HC Deb 13 February 1970 vol 795 cc1706-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr. Lames Hamilton.]

4.03 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

It is with great reluctance that I draw the attention of the House to the tragic circumstances in which three young constituents of mine, Richard Pinch, Andrew Bull, and Robin Perry, lost their lives on Maplin Sands over a year ago, since this is bound to reopen wounds for their loved ones. But I have been drivon to take this course by the persistent refusal of the Home Office to hold a proper inquiry or to provide satisfactory answers to questions, some of which at least are of considerable public importance.

The facts, as far they are known, are as follows. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon on 4th January, 1969, six young men in two cars drove past the Ministry of Defence police post at the entrance to the high security area of the Proof and Experimental Establishment at Foulness They parked their cars at Wakering Stairs and walked out on to the Maplin Sands. They were on a wild-fowling expedition. Strictly speaking they were trespassing, but may have been unaware of the fact since, both before and after the tragedy, many people have walked on the Sands without being challenged by the Establishment's officials.

At about 4.45 p.m. one member of the party, feeling the cold returned to his car. Two others joined him at about 5.30 p.m. A heavy mist began to roll in from the sea. Before long, the three men grew concerned for the safety of their friends, and went back to the sands firing their guns and shouting in an attempt to guide them back to the agreed rendezvous. They now became seriously alarmed and, on the advice of a local man, Mr. Alan Dobson, decided to report the matter to the Establishment police post. This was at about 6.30 p.m. The officer on duty advised them to return to Wakering Stairs and direct their car headlights towards the sea. Ten minutes later a military Landrover appeared, and Mr. Dobson—who I must say behaved throughout with the most commendable energy and good sense—asked the driver if he would take his vehicle on to the Sands and shine its headlights out to sea. The driver said that he could not do so without specific instructions from his superiors. Mr. Dobson then drove his own car out for about 300 yards turning it in several directions with fog and head lamps full on.

He eventually returned to the sea wall and found that an Establishment police inspector had arrived with a loud hailer. Mr. Dobson asked whether an amphibious vehicle could be made available or if the Establishment's radar could be used. An amphibious vehicle was available, but it was not produced until the civil police requested it some four hours later. As for using the Establishment's radar, Mr. Dobson was told that it would be useless. He was told that an organised search would mean a major alert.

It was not until 8.45 p.m., well over two hours after the men's disappearance had been reported, that an Establishment official telephoned the civil police at Rochford. At 9.20 p.m. two constables arrived on the scene by car, having been delayed by poor visibility. It was, in- credibly, not until 9.50 p.m., some three hours after the alarm had been given, that the coastguards were alerted. It seems clear, therefore, that there was no drill to deal with an emergency or to communicate with the civil police or with the coast guards, which seems an exceedingly odd situation for a high security establishment.

But these gaps in time are highly significant for another reason, as I shall presently show.

First, however, it is necessary to describe the scene. The Maplin Sands lie just east of Shoeburyness and Foulness Island and cover an area of up to 40 sq. miles. They are flat and firm, and have recently attracted a great deal of attention as a possible site for the third London Airport. They slope very gradually to the sea, and at low tide the distance between the land and the channel edge is some 2½ to 3 miles.

When my young constituents ventured on the stands that fateful afternoon the tide was out. It reached its lowest ebb at about 8 o'clock. Local people are firmly convinced that it would have been impossible for the men, once they had lost their way in the mist, to have reached water deep enough in which to drown much before 9 o'clock. Exactly how they died will probably never be known. Richard Pinch's body was discovered on the outer edge of the sands in March. Andrew Bull's body was found closer in to land in June, and Robin Perry's body has never been found. At the inquest on Richard Pinch held in April, one witness spoke of muffled shots being heard at 9 o'clock, while an experienced military witness from the Establishment said that the men could not have drowned earlier than 10 o'clock, having regard to the distance to be covered and the nature of the terrain. Attempts were made subsequently by the Secretary of State for Defence in a letter to me to explain away this evidence, but what he said left me, the relatives and the local people who know the Sands totally unconvinced.

