HC Deb 05 June 1967 vol 747 cc643-50
The President of the Board of Trade(Mr. Douglas Jay)

Shortly after 10 p.m. on 3rd June, a DC4 aircraft operated by Air Ferry Limited, on a flight from Man-ston to Perpignan, crashed on Mount Canigou when approaching Perpignan. From information at present available, it would appear that there were 88 people on board, all of whom lost their lives.

The investigation into this accident will be conducted by the French authorities. The United Kingdom has appointed an accredited representative and advisers to take part in the investigation and they arrived at Perpignan at 12.30 p.m. yesterday, 4th June.

At about 10.10 a.m. on 4th June, an Argonaut four-engined aircraft operated by British Midland Airways Limited on a flight from Palma to Ringway, Manchester, crashed in a built-up area in Stockport about five miles from the areo-drome. There were 78 passengers and five crew on board. There were 12 survivors, including the captain and one hostess. Preliminary information is that the aircraft was being directed by radar to make a descent on the instrument landing system and that during his positioning the pilot reported himself in difficulties and unable to maintain height. Five members of my Chief Inspector's staff left for the scene of the accident immediately after it occurred and are now conducting an investigation.

It will, of course, under international agreement, be a matter for the French authorities to decide what course to pursue in relation to the accident at Perpignan. I have decided that a public inquiry shall be held into the causes and circumstances of the accident at Stockport.

Further, while the application of United Kingdom standards of safety by operators of United Kingdom registered aircraft is kept constantly under examination, I have today given instructions for a special review of the performance of all such operators.

The whole House will, I know, wish to join me in expressing sympathy with the relatives and friends of all those who have lost their lives in these tragic accidents, and also with the survivors. The House will, I am sure, wish also to join me in warmly thanking all those who so promptly went to the assistance of the victims of the Stockport crash.

Mr. R. Carr

First, may I associate all those on this side of the House with the right hon. Gentleman's expression of sympathy with those who have suffered as a result of the accident and of gratitude to all those who helped, particularly in the rescue at Stockport yesterday.

While we certainly welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said about a special inquiry as well as the general inquiries into the accident, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that it would be very wrong to prejudge or to attach any blame even to particular airlines, aircraft or people and that we must await the outcome of his inquiries before making any judgment?

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman one or two further questions. Can he assure the House that, following the completion of those inquiries, there will be full publicity for the causes of the accidents and for any lessons which may be drawn from the findings of the inquiries? Can he give us an unequivocal assurance that such lessons will be put into practice and will be known to have been put into practice?

While stressing that I have no suspicions, let alone information, about the cause or blame for these accidents, and that the request which I am about to make has no direct connection with them, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the special need to increase air safety and to establish public confidence in it at a time when we are about to enter a new era in air transport, with very large aircraft carrying more than 500 people and the supersonic transports as well?

Will the Government, therefore, take the initiative in calling for a new international review of air safety, with particular reference to the risks of approaching and taking off from airports?

Mr. Jay

As to prejudging the facts in connection with these two tragic accidents, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be unwise to prejudge the facts in any way at present. Nevertheless, I think that there is a general responsibility on my Department and myself to ensure that everything possible is being done to ensure safety.

As to publicity of the inquiries and their results, the British inquiry into the Stockport accident will be held in public and the report will also, of course, be made public. The inquiry into the accident at Perpignan is the responsibility of the French authorities, but I hope that the maximum public information will be possible.

I wholly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about general regulations to maintain safety, and this is one of the reasons why I am instituting this special review. I will consider his suggestion for further international discussions on this.

Mr. Orbach

I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. Would he not spell out the thanks of the people of this country, and particularly of this House, to the police, the fire and ambulance services, the staff of the Stockport Infirmary and the many volunteers who, within seconds of the crash, were helping those people who are at present in hospital and who, I understand from a late report, have recovered slightly from the effects of the crash?

Also, does his statement with regard to the aircraft involved mean that the Argonauts, which are 18 or 20 years old, are at the moment to be grounded until they have been inspected and passed as airworthy by his Department? Last, has not the time come for legislation to enforce some control over travel agencies, particularly those engaged in cheap holiday traffic?

Mr. Jay

I entirely associate myself with what my hon. Friend said about those who went to the aid of the passengers affected by the accident, and I express my thanks to those who so promptly went to the assistance of the victims of the Stockport crash. My hon. Friend asked about certain types of aircraft. It would be much too soon, with the information which we have available at the moment, to make judgments either about particular types of aircraft affected by these accidents or otherwise. We must await the results of the two investigations before we make judgments of that kind.

Sir A. V. Harvey

On the Stockport accident, may I add my voice to those which have expressed sympathy with those involved? In bringing about the inquiry, will the right hon. Gentleman broaden it at least for the Stockport accident, at least to have a look at the safety division in his own Ministry and also the Air Registration Board which, for example—I do not attach undue importance to it—allows aircraft to operate in six sectors when the flight recorder is unserviceable? This is a technical point, but all these things should be carried out in considering safety.

Mr. Jay

I will look into all these matters. I am not sure that they would be appropriate for the public inquiry, but I will certainly consider them.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Will my right hon. Friend press the private operators concerned to ensure that aircraft similar to those used in these appalling tragedies will be withdrawn pending the outcome of these investigations?

Mr. Jay

I am not convinced, on the evidence before us, that it is necessary to take that step, but, of course, my hon. Friend's anxieties will not be overlooked.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we, too, would like to express our deepest sympathy with the relatives and friends of those who perished in this tragic accident and our congratulations to the police, the ambulance service and the private citizens who played such an heroic rôle in rescuing the survivors?

