HC Deb 10 January 1989 vol 144 cc687-95 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the aircraft accident that occurred on Sunday evening, near East Midlands international airport.

Just before 8 pm last Sunday evening, 8 January 1989, a British Midland Airways Boeing 737 aircraft began a scheduled flight, BD 092, from London Heathrow to Belfast. About 15 minutes into the flight, the pilot reported a fire in the starboard engine. The fire was apparently successfully dealt with and the captain asked for permission to divert to East Midlands airport for an emergency landing.

Eye witnesses report that, during the final approach to East Midlands airport, the aircraft descended below the normal path with the engine, or engines, making unusual noises. The aircraft crashed just short of the airport onto the M1 motorway, near Kegworth, coming to rest in three main pieces on the motorway embankment.

There were 126 persons on board, including eight crew. Forty-four fatalities have been recorded. Most of the survivors are injured to a greater or lesser degree. Some are still seriously ill and in intensive care.

Accompanied by my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping and my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, I went to the scene of the accident. My colleagues and I were greatly impressed by the skill and the efficiency of the rescue services and the help given by local organisations and residents. The fire, police, hospital, ambulance and rescue services involved all deserve the highest praise. Without their speed, skill and dedication, there would have been many more fatalities. The House will wish to join me both in praising all those involved and in an expression of deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who died, and wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

My chief inspector of air accidents went to the site on Sunday evening with nine of his staff and immediately began an investigation. Representatives from the manufacturers of the aircraft and engines—from the United States and France—arrived on Monday to assist in the investigation.

Investigators found evidence consistent with a shut-down in flight of the right engine before impact, and evidence of a fire in the left engine. They are now concentrating on information about the engines from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, both of which were recovered. We do not yet know the precise cause of the engine failure and, as in all such accidents, speculation can be not only unproductive but positively misleading.

I shall ensure that the House is kept fully informed of any significant findings of the investigation and that a bulletin will be published as soon as possible.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

On behalf of the Opposition, I offer our deepest sympathies to the relatives and friends of the dead and to those who have been injured in the British Midlands Airways Boeing 737 crash.

The whole nation is horrified at two major air disasters in less than three weeks. The calamity of a crash on a village community was clearly averted only by the supreme efforts and skill of the captain and his crew. Even in these tragic circumstances, the House and, indeed the nation, will want to record our deepest appreciation to Captain Hunt and wish him, the crew and all other survivors a speedy recovery.

In less than four weeks Britain has suffered three major transport tragedies involving rail and aviation, with more than 300 deaths. The House and the country once again express admiration and heartfelt thanks to those in our public emergency services—the police, the armed forces, the fire brigade, the ambulance and hospital services and, at Kegworth, the Automobile Association, a miners' rescue team and other members of the public. Undoubtedly their efforts saved lives.

We have come to expect the highest professionalism, dedication and courage from our emergency services, which on every occasion, rightly earns them the deepest gratitude of the nation.

An unprecedented collection of transport tragedies involving shipping, aviation, oil rigs and the railways have occurred in all parts of the United Kingdom. They have involved not one national elite emergency force, but different regional emergency services, which have all provided excellence that is not only a credit to their professionalism, but of great comfort to those involved in such tragedies. They are a credit to our country, and we rightly salute them.

Today is not the time for searching questions. The inquiry is under way and the answers and the lessons will be available soon enough. However, I ask the Secretary of State to consider some issues that have been brought to my attention and to which the inquiry should address itself. Will he consider instructing the inquiry to go beyond the traditional approach of rightly discovering what went wrong, by specifically considering the extent and type of the injuries suffered by the passengers and crew?

Will the inquiry consider how, in crash landings, passengers may be better protected by, for example, having the seating facing the rear of the plane, as in military air transport? Will the inquiry also take evidence about the advisability of long flights over water by twin-engined commercial aircraft? In the event of a double engine failure, that would inevitably mean total loss. Is there not a danger of being lulled into a false sense of security by quoting the statistics for the chance of such a failure as being many millions to one?

