and strongly associate myself with his last remarks. These men are experts and this is not the first search which they have carried out. They work extremely hard and very long hours and they have been on the job all the week. In the West Country, we thank them very much for their constant vigil, and we would also like to thank the lifeboat men and the Navy and those other services which have been on watch all week.

Mr. Rees

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody) for her remarks. I know that she, too, has been in touch with the Board of Trade. She had a word with me just before I spoke in the House on Wednesday and I know her great interest in this matter.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot pursue this further now.

Sir Knox Cunningham

On a point of order. Is it not possible to ask a question in order to help to avoid future tragedies of this kind, Mr. Speaker? Will you not allow one question?

Mr. Speaker

That is a request to which I will respond.

Sir Knox Cunningham

As it now seems certain that there has been a tragic loss of life, will the hon. Gentleman ask his right hon Friend to order a formal inquiry into this loss under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894?

Mr. Rees

That is not the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, of course, but I will convey the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks to the proper quarter.

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