My inquiries elicited the fact that the heavy mist that had caused the men to lose their way had begun to lift shortly after 8 o'clock. According to the log of the Greek Coaster "Paraskevi Lemos" anchored off the edge of the Sands visibility had improved by 9.28 precisely to about two to three miles and the ship was able to resume its course. This was nearly half an hour before anyone at the Establishment had had the wit to telephone the coastguards.

We in the Thames Estuary have the highest regard for the efficiency and devotion of the coastguard service and the excellence of our lifeboat crews. A good many people are convinced that had the coastguards been alerted at the outset there might have been a reasonable chance of the missing men being located. Once summoned, the Southend lifeboat could have reached the outer edge of the Sands in about 1¼ hours. It is equipped with radar, is perfectly capable of locating people on the Sands, and has in fact saved lives there before. Even if the reserve lifeboat, which is without radar, had been called out, it would have been possible to operate in conjunction with the radar equipment of larger ships in the locality. This too has been done before, and on the fatal night in question there were three such ships all anchored close to the edge of the sands. Unhappily, nobody saw fit to alert the coastguards until it was too late.

These are not theoretical points. They are highly relevant matters, as an inquiry, if one had been held, would have shown. I have a report from a senior police officer in the Essex police, following the inquest held on Andrew Bull in September, which refers to a direction from the Coroner that there was need for better liaison between the Establishment and the civil police. This direction, says the report, directly stemmed from the admitted failure of the Establishment's officers to contact the civil police until two hours ten minutes after the alarm had been sounded. The report said that in future what was needed was an early decision regarding the use of emphiban vehicles, the Establishment was now aware of the dangers and their equipment was likely to be more readily available should it be needed. It added that a much more stringent check was now being kept on trespassers.

I had already discovered that the Establishment was equipped with radar three days after the tragedy when I tried to stop a gunnery shoot while the missing men's friends were continuing the search for their bodies. I was told that the Establishment's radar ensured that no firing could take place while anyone was on the Sands or in a boat in the vicinity. Why then was radar not used at the material time? Surely in a high security establishtment there is always an operator on duty or at least on call. Why was he not summoned? I hope the Joint Under-Secretary knows the answer.

Even if my young constituents had been trespassing, how is it that they were ever allowed to wander freely in a security area? I ask this because even, I as the Member representing constituents on Foulness Island, cannot enter the area without a permit. I recall that the Establishment had the nerve some years ago to suggest that if I went to visit my constituents there and was injured in the process the responsibility was mine. The object presumably was to deter me from visiting the Island. The Defence Secretary hastily put that right when I threatened to raise the matter in this House as an interference with my right to visit constituents. Nevertheless, I would not dream of entering the area without showing my permit. Why did three young men have to lose their lives before a more stringent check on trespassers was introduced?

After a conference with the fathers of the three men I wrote to the Defence Secretary on 4th February last year, asking for details of the search which had been conducted, its extent and the number of persons involved. I also asked what liaison there had been with the civil police. The right hon. Gentleman replied on 20th February, saying that from the time the alarm was raised on 4th January the number of Establishment personnel involved varied from 30 to 70. That statement was incorrect. Following the inquest on Richard Pinch in April the right hon. Gentleman wrote to me again, admitting that the figure should have been 13 to 70. That also was an incorrect statement as I was to discover later. For at the inquest on Andrew Bull held in September an Establishment Police Inspector said on oath than only 4 men had been available to him that night—that is during the material time while there was a chance the men were still alive.

I mention this because it is one indication—there are others—of the inaccurate, misleading and evasive way in which the authorities have responded throughout to requests for information.

Is it any wonder that the Defence Secretary's letters did not satisfy the men's relatives? When I pressed him for a full inquiry I was told that copies of the correspondence had been sent to the Home Office since the policing of the area was a matter for that Department. Incidentally, the writ of the Essex police did not run within the Establishment.

On 11th April I wrote to the Home Secretary, asking for an investigation with the purpose of ensuring that a similar tragedy could not recur. Three days later the hon. Gentleman, the Under-Secretary, replied, saying that he was satisfied that all reasonable steps had been taken by the police to find the bodies of the three men. But this continued to evade the issue.

