HC Deb 16 July 1981 vol 8 cc1504-10

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

12.1 am

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the Tenerife air disaster. With the lapse of time, many dependants of those who lost their lives in that disaster believe that it is a tragedy that Britain has tended to forget. The Tenerife air disaster was a great tragedy that touched the lives of a number of my constituents and indeed, of many families in the North-West of England.

As the House will recall, on 25 April 1980 a Dan-Air Boeing 727 aircraft en route for Los Rodeos airport in Tenerife crashed with the loss of 146 British lives. It is a matter of regret and concern that after 15 months we are still awaiting publication of the report of the investigation into the causes of the accident. I am, however, encouraged to learn that a statement is to be made in the House on Monday of next week.

Why have we had to wait 15 months for the report to be published? What possible justification is there for inflicting 15 months of waiting and anxiety on the dependants of those who lost their lives in the air crash? How do we explain the indecision and confusion over the publication of the report?

A telex message was sent by the British air attache at the British embassy in Madrid on 9 March to the distinguished lawyer acting for the dependants of the people who lost their lives in the tragedy, Mr. Neville Whittle of Leeds. Wing-Commander Stanway said in the telex: Thank you for your letter of 18 February. . . The final report into the accident will be completed this week and a copy sent to DOT, London"— next week. The report has not been published so far. Why was the British air attache in Madrid sending such telex messages way back on 9 March?

Many of my constituents are anxious to learn why the Spanish Government and authorities acted with such appalling insensitivity in clearing the site of the disaster. Let me quote from a letter written by Mr. Neville Whittle after he had visited the site. He said: On the 12th March I visited the scene of the crash with our Vice-Consul from Las Palmas, Mr. Hazell. We were both extremely surprised to find that the scene of the accident, which is quite close to the main road leading to the top of the volcano, was still strewn about with articles of clothing, empty suitcases, shoes, bits of aircraft etc. That was 12 months after the accident occurred. It is not on for the property of those who lost their lives in the crash to be treated in that way. It demonstrates an appalling insensitivity by the Spanish authorities. We are entitled to ask what representations were made to the Spanish authorities about that slipshod and insensitive clearance of the site.

As for the crash, does the Minister believe that the accident investigation was carried out thoroughly and competently by the Spanish Commission of Accident Investigation? Will he also tell us whether, in his view, the availability of radar facilities at Los Rodeos airport could have prevented the accident?

Can the Minister give any information on the premature leakage and release of the Spanish commission's report, which was featured in the BBC television "Panorama" programme about the circumstances of the crash? Who leaked that report, which has not yet been reported to Parliament? Other questions arise from the "Panorama" programme. First, who was responsible for recording the telephone conversation between Britain's chief accident investigation officer in London and a Spanish official in Madrid, and who breached the confidentiality of the conversation by making it available to the BBC in London?

Secondly, who passed to the BBC the cockpit voice recording, as distinct from the transcript of the cockpit conversations, immediately prior to the crash?

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

Is it not also relevant to ask why the Spanish authorities were reported shortly after the accident, before any investigation had even started, as asserting that pilot error had caused it?

Mr. Morris

My hon. Friend is right to make that point. The press speculation about reports point to the Spanish Government's partiality as regards the report.

I want to put another question to the Minister. Did the BBC obtain the cockpit voice recording from a source outside the United Kingdom? Did the Department of Trade in London make facilities available to the BBC on which the "Panorama" programme was based? If not, did the Department refuse such facilities to the BBC?

Reading the understandable press speculation about the contents of the report prepared by the Spanish authorities, one sees that there seems to be a disagreement between the Department of Trade accident investigation branch and the Spanish authorities. What is the essence of that disagreement? Will it be made public?

I make no apology for the number of questions that I have posed to the Minister in this speech. We have had 15 months of parliamentary questions about this tragedy, tabled by me and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). My right hon. Friend has a major constituency interest, in that he represents the Manchester airport, from which the aircraft set its course for Tenerife. He also has a number of tragic personal cases affecting his constituency.

During the past 15 months there have been scores of questions. It is now time for some answers. If we cannot have them tonight, it is not unreasonable to demand that we have them in the next few days.

I remind the Minister that the question of air safety at Tenerife and other Spanish holiday resorts is crucial. Thousands of British holidaymakers travel by air to Spain. They are entitled to absolute assurances about safety facilities at Spanish airports.