The Secretary of State will be aware that the East Midlands is one of our fastest growing airports and that it has been considering extending its runways to bring them within yards of the M1 and the A43. Such an area is known as the public safety zone, which prevents building in the flight path area. Will the inquiry take into consideration the possibility of tunnelling major roads under the flight path, which undoubtedly would have have allowed that aircraft a better chance of landing safely?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, especially for his initial remarks, which I am sure the whole House supported, in particular his references to the AA and other local people and organisations that helped so much on this appalling occasion.

My right hon. Friends and I will carefully consider the last point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). There is more than one side to the argument about backward-facing seats. Backward-facing seats would give a greater chance of survival in a relatively small number of accidents. In minor accidents, the present seats and belts are adequate. In a major accident, the disruption to the aircraft structure releases any form of seating restraint and that can result in fatalities and serious injuries. Of course, that does not mean that we will not reconsider this matter, but the argument is not one-sided.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about the possibility of twin-engined aircraft flying on one engine over water. Special rules apply to twin-engined aircraft that must fly for more than 90 minutes from an aerodrome at which they could land. That did not apply to that particular aircraft.

Before I get into questions of engine failure and what should happen to such aeroplanes in those circumstances, it would be wiser to discover exactly what did occur on this occasion. I shall, however, consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his firm refusal to speculate in advance of the inquiry report upon the causes of this accident has given great comfort to the professionals in the air transport industry and, I believe, to those who are involved in any way whatsoever? Is he also aware that the similar reluctance of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) will also bring comfort? Will he undertake that this investigation will be pressed forward and that at least preliminary results will be made available as soon as possible in order not only that all those concerned can take the appropriate actions but that confidence can be restored in the air transport industry?

Mr. Channon

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am sure it is wrong for me, or indeed for anyone, to speculate at the present time, and I am grateful for his support on that issue. This investigation will be pressed forward as quickly as possible, and if there are things that can be said, possibly in the not too distant future, they will be said at the earliest possible moment, so that we may have the effect that my right hon. Friend has in mind.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Is the Minister aware that we on this Bench wish to associate ourselves very much with the condolences already offered to the victims of this ghastly crash and to those whose families were suddenly and sadly bereaved? We applaud the courage of the pilot and we also very much congratulate the rescue services on their care and efficiency. I think that most Members of Parliament fly regularly, and it is very easy for us to associate ourselves with this appalling accident. The Minister quite clearly cannot give us detailed answers, but he will know that we will want the most rigorous examination and, most particularly, assurances as soon as possible about the aircraft type's continued safety in use.

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right on all those points. I appreciate what he has said. I appreciate the House's desire to have information at the earliest possible moment. We will do what we can in all those areas.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for coming so promptly to my constituency following the tragedy to give comfort to the bereaved and injured and encouragement to the services. May I also join the villagers of Kegworth in paying tribute to Captain Kevin Hunt, the captain of the airliner? He showed courage and tremendous skill as a result of his training in getting his crippled aircraft almost on to the runway.

I also pay tribute to the services themselves and also to the training of the firemen and the police, which showed through when it was required. Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest tribute should be paid to the army of helpers, to the Salvation Army, to the social services, to the many volunteers and the many voluntary services and also to the villagers of Kegworth, who showed great heroism at the time in helping the injured and bereaved?

Mr. Channon

Yes. I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend says and, as he will know from his own experiences in the last 36 hours or so, the remarkable thing was the number of helpers who came forward. Indeed, there were so many helpers that at one moment, some almost had to be turned away. It was a remarkable local effort, as well as one by the emergency services to whom tribute has been paid. I endorse everything my hon. Friend has said and I am grateful to him for his remarks.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South)

As my party's spokesman on transport and the constituency Member for the Belfast international airport, which was the destination of flight BD 092, may I join the Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members in their expressions of sympathy to the bereaved and their hope for a speedy recovery of the injured? Will the Minister pass on the grateful thanks of the Northern Ireland relatives and friends of passengers involved in the crash to the emergency services for their tremendous efforts during the rescue operation; and, of course, our admiration for the pilot, whose skill in minimising the crash was admirable? Our thanks also go to the local hospitals which have done such a good job in looking after the injured.