The point which concerned the relatives and myself—and which should concern the general public—was a different one. It was this; had there been more effective liaison between the Establishment on the one hand and the civil police and the coastguards on the other, was there not just a possibility that there would have been no bodies to find, since within the three hours between the alarm being sounded and the time of real danger, the men might have been located?

I kept up the pressure. In June the Defence Secretary at last conceded that in a civil emergency the correct action of the Establishment should be to inform the civil police. Accordingly, he was making arrangements to ensure that in future all requests for assistance on the Maplin Sands from members of the public were reported to the civil police and to the Establishment's duty officer. It had taken five months and innumerable letter from me to get the Defence Secretary to acknowledge that there had in fact, been no liaison between the Establishment and the civil police and that there was a danger to members of the public.

Throughout these exchanges the Home Office remained quiescent. It seemed to have no awareness of what was at stake. At the inquest on Andrew Bull in September, three months after the Defence Secretary had told me that new arrangements had been made, a chief inspector of the Essex Police told the coroner: No new instructions have been adopted since for procedure between Army and civilian police". What were we to believe? It looked as though not a single lesson had been learnt. I could not let the matter rest there. The new liaison arrangements, if they had been introduced, could not restore life to the dead men, but were obviously vital for the general public and other constituents of mine.

Accordingly, I wrote on 7th October to the hon. Gentleman saying that I was not satisfied that everything possible had been done to prevent a similar tragedy occurring in the future. Once again I asked for an inquiry into what had happened in January, 1969 and to be told what arrangements had been made since to ensure effective liaison between the Establishment and the civil police. Six weeks later I had to write again complaining that I had not had a reply.

Finally the hon. Gentleman stirred himself and sent me a letter on 26th November, which again completely missed the point. He made no reference to the delay in informing the civil police. He quoted the Chief Constable of Essex who had told him that it was for the coastguards to inform the lifeboat service and for that service to judge whether to send a lifeboat. That was a blinding statement of the obvious. What the hon. Gentleman did not explain was why the coastguards had not been informed by anyone in authority until nearly three-and-a-half hours after the alarm had been riled and over an hour after the civil police had been told of the emergency. That was the question which needed to be answered. That was what gave cause for concern. That was the point consistently ignored.

Then the hon. Gentleman said that the new liaison arrangements had, in fact, been introduced by the Ministry of Defence on 4th June. I do not doubt that, but it was odd considering that the police witness at the inquest in September had said that he was unware of any such instructions. And as for an inquiry, the hon. Gentleman did not think that one was necessary.

The House will now readily understand how, with every succeeding letter from the Defence Secretary and the hon. Gentleman, it had become more and more apparent that a properly constituted inquiry was necessary. After the letter I have just quoted, Andrew Bull's father wrote to me saying that every question put to Ministers had either been ignored altogether or had been answered by half truths, or down-right lies, and with this Robin Perry's father fully concurred. Mr. Bull put a fresh series of questions to me and I put these to the hon. Gentleman on 3t0h December. To this day I have had no reply.

I have been an hon. Member of this House for 20 years and in that time I have ventilated quite a few grievances on behalf of my constituents. I have never known Ministers to behave in a more evasive, insensitive and myopic way as they have done in this case. Perhaps even at this late hour the hon. Gentleman can give an explanation. I shall listen with close interest to what he says, but I serve notice that nothing short of a full inquiry into all the circumstances of this case and the lessons to be drawn from it will ever satisfy me or my constituents.

4.19 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

Hon. Members who have listened to the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) will share one feeling, and that is of great distress over the deaths of three young men, coupled with the deepest sympathy with their families.

