HC Deb 23 November 1971 vol 826 cc1136-41
Mr. Russell Johnston

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he will make a statement on the climbing accident in the Cairngorms in which a number of young people lost their lives.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Gordon Campbell)

Every Member of the House will have seen or heard reports of this tragedy in the Cairngorms at the weekend. It has cost the lives of five Edinburgh schoolchildren and a young leader. A physical education student, who was leading the party, and one schoolboy are seriously ill in hospital at Inverness. I am sure the House will join with me in expressing our deep sympathy with all who have suffered distress and bereavement. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has sent a message of sympathy to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education, Scottish Office called on the Lord Provost yesterday to convey a similar message from me.

It is not yet possible to say in what circumstances the party set out on its expedition. The party was part of a group from the mountaineering club of Ainslie Park Secondary School in Edinburgh, which was based on an outdoor centre owned by Edinburgh Education Authority. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate has decided to institute a public inquiry under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act, 1906.

It must be the aim of all concerned to establish, in the light of what happened last weekend, what steps can best be taken to guard against any repetition of this tragedy. I understand that at its meeting today Edinburgh Education Committee decided to restrict the activities of pupils at its two outdoor centres and, in particular, to rule out overnight absences and to cancel all courses on winter mountaineering for pupils.

At the moment I would only add a tribute to all who took part in the rescue operations. These included police from the Inverness and North-Eastern Counties Constabularies, the Cairngorm and Braemar Mountain Rescue teams, the staff of Glenmore Lodge, and the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. They worked tirelessly without regard for their own personal safety in very difficult conditions, and but for their efforts there would have been no survivors from the party.

Mr. Russell Johnston

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The whole House will obviously echo what he has said in expressing sympathy with the bereaved parents in their sorrow. I would specifically mention the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Anthony Stodart) from whose constituency the children came and who I know has been in touch with the parents. This is a very sad business.

I echo what the Secretary of State has said about the mountain rescue teams, the police, and the local rescue forces whose hard work we all recognise.

I wish to ask the Secretary of State two questions in what is a very difficult matter to do anything about. First, the right hon. Gentleman has said that there will be an inquiry under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act. I hope that one of the matters on which great emphasis will be laid is the need to institute some kind of warning system. I know that this is terribly difficult, because anybody who has ever been to the Cairngorms knows that climatic conditions change with startling suddenness. We need some kind of harbour master of the hills, whatever one likes to call him, somebody to say, "No".

Second, these were young people. Alistair McCook, the leader of the Cairngorm Rescue Team, has been very critical of the fact that young people were allowed to go up to the mountain in this situation.

The Secretary of State knows that in recent years there has been great emphasis on "outward bound" activity. In my constituency and in the North generally there has been a proliferation of establishments dealing with this sort of thing of which Lagganlia run by Edinburgh Corporation is but one. I think that the Secretary of State should consider carefully whether these different establishments, some of them run by education authorities and some by youth organisations, should not be put under the direct control of the S.C.P.R., which knows its business and which might be able to prevent such tragic accidents from happening again.

Mr. Campbell

I understand that all the dead were constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Anthony Stodart), the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, who also has sent messages of sympathy.

The question of a warning system will lie within the remit of the inquiry, which can make suggestions and recommendations for avoiding the recurrence of such an incident. I myself made a similar suggestion on 20th February, 1969, from the Opposition side of the House when I put a Private Notice Question about the avalanche in the Cairngorms, in which nine people were buried, though, mercifully, on that occasion, none died. I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's second suggestion regarding co-ordination.

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call next the three hon. Members who also sought to put Private Notice Questions on this subject.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

I express my sympathy and join in the messages sent by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West, in whose constituency these young people lived. Indeed, all Edinburgh Members—one of whom, I know, is in Australia at the moment—send sympathy to the parents and relatives of those who died. I record my appreciation and admiration, too, for the work of the rescue teams.

Agreeing somewhat with the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston), may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will look into the possibility of some agency, voluntary or official, being given the duty and power to warn, to advise and, perhaps, to deter climbers in these areas during the winter months?