I know that the Minister is diligent in carrying out his ministerial responsibilities and that he knows the wide public concern that the disaster provoked. I know also that he will do his best to give the assurances that I seek.

The air disaster at Tenerife was such as to make it imperative that we have the answer to question: Why did it happen?

12.12 am
The Under- Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I should like to begin my reply by expressing my own sympathy with the families and friends of the victims of this terrible air crash, many of whom were constituents of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris). It is now over a year since the accident occurred, but the memory of the dreadful event will remain much much longer in the minds of those concerned.

I turn to the facts of the case. As the right hon. Gentleman fairly acknowledged, I am not at liberty tonight to divulge the contents of the report of the official inquiry. That report will be published next Monday, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make a full statement to the House. I can, however, give some of the background to the investigation of the accident, and I shall seek during the course of my reply to answer as fully as possible the questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

The accident occurred on the afternoon of 25 April 1980. Due to the mountainous terrain, the wreckage was not discovered for several hours. The Spanish Government immediately convened a commission of inquiry to investigate the cause of the accident, in complete accord with the principles established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The United Kingdom, as the State of registry of the aircraft, was entitled to appoint to the commission an accredited representative, who, with his advisers, is permitted to participate actively in the investigation.

I should, perhaps, here say a word about the status of that inquiry. It was not in any way, as has been suggested, a military inquiry, and the investigation was set up in accordance with annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Any misunderstanding in this respect appears to have arisen from the fact that former military personnel were used in the conduct of the inquiry. There is no question, therefore, of a second report being needed.

My Department was fully involved during the investigation. On the day following the accident, a team of investigators from the accidents investigation branch of my Department were on-site in Tenerife and remained there for 10 days. In fact, all the information obtained from the aircraft wreckage was the result of work carried out by United Kingdom investigators. The cockpit voice recorder was transcribed by the accidents investigation branch in this country and United Kingdom experts were deeply involved in the read-out of the flight data recorder which was done in Spain.

A substantial part of the factual section of the Spanish report originated in work carried out by the accidents investigation branch.

Just over one month from the time of the accident, the United Kingdom representative accredited to the Spanish commission of inquiry passed a detailed report in draft form to the commission. Before the Spanish report was completed, a further five visits were made to Madrid by members. of our accidents investigation branch in order to ensure that the facts were accurately recorded and that the United Kingdom point of view regarding the accident was fully appreciated.

The right hon. Member for Openshaw has asked whether I am satisfied that the investigation has been satisfactorily carried out. I can say that the accident investigation branch was actively involved and it and I are confident that the true facts related to the circumstances of the accident have been established.

It is true, however, that the Government have added an addendum to the report. This reflects the fact that our inspectors do not wholly accept the analysis of the facts given in the report by the Spanish investigators, particularly with regard to the role of the Spanish air traffic control. The House will appreciate that I cannot be more specific about this at present. But I can say that in the process of investigating an international accident, it is quite usual for the participant members of the inquiry to differ in their analysis of the established facts. If it is not possible to reach agreement, there are guidelines laid down, which allow for both points of view to be expressed. The Spanish authorities have said that, in accordance with the guidelines, they will publish the addendum with the report, as will my Department.

As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the absence of radar as a possible contributory factor—he referred briefly to this matter—I would like to say that there is no certainty that its presence would have prevented the accident. Radar in a civil situation is provided mainly for the expedition of air traffic. The value of any radar installation depends heavily on the nature of the surrounding terrain. That is why many international airports with recognised safety standards do not include radar among their instrumentation.

I would also like to say a word about the Panorama programme to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. I have seen the programme myself, and I find it particularly regrettable that the cockpit voice recorder was used in it. I am afraid that I do not know in detail how the Panorama team obtained their information, but I am satisfied—I think this will be reassuring to the right hon. Gentleman—that my Department's security arrangements were fully satisfactory.

I might add that there is only one copy of the cockpit voice recording in the United Kingdom and this is kept in complete security. The other copies are in the possession of the Spanish authorities.

Finally, on the subject of the report, I would like to deal with the fact—

Mr. Clinton Davis

The inference from what the Minister says is clear: it must have come from the Spanish authorities. Have representations been made to the Spanish Government to ascertain the cause of this?

Mr. Eyre

What I am saying quite firmly is that the information did not come from my Department. Consideration is being given to the other ways in which the information may have been obtained.

Mr. Charles Morris

Will the Minister deal with the breaching of the confidentiality of the telephone conversation between the head of the British accident investigation department and the Spanish official in Madrid?

