HC Deb 06 March 1972 vol 832 cc1029-32
Mr. Pink

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement on the hovercraft disaster which occurred last Saturday with loss of life.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)

regret to have to report that an SRN 6 hovercraft, operated by Hovertravel Limited, overturned at the end of a journey from Ryde to Southsea when half a mile south-west of Clarence Pier at approximately 4.8 p.m. on Saturday, 4th March, 1972; 26 persons, including the captain, were aboard the craft, and four lives were lost. This is the first hovercraft casualty in passenger service in the United Kingdom involving loss of life.

Officials of the Department are conducting an on-the-spot inquiry into the incident, and urgent consideration will be given to the findings.

I should like to thank all those concerned in the rescue operation's, without which the loss of life might have been greater. I know that the House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy with those who have been bereaved as the result of the disaster.

Mr. Pink

I thank the Under-Secretary for that reply, and wish to associate myself with his expressions of sympathy. As this is the first major hovercraft accident, may I ask him to treat the inquiry as a matter of urgency in view of the undoubted anxiety which will occur to operators and users of hovercraft throughout the world? Will he consider making regulations for the operation of hovercraft in bad weather?

Mr. Grant

I assure my hon. Friend that the matter is being dealt with urgently. We expect the on-the-spot inquiry to be completed this week and its report will be urgently considered by the Department. The suggestion in the last part of his supplementary question will be considered in the light of the findings of the inquiry.

Mr. Mason

May I, too, associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Minister's expression of sympathy for the bereaved and also pay tribute to Captain Course for his action in helping to save so many passengers in hazardous circumstances? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 117,000 crossings by hovercraft involving—allowing for even a two thirds payload—the safe passage of about 2¼ million people, apart from crossings of the Channel and various other operations in many parts of the world, represent a remarkable safety record?

Although the design may now be in question, may I ask the Under-Secretary to agree that there may have been an unusual combination of freak wind and wave conditions? May I also press him to accept that speed is imperative in considering this whole matter, so enabling the Department, the Air Registration Board and the British Hovercraft Corporation to find the cause quickly, which will result in the remedy being effected and the restraint being lifted as soon as possible?

Mr. Grant

I share the right hon. Gentleman's comments about Captain Course, who was the captain of this vessel. I also agree with him that the industry has had an extremely good safety record. Certainly I confirm that no effort will be spared to bring the results of the inquiry, and such action as may be necessary as a result of it, to a speedy conclusion.

Mr. Woodnutt

May I express my deepest sympathy to the friends and relatives of those who died and, of course, to those who suffered, and in this I know I am expressing the view of all the people of the Isle of Wight, who feel most unhappy that this tragedy should have occurred to a craft of which they are justly proud?

May I also add my tribute to Captain Course and all the rescuers? I managed to get there about 40 minutes after the accident happened. I can speak from personal experience of the quiet calm, courage and skill displayed by everybody in this operation.

Is the Under-Secretary aware that this tragedy emphasises the high degree of safety of this form of craft? It is a fact that of the nine operational services in this country over the last six years, involving the carriage of 7 million passengers, this has been the first fatal accident. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must not let this tragedy, sad though it is, obscure the wonderful record and future potential of this craft?

Mr. Grant

Yes, indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the comments in the first part of his supplementary question, and I entirely agree with the observations he made in the second part.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Like the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt), I happened to travel to and from the Isle of Wight on Saturday afternoon by hovercraft. I am glad that the Minister emphasised the excellent safety record of this craft. Will he now express his complete confidence in the whole future of the hovercraft as a form of travel?

Mr. Grant

The hon. Gentleman has taken the matter rather wider. Nevertheless, in previous debates and discussions, views on the future of the hovercraft industry have been clearly expressed. I agree that we should not necessarily allow ourselves to be deflected as a result of what one hopes is an isolated, though sad and tragic, incident.

Mr. Rost

Has the Minister seen the article in today's Daily Express by Sir Christopher Cockerell pointing out that the craft involved in the accident was designed as long ago as 1961 and emphasising that there has been a drying up of Government finance for research and development on hovercraft generally? Is it not nonsensical that we should be able to find hundreds of millions of pounds to prop up inefficient nationalised and declining industries and yet starve an industry with such growth and export potential of R. & D. finance?

Mr. Heffer

You stupid man.

Mr. Grant

My hon. Friends observations go much wider than the immediate Question.

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