I am sure that the Minister will also wish to join me in congratulating the Belfast airport and British Midlands staff, who, along with clergymen, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Samaritans and the Salvation Army, among others, were magnificent in looking after and comforting relatives during the long and stressful night after the announcement of the disaster. I believe it to be a privilege to have been allowed to share in that work during the early hours of the morning. Therefore, I speak from first-hand knowledge. I welcome the full investigation that is taking place. I hope that the result will be announced as soon as possible.

Mr. Channon

Again, I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. What he has said has been said to me during the last day or so by many people from Northern Ireland who were on the flight. I have seen many of the relatives and some of the injured in the hospital that I visited. They were full of praise, as the hon. Gentleman said, for the emergency services and for the work of the hospitals. I am very glad that, as a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament, he should have said so in this House. I strongly support what he said, and I am grateful to him.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

While expressing sympathy with those who have suffered in this tragedy, may I ask my right hon. Friend to consider another point which is also relevant to the Lockerbie and Clapham disasters? Some of the suffering may be alleviated if those who fear that relatives or friends may be involved in a particular accident can establish whether that is so as soon as possible. Will my right hon. Friend consider whether there should be a single emergency number for such purposes and whether suitable arrangements could be made with the telecommunications services to ensure that replies are given as urgently as possible?

Mr. Channon

I am not sure that that is a matter for me, but I shall consult my right hon. Friends on that point. The one point of criticism that one hears is the difficulty of getting through on the lines to obtain information, because it is often not available. People do not want to give inaccurate information. However, my right hon. Friend has made a perfectly valid and good point and I shall look into it.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

While joining in the expressions of sympathy to the bereaved and injured, can I press the Minister to do all that he possibly can to speed up the process of inquiry? Does he recall that the fire accident in a Boeing 737 at Manchester airport, which cost over 50 lives, occurred on 22 August 1985? We are still awaiting a full and definitive report on that accident and, while I accept that there is need for deep thoroughness in investigations, will the Minister accept that, if speeding up inquiries can save lives, then urgency is extremely urgent?

Mr. Channon

The right hon. Gentleman made a similar point to me not long ago in a supplementary question. I have considerable sympathy for his point. Very special circumstances surrounded the Manchester disaster. The report will be published in March. I take note of the general feeling throughout the House that we want to get to the bottom of this tragedy at the earliest possible moment. Even if the full report cannot be published for some time, I know that there is a general desire in the House that we should take steps to provide an interim report, or an interim bulletin, which might satisfy the House. I am determined to do that, and I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the pilot and a large number of those in the emergency and hospital services are my constituents. Captain Hunt's family has asked me to pass on their thanks to everyone concerned for all their help and for all their good wishes. I thank also my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other right hon. Friends for the dignity and the compassion that they have shown on their visits to the east midlands and on other visits of a similar sad nature. Those visits are very much appreciated by the local people. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the marvellous co-operation between the emergency services from three counties was a model of its kind? Will he ensure that the lessons of how it should be done are learned for the future?