Mr. Eyre

That is a disturbing aspect on which I cannot comment. I cannot add to what the right hon. Gentleman said. But he will appreciate that the seriousness of the matter must be considered.

I deal finally with the fact that it has taken 15 months for the report to be prepared. I well understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern and that of his constituents. Nevertheless, I should say that this is not, in fact, an unusual length of time by world standards and indeed is close to the average for the production of a major accident report in the United Kingdom.

In this case, the difficult, and indeed dangerous, nature of the terrain in which the accident occurred was a serious handicap. It must also be remembered that a large amount of information needs to be assembled, examined and digested so that all aspects of the accident are covered and not just the obvious ones. Of necessity, this takes some time. Those who gave evidence then had to be given the opportunity to comment. Finally, there is the not inconsiderable problem of technical translation to be taken into account before a report can be prepared.

Having just mentioned the terrain, I should like to say that I fully appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's concern about the condition of the crash site. Clearly in an accident of this sort, in a remote and inaccessible mountain area, it will be difficult completely to clear the site of all debris. I should say, however, that in their visits to the site—and some of these visits took place after the report which the right hon. Gentleman received—my Department's inspectors were impressed at the efforts made by the Spanish authorities to clear the site.

Finally, I turn to the question of compensation, because I know that this is a matter of concern to the right hon. Gentleman. The Warsaw Convention of 1929, which puts the onus of disproving negligence on the carrier, established a regime under which a person can in practice recover damages, subject to proof of loss, up to a fixed limit. This gives a significant benefit to the passenger. He or she does not have to prove negligence. The likelihood of long and contentious litigation is reduced. In the United Kingdom, the Warsaw Convention is given effect by requiring the airlines to include such a provision for compensation in their contract with the passenger. Thus United Kingdom airlines, including Dan-Air of course, are required by Standard Condition H of their air transport licences, to contract for a limit of not less than US $58,000 (about £30,000 at present), a sum which more than satisfies the Warsaw Convention requirements. The fixed sum is of course liable to erosion by inflation, and the Civil Aviation Authority has arranged that from April 1981 United Kingdom airlines should contract with their passengers for a liability, according to the nature of the claim and the circumstances of the accident, up to 100,000 special drawing rights, which is about £57,000. The authority is monitoring compliance at present, and it is clear that virtually all air transport licence holders have complied.

But I regret that this improvement in compensation comes too late to benefit victims of the Tenerife crash, with whom the contracted sums were still set at US $58,000, which is about £30,000. I express my sincere wish that the issues of compensation will be swiftly brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshaw (Mr. Morris), who has throughout this period also tabled a number of questions, has thereby joined the right hon. Member for Openshaw in demonstrating the concern of Parliament about this disaster. Both right hon. Gentlemen have shown deep concern for bereaved people in their constituencies, and the situation of Manchester airport clearly adds to the constituency interest in this sad matter.

I wish to assure the House that the Government share their concern, and I hope that the right hon. Member for Openshaw and the House will accept that I have been as helpful as I am able to be tonight in my response to his questions.

12.26 am
Mr. Clinton Davis

I should like to join the Minister, in the last few minutes, in regretting deeply the accident that occurred and sharing with him the feeling of tragedy for all these people in what was, I think, the worst aviation accident in British history.

We are very grateful for the fact that the Secretary of State proposes to make a statement on this matter on Monday. May I, as a precursor to that, so that he is aware of some of the areas of anxiety that I shall wish to express on that occasion, ask him to take note of some of the points at this stage?

The Minister has conceded that there are a number of areas of acute anxiety about some of the transactions which appear to have preceded the publication of the report and, notwithstanding the clear efforts which have been made by our highly reputable accident investigation branch—which is internationally famous and justifies totally its reputation—there seem to be a number of disquieting features.

I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to tell us on Monday the steps that the Government have taken to uncover the reasons for these features having arisen. I hope that he will be able to tell the House on Monday whether any action has been taken to transmit to the Spanish authorities the grave disquiet not only of my right hon. Friend but, I am sure, of the Minister. The Minister has been absolutely frank and I thank him for that.

One of the features of all accident investigation reporting must be confidence between the accident investigation branches of the different countries involved. If disquieting features of this kind have arisen in this case, it can do no good for the future. Therefore, the book must be open very clearly on this occasion. I am confident that the Secretary of State, knowing him as I do, will most certainly take care to ensure that that is done.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.