The hon. Gentleman has given his account of the tragedy and I can best contribute by giving a brief description of the place where it happened, the day on which it happened and the action which was taken by the police and other services on that day and subsequently. Maplin Sands are, as we know, in the area controlled by the Ministry of Defence Proof and Experimental Establishment at Shoeburyness which is a restricted area, as was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. It is an area from which the public are generally excluded except for certain rights of way which are governed by the Shoeburyness Artillery Range byelaws and the Military Lands Acts, 1892 to 1903. When firing is in progress all members of the public are excluded, even from the rights of way, but at other times the public are allowed on rights of way although they must not stray off them or kill any game or other birds unless they are issued with a permit issued by the superintendent of the establishment. The sands cover some 30 square miles. The open side to which the public have access is some 15,000 yards in length and, therefore, in practice it is very difficult to make certain that no members of the public trespass at any one time—that is, when firing is not taking place.

The sands, which, as I say, cover some 30 square miles, have several channels and creeks, some of which have water all the time. Others are full only when the tide is in. In general—and this is a point which must be impressed upon the House—the sands are fairly firm when the tide is out but there are a number of places, especially at low tide, which are particularly soft and treacherous as a result of ammunition firing by the Army Department. One such area is near Havengore Creek in the vicinity of which the young men were last seen.

There is, I appreciate, a conflict of evidence with regard to the condition of Maplin Sands, but it is only fair that I should draw attention to the evidence of the superintendent of the establishment and his master gunner. They know the sands intimately, and they say that at low water there are dangerous areas which retain water and other areas of soft sand from which any person entering would have the greatest difficulty in extricating himself. These areas fill partly as a result of tidal action and partly by the explosive action of shells fired from the establishment.

On an incoming tide, while not dangerous, the ground generally gives the impression of opening slightly, and a person walking round these creeks could tire fairly quickly. Once the water starts to come over the sands it is impossible for a person to keep ahead of the tide, but the average depth at high-tide is about 4 feet only.

Coming to the day of the tragedy, about 3 p.m. the six young men drove to Wakering Stairs and left their car in order to go wild-fowling. They split up into two parties. One group came back and was off the sands at about 5.30 p.m. when mist from the sea had thickened. There was a very thick fog and it was nearly dark. They decided to search for the other party and shouted and fired shots, but at no time did they receive any answer.

At about 6.35 p.m. the brother of one of the missing men and another member of the group went to the nearby Army Department constabulary police post and reported the men missing. The Army officers went to the area and effected an immediate search, using vehicle headlights and loud-hailers but without success. Throughout this period the tide was in full ebb. That is a point which must be impressed upon the House. Low tide that evening was some time between 7 and 8 p.m. The thick fog was persisting and the likelihood was that the men were lost on land.

At about 8.45 p.m. the Army Department constabulary contacted the civil police who sent a radio message to the nearest available patrol car. Because of the thick fog, however, it took the two police officers in the car 35 minutes to drive six miles to the scene—not an unreasonable performance in those difficult circumstances.

Mr. Braine

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why it took so long for a call to be sent to the police, which one would expect to be automatic?

Mr. Morgan

I have explained that at that time there was grave doubt about whether the young men were on the sands at all. We now have the benefit of hindsight, but to a person placed in that situation, it was perfectly possible that they were lost on land, that they had reached the sea wall but, the fog being so thick, they could not find their way back to Wakering Steps.

It was 9.15 by the time the police car arrived, and the men had then been missing for over five hours. The police officers first obtained details of the missing men and arranged for a check to be made at their home addresses in case they had returned. In the meantime they alerted Her Majesty's Coast Guards. At 10.15 p.m., a police sergeant from Rochford police station attended the scene having learned that the three men had not, in fact, returned home. A further search was made of the area by the police, Army Department constabulary and coast guards, and at 11 p.m., when the fog had cleared, the police and coast guards placed cars with flashing blue lights along the shore.

The fact that a tanker some miles away from that point gave a different record of visibility cannot be conclusive here because, obviously, fog can exist in very thick patches. I do not consider that anything should be read into that.

Mr. Braine

But if the coast guards had been informed at the proper time, some attempt could have been made at the outer edge of the sands to locate these men. We know that this could have been done, but it was not attempted because no one informed the coast guards.

Mr. Morgan

I do not know the exact point in time when the coast guards were informed, but it must have been fairly soon after the arrival of the police patrol car in the circumstances I have described.