Mr. Channon

Yes, I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about that. The liaison between the various hospitals was quite extraordinary and extremely efficient. I know that Captain Hunt is one of my hon. Friend's constituents. I saw Captain and Mrs. Hunt yesterday and I know that my hon. Friend has been in touch with them. I am sure that the whole House wishes Captain Hunt a speedy recovery from his injuries. I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

May I join in expressing sorrow to those people who have suffered and are still suffering as a result of this tragedy and in paying tribute to the rescue workers from Leicestershire and other neighbouring counties who saved so many lives? However, having regard to the deep concern felt by all air crew and all air passengers as a result of this and similar accidents, I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) in asking that steps be taken urgently to check the engines of the sister aircraft. Many people are worried because the accident involved a comparatively new aircraft. In those circumstances, surely it would be wise to make checks on other aircraft now rather than waiting for the result of an inquiry, when we have already waited so long for the result of an inquiry into a similar accident. Meanwhile, rightly or wrongly, thousands of people feel that they are at risk.

Mr. Channon

I understand the hon. and learned Member's concern and I agree with the first part of what he said. I visited Leicester royal infirmary yesterday and I can say from first-hand knowledge that its accident department has done a remarkable job.

At present, there are only four aeroplanes with similar engines in this country. None of them is in operation at present, so I can meet the hon. and learned Gentleman's point while the investigation makes progress.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I am sure that the Minister will be aware that some of my constituents were killed and others injured in the tragedy that took place on Sunday evening. I am also sure that he is aware that I and the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) had the sad duty of conveying to some of the relatives the tragic news about their families.

The Minister will be aware that those people deeply appreciate the work done by all the emergency services and especially the heroism—I use that term deliberately—of the captain of the flight. The people of Northern Ireland are grateful. As I sat with the relatives, they said that everything was in good hands and that everything possible was being done to alleviate the situation. I should like to put that firmly on the record. I am grateful for the expressions of gratitude made by Members on both sides of the House. When I visited my injured constituents in the three hospitals yesterday, they all paid tribute to the nurses, doctors and those who have looked after them so well.

I wish to ask one question. Will money be available immediately to those people who may need financial help? Families have been completely devastated; in some cases, the breadwinner of the family has gone and there may be a need for immediate financial aid. Can the Minister help us on that?

Finally, as there is so much talk today about the plane's engines, will the Minister assure the House that the inquiry's findings will be fully published so that everyone will know the facts?

Mr. Channon

I met quite a few of the hon. Gentleman's constituents yesterday, and I endorse what he said. I am grateful to him for his comments about the work of the emergency services and the hospitals. I shall certainly take immediate steps to inquire about the point that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises about money being made available immediately to those people who are in financial difficulty as a result of this appalling disaster.

As to the hon. Gentleman's point about the engines, and in answer to other points made earlier, I should make it clear that the air accidents investigation branch passes its recommendations to the Civil Aviation Authority immediately. It does not wait until the report is published, so, even if the final report is not published for some time, any action that needs to be taken in the interim is taken. I undertake to ensure that that is done.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

As a fellow Leicestershire Member, may I join the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) in praising the emergency services of the county—in particular, the work of the royal infirmary? In passing, we should note that there are proposals to close eight of the hospitals in Leicestershire; I hope that, because of the work of the emergency services, that will be reviewed.

On 5 January, I wrote to the Secretary of State about aircraft flight paths over urban areas. Although that letter dealt specifically with low-flying aircraft and this aircraft was flying at a high altitude, my constituents are anxious and distressed about the various activities in Leicestershire's aerodromes, specifically at air displays, which have resulted in nuisance. Vulcan bombers have often flown over houses in Evington. Would the Secretary of State look carefully at that issue and reply to me as soon as possible so that I can reassure my constituents?

Mr. Channon

I shall certainly reply to the hon. Gentleman. I hope to make an announcement on the regulation of air displays in the near future which I hope that he will find satisfactory. I endorse what he says about Leicester royal infirmary. His remarks about the closure of hospitals are more properly directed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health, to whose attention I shall draw them.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

In echoing sympathy to the relatives of the victims and thanks to the emergency services, I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to one issue which arises from this dreadful tragedy: that Sunday's tragedy happened close to an airport, where the local police were trained in air crash victim recovery, as they are at Heathrow, which sent 23 officers to Lockerbie. In the circumstances, will my right hon. Friend ask the Home Secretary to ensure that the police experience gained in these tragedies is recorded while it is still fresh in mind, and is made available to all police forces? Will he consider discussing with the Home Secretary the possibility of setting up a national police unit which will be available to any force to assist with air crash victim recovery, should it so dreadfully be necessary again?