Mr. Campbell

I assure my hon. Friend that the Scottish Office, for its part, by a circular to schools in October last year, drew attention to the element of danger involved in outdoor activities, including mountaineering, and the importance of ensuring that teachers in charge of such activities are suitably qualified to lead. I shall give further thought to the matter in the light of what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Strang

All right hon. and hon. Members will wish to be associated with the expressions of symyathy to the parents and relatives of those involved in this disaster.

Could the right hon. Gentleman say when the inquiry is likely to report? Second, will he consider, in the meantime, issuing advice to local authorities which may be arranging similar climbing expeditions?

Mr. Campbell

An inquiry of this kind usually reports within about two months. In the meantime, I shall take any action which is open to me to try to prevent the occurrence of any similar accident.

Mr. Ronald King Murray

The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that the parents of some of the young people involved, who now live in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, will be my constituents if the proposed boundary changes take place. I associate myself with the sympathy which he has extended to all the bereaved.

Will the inquiry under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act which the Lord Advocate has ordered be of the fullest possible kind so that we may ascertain with complete certainty, or as great certainty as possible, what the facts were before any blame is attributed to anyone? Second, will the right hon. Gentleman take it upon himself, as Secretary of State, to ensure that the widest publicity is given throughout all adventure groups to the dangers to be encountered on our hills in winter?

Mr. Campbell

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the procedure under Scottish law provides for a very wide remit for the inquiry. I have already referred to the action already taken by circular in October last year. I shall see whether there is anything more we can do to make sure that everyone concerned is aware of the dangers.

Mr. Ross

The whole House will be in accord with the sympathy and sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State.

One further point arises from the right hon. Gentleman's statement. He said that it would be two months before the inquiry reports. Has he in mind any emergency action bringing together the local authorities, the police, the mountain rescue people, the ski clubs and so on in the area to put into practice some emergency procedures? Obviously, in these conditions, we must err on the side of safety.

Mr. Campbell

I understand that the speed and co-ordination of the rescue services were not in question on this occasion. I shall certainly ensure that this co-ordination works as effectively on any future occasion. I think that the question of warning is what concerns the House most—living just north of this area, I have for a long time been concerned about it, too—and I shall give full attention to it.

Mr. Brewis

Is it an essential requirement that all who engage in this sort of expedition leave a complete itinerary showing where they propose to go, before they set out?

Mr. Campbell

I cannot prejudge what may come out of the inquiry into this incident, but it is a sensible precaution for anyone in these circumstances to leave information about where he intends to go.

Sir M. Galpern

I recognise that mountaineering can be an excellent character training activity, but will the Secretary of State go a little beyond the point of warning about the dangers involved by now following the lead of the Edinburgh Education Authority and instructing local authorities similarly arranging mountaineering activities in the winter time to cease forthwith?

Mr. Campbell

I shall consider that suggestion. As I have said, I have already sent warnings to all the education authorities concerned. I shall consider what further action may be usefully taken.

Earl of Dalkeith

Will my right hon. Friend make it abundantly clear by every means at his disposal that it is not only children who are vulnerable when climbing in mountains like the Cairngorms but many adults during the past few years have caused great anxiety to those who have had to go to look for them? Could he institute some sort of system whereby all those concerned to go climbing let someone in responsibility know where they are going, and when they are going, so that they may be checked for the right equipment, food and supplies?

Mr. Campbell

As my noble Friend says, there have, unfortunately, been other incidents in recent years, but tragedies have been avoided in recent years, also, by the warnings and precautions which have been taken. We cannot be satisfied, however, whenever an accident of this nature can occur, and I certainly shall never be.

Mr. Rankin

In spite of what the Secretary of State has said, will he now, in view of the nature and extent of the terrible casualty list as a result of this expedition, lay down that no further ventures of this kind can be sanctioned until we know precisely what happened in this case?

Mr. Campbell

I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I do not think that it would be within the power of any Minister or Department to stop individuals doing something of this kind. I hope that the publicity given to the incident and to what has been said in the House today, together with any further action which I hope to be able to stimulate myself, will make the warning clear to everyone this winter, until the inquiry is completed, which, as I say, may take about two months, though it could well be shorter than that.