HC Deb 16 May 1968 vol 764 cc1401-4
Mr. Arthur Lewis

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement about the collapse of part of a block of flats at Custom House, Canning Town.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)

The House will have heard with deep regret of the tragic accident this morning at Custom House, Canning Town. Part of a 23-storey block of flats completed two months ago, owned by the Newham Borough Council, collapsed, and extensive damage was done to the whole of one corner of the block.

The full number of casualties is not yet known, but on my latest information I regret to say that three people lost their lives and 11 were injured. A small number of occupants are still unaccounted for. Eighty families have been evacuated from their homes.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government has visited the scene, and I am going there myself this afternoon. I am keeping in touch with the various public services concerned with the rescue operations, to whom I should like to pay full tribute for their efforts. I am assured that everything possible is being done by them and by the Newham Council to care for the injured and to rehouse those who have been evacuated or made homeless.

On behalf of the Government, I have offered any help which they may require in dealing with the immediate situation. The cause of the disaster is not known.

In view of the gravity of the occurrence the circumstances will be the sub- ject of an immediate and full inquiry, and I am now considering the form that this should take.

The House will wish to join me in expressing our deep sympathy with the bereaved and those who have lost their homes.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Lewis

In thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply, may I first explain that this tragedy took place in the constituency of West Ham, South, which is the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. Normally, he would be putting these questions, but because of procedural difficulty he cannot do so.

I am sure that, first, he would like to be associated with the sympathy expressed by my right hon. Friend, in which I and the whole House join. My right hon. and learned Friend was at the scene first thing this morning, and I have been there as well. We have seen just how wonderful were the efforts of a number of the public services. My right hon. and learned Friend and I would like to pay tribute to the Port of London Authority, the ambulance services, the police, the Salvation Army, and, above all, the London Fire Brigade, who were really magnificent.

May I also—and this is mainly on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question.

Mr. Lewis

My right hon. and learned Friend and I would like to know whether the inquiry will be set up speedily, because there is a need to allay public disquiet in the area. Can my right hon. Friend expedite the setting up of the inquiry and its meeting?

Mr. Callaghan

I hope to have a meeting tonight to consider what form the inquiry should take, because I fully understand the need to ascertain the causes of this tragedy to avert anxiety elsewhere. I am very glad to hear my hon. Friend pay tribute to the public services. His information on this accords with mine.

Mr. Hogg

When the Home Secretary goes to the site this afternoon, will he convey, on behalf of right hon. and hon. Members on these benches as well as on behalf of his right hon. and hon. Friends, the horror with which we have read of this appalling disaster to our fellow citizens and our deep sympathy with those involved?

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of a judicial inquiry in public, such as that which was held into the Aberfan disaster, so that the public may be reassured about the very disquieting facts which are inherent in an occurrence of this kind?

Mr. Callaghan

I am obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I shall certainly fulfil my duty to the whole House in conveying the sympathy of us all in this matter when I go to Newham.

I certainly shall not omit to consider any possible form of inquiry. The one the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned is certainly in my mind, but I should like to have a little more time to consider this matter.

Dr. David Kerr

In considering the method of inquiry to be used, will my right hon. Friend consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works to see whether it might be desirable to extend it to take into account the whole question of industrial building, such as was used in this block of flats, in order to give the reassurance which others inhabiting this kind of building would seek?

Mr. Callaghan

Yes, Sir. I can promise my hon. Friend that all the appropriate Ministers will be consulted in determining the form of the inquiry, its nature, its terms of reference, and whether or not it should be held in public.

Mr. Lubbock

Will the Home Secretary also convey, on behalf of the Liberal Party, our deepest sympathy with the relatives of those who have lost their lives?

Will the terms of reference of the inquiry be wide enough to allow reference to be made to any other buildings which might be suffering similar structural defects and advice to be given to architects on this point?

Mr. Callaghan

I accept the hon. Gentleman's charge to me, but perhaps I can be given a little more time to consider the nature of the inquiry.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that there is to be an inquiry. I hope that what the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) has said will not be allowed to go without comment, because he has just said that there was a structural defect. May not the matter be sub judice?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate the issue now.