Mr. Channon

My right hon. Friend is here and will have taken note of what my hon. Friend said about that important matter. The need to pool the best experience in this area is obviously clear and must be done. All the evidence is that in these appalling disasters the emergency services have functioned with the utmost skill and success, and it is almost impossible to think of ways in which they could be improved. My hon. Friend puts his finger on a point which may need consideration, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will consider it.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

May I join other Leicestershire Members in paying respect to the professionalism and expertise of the emergency services and the armed forces, and in particular, to those at Leicester royal infirmary, which is in my constituency? They showed a high level of expertise and skill, and certainly have done a great deal to save many lives. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not feel that it prejudices the inquiry if I ask whether he can say whether the East Midlands airport at Castle Donnington was the nearest suitable airport for the aircraft to land.

Mr. Channon

I entirely agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. I had the privilege of visiting Leicester royal infirmary yesterday. It did a remarkable job. Many volunteered, and it was a thoroughly professional operation. People were brought in by helicopter from the site. I am sure that the hospital should be and is proud of its performance. Clearly, the inquiry will have to establish whether it was the nearest suitable airport for the pilot to attempt a landing. I had better not comment on that this afternoon. All will become clear in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Peter Rost (Erewash)

May I add my tribute to and admiration of all involved in the emergency services, many of whom come from my adjoining constituency of Erewash, and of all those members of the public who courageously contributed to the rescue work, in stark contrast to the large crowds of ghoulish spectators who arrived on the scene and hindered the rescue operation?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree with his comments about the enormous number of people who helped and did an excellent job.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

In view of all the accolades and tributes that, quite properly, have been paid to the public sector fire service, public sector ambulance service and public sector hospital services—with BUPA nowhere to be found—may we have the Minister's guarantee, especially since the Prime Minister is seated next to him, that none of those services will be privatised?

Mr. Channon

That is not a matter for me.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

I join the expressions of heartfelt sympathy to the relatives of victims and those injured in this terrible tragedy, which claimed the lives of a number of my constituents. I pay tribute also to the emergency services, whose actions, as the right hon. Gentleman said, undoubtedly helped to save a number of lives. Will the Secretary of State again consider the question of compensation? Not only is there a need for immediate payment of compensation due under the terms of the Chicago convention: in the light of present circumstances, does he accept the need for an enhanced volume of compensation for the victims of civil disasters such as this?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's first comments. As to compensation, he will appreciate that it was a domestic flight. As I understand the compensation rules, they are governed by United Kingdom law, and all UK-licensed airlines are required to enter into special contracts providing for liability limits of about £70,000. That arrangement must be reviewed from time to time.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

We have been continually reading and hearing that the odds against two engines of an aircraft failing are many millions to one. Does that figure have any practical application? Can the Secretary of State put it into perspective by telling the House how many twin-engined aircraft flights take place worldwide every year? Also, can he say whether, on the aircraft that crashed, the two engines' coolant or lubricant systems were in any way linked?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important question, but it is one for the investigation to consider; I hope that he will forgive me if I do not answer now. It is a factor that will be examined, along with many others, in the course of the investigation.

I do not have to hand the number of flights by twin-engined aircraft taking place worldwide every year, but possibly the hon. Gentleman is making a point that, in general, remains very true—that, among all forms of travel, air transport is still extremely safe.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), if, in advance of establishing the cause of the accident, it is possible to make an interim announcement at least eliminating some possible causes about which there has been speculation, will my right hon. Friend give favourable consideration to that course, so as to give some reassurance to the travelling public?

Mr. Channon

Yes, Sir.