Mr. Braille rose

Mr. Morgan

As there was no response, the sergeant obtained the use of a D.U.K.W. vehicle from the Army Department constabulary, and from 12.15 a.m. to 1.45 a.m. on Sunday, 5th January this was used to search the sands in the area. By this time, however, it was high tide, and there was little more that could be done apart from continuing patrol and observation of the sea wall throughout the night by the Army Department constabulary.

A search of the whole area by Army Department constabulary, police officers, a police launch and a helicopter from R.A.F. Manston began at daybreak on the Sunday morning, until a short while after low water. This search was carried on throughout the day, although I think that we must accept that by this time it was a search for the bodies of the men rather than an attempt to save them.

We have heard of the recovery of the bodies from the hon. Gentleman, and I shall now deal with the matters which have been raised by the father of Andrew Bull. At first, Mr. Bull was unable to accept that his son had met his death by drowning, and, with the support of the hon. Gentleman, he pursued the matter at great length with the Essex and Southend-on-Sea constabulary, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. Even now, he complains about the conduct of the inquest on his son, but the major part of his complaint at the moment is that insufficient efforts were made to find and save the missing men.

Mr. Braine

This is important—

Mr. Morgan

I have very little time.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Morgan

Both Mr. Bull and the hon. Gentleman have received extremely full and detailed accounts from the chief constable of Essex and the Ministry of Defence of everything that happened during the period in question. I think it fair to quote from a letter which the hon. Gentleman sent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 10th May, in reply to a letter of 30th April from the Minister dealing very fully with the facts. This is what the hon. Gentleman said: I feel that your reply was satisfactory". That is not the same as the tenor of his remarks this afternoon in relation to this case.

A detailed police report was sent by the chief constable to Mr. Bull's solicitors, and there has also been an inquest at which all the parties gave evidence. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged in his letter, as I have said, that these points had been dealt with, and he described them as, a very full account which sets out the story in meticulous detail". There are a number of complaints, but I have time to mention only one or two. As regards the inquest, it is only proper that I should stress that the conduct of the inquest was not a matter in which the Home Secretary had any responsibility but it was, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, entirely a matter for the coroner, who is an independent judicial officer. The only procedure for challenging a verdict of an inquest is that prescribed by Section 6 of the Coroner's Act, 1887.

As regards the conduct of the Army Department Constabulary, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has written to the hon. Member on four occasions, and he has provided me with the answers to certain specific questions with which I would like to deal in detail, but time does not permit.

Mr. Bull's line of approach to his criticisms of the civil police is to suggest further steps which he claims should have been taken, such as an immediate full search of the Sands, and helicopters laying flare paths in the fog. The answers to Mr. Bull's criticisms can be summed up by saying that the chief constable is thoroughly satisfied that the officers on the spot did everything that they thought might be both useful and practical in the prevailing conditions. A complete search of the Maplin Sands on a foggy night is not possible, and any attempt to do this would probably have endangered the lives of the searchers rather than have found the missing men.

It has been put to me that an inquiry should be ordered. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is talking of an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, 1921 or under Section 32 of the Police Act, 1964, but it is presumably the latter. If so, the hon. Gentleman must appreciate that that is an inquiry to be held only in very special circumstances. There has been only one since the Act was passed—the inquiry in the Challoner case. Such an inquiry deals with the question of the efficiency, or lack of it, in the policing of a whole area. It is a matter which goes to the issue of the efficiency of the force as such, and an inquiry must take place in circumstances where it could garner facts which would not otherwise be available. I believe that all the available facts in the case have been produced to the hon. Gentleman and his constituent.

I refute all the charges the hon. Gentleman has made, both against the Home Office and the Defence Department.

Mr. Braine

May I ask the Minister briefly—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Briefly—

Mr. Braine

I have been shocked by that reply, which has given no answer to the detailed case I presented. It is true that I wrote to the Defence Department—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has exhausted his right to speak. He may ask a question before the Minister sits down.

Mr. Braine

The letter I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence was about the search carried out for the bodies at a later stage and before the second inquest. With the advantage of hindsight—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-seven minutes to Five o'clock.