Is there not a general question here with regard to the use of these very old aircraft—20 or 25 years' old? Notwithstanding that the DC.4 and the Merlin-engined version, the Argonaut, were extremely successful in their day and flew for many years for B.O.A.C. without accident, has not the time now come to review whether there should be more stringent regulations, not over this type of aircraft, but over the use by independent operators of aircraft of a certain age? Will this be taken into account in the inquiry?

Mr. Jay

I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises that already at present an air operator's certificate has to be given to the airline, and, consequently, the Board of Trade Aviation Safety Division, on the advice of the Air Registration Board, has to give a licence to the individual aircraft. That is done frequently within periods of less than a year. There are already, therefore, two safeguards in force, but I will consider whether anything further is needed.

Mr. Gregory

As this crash occurred in a highly populated area in the centre of an industrial town, would my right hon. Friend not heed the pleas from both sides of the House about the withdrawal of these aircraft? The general discussion yesterday among the workers on the site was that it was important, if we were to have aircraft landing at holiday and peak times, that they should at least match the efficiency and technical ability of the aircraft of the main airlines.

Mr. Jay

There is no question but that no aircraft or type of aircraft is allowed to operate which is not fully safe. That applies to whatever airport they are operating. The existing regulations should ensure, so far as humanly possible, that this is fulfilled.

Mr. A. Royle

Yes, but is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Stockport disaster has underlined the danger to people living under the glide paths into international airports? What action are the Government taking to avoid the siting of airports near built-up areas? Will he set up an inquiry into this aspect of the matter, which is causing grave public concern?

Mr. Jay

One of the major factors in deciding the siting of an airport is that it should not be too near a built-up area, for reasons of noise and safety. On the other hand, if it is too far from a built-up area, one is involved in taking over agricultural land and other difficulties. There is a difficult balance to strike here, but I agree that safety is extremely important.

Mr. Mendelson

While agreeing with my right hon. Friend that we should not prejudge the particular issue involved in this investigation, he is no doubt aware that there is now grave and widespread concern about this accident. Will he assure us that the Government will be absolutely ruthless in publishing the facts and figures and making comparisons between different airlines and different owners, quite apart from these two aircraft involved? May I press him further to ground aircraft of that category pending the result of the inquiry?

Mr. Jay

The results of the inquiry into the Stockport accident will, of course, be published: the whole inquiry will be published. The exact procedure on the other inquiry is, as I said, in the hands of the French authorities. It is just because I have these anxieties in mind that I propose, in addition, to carry out a review of the performance of all these operators. I am not at the moment convinced, without a further examination of the facts, that we need to go beyond that.

Mr. Stratum Mills

Having regard to the very bad safety record of Perpignan Airport, has the right hon. Gentleman power to stop British planes using it, pending the full report of the inquiry? Has he any information about whether this airport has proper devices for keeping in touch with planes, including radar?

Mr. Jay

In the last resort, I would have power to do that for British aircraft and, if a case were made out, I should not hesitate to do so, but it would be wise to await the report before making any final decisions.

Mr. Rankin

While I agree generally with what my right hon. Friend has said and think that we ought not to come to easy judgments at present, is he aware that we are now entering the season when aircraft which have been out of commission for a long time are being rapidly brought into service to carry the holiday crowds to their destinations? Would he not agree that, as many of these aircraft are very old indeed, extra precautions are demanded from his inspectors, and will he see that that is done? Second, in view of these disasters—and we have had too many of them—does he not think that the time has come when he should put an age bar on future service of many existing aircraft?

Mr. Jay

As I said, under the present arrangements the individual aircraft is inspected from time to time by public inspectors and, of course, by the airline. I am sure that, in carrying out those inspections, the inspectors concerned will take into account the considerations which my hon. Friend has put forward.

Mr. Bidwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is currently in circulation a circular issued by the Air Safety Division of his Department which goes into the possibility of making variations in the present system of the certificate of maintenance for civil aircraft being signed by licensed aircraft maintenance engineers only, remembering that these regulations flow from the Southall air crash of 1958? Is he aware that this is causing considerable concern to some of my constituents as well as to the licensed aircraft maintenance engineers, who have made recent representations to my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Jay

I will certainly look into the point raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Robert Howarth

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the answer he gave to an earlier question about the use of Perpignan Airport, which has such a terrible record of aircraft flying into the surrounding mountains that one is bound to wonder whether it is good enough waiting until the French have held their inquiry into this accident? Would not it be possible for his Department now to consider the complete record of this airport with a view possibly to preventing British operators from using it?

Mr. Jay

I am not at the moment satisfied that we need to take action before receiving the report of the inquiry, but I will certainly consider that suggestion.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Is it not right that Perpignan Airport has recently introduced the very latest safety measures and should not that be on the record to put the matter straight? Is it not a fact that there is not, as yet, any evidence to show that age as such has been the cause of trouble in relation to these planes, and will the inquiry look into that aspect?

Mr. Jay

I believe that, in general, expert opinion is to the effect that a general judgment on aviation is not so relevant as an examination of the individual types and individual aircraft.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's question about Perpignan Airport, I am not quite sure what he means by the "latest safety measures", but, certainly, the airport has safety devices and instruments in force.

Mr. Mikardo

In calling for this special review, will my right hon. Friend ensure that it takes into account many other things? Is he aware, first, that most of the general standards of the A.R.B. were laid down a long time ago? Are they good enough in the present and greatly changed circumstances? Secondly, what are the practices and quality of standards of routine maintenance exercised by various operators?

Mr. Jay

Yes, Sir. Certainly the inquiry would include those two issues.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is an important matter, but I must protect the business of the House. We must move on to the next subject.

Sir G. de Freitas

On a point of order. I beg to give notice that I shall try to raise this matter on the Adjournment.