HL Deb 28 November 1928 vol 72 cc341-7

LORD LAMINGTON had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether in view of the development of aviation in this country they have considered what steps should be taken, by which residents, who have suffered damage, may obtain compensation or redress, and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not think that the Motion which stands in my name on the Paper requires from me any very long speech. It is not that I find fault at all with our flying services, whether the most admirable public air services, civil aviation or His Majesty's military and naval Air Services. There is no complaint about them. My Motion rather concerns the future when, as we are told, flying will have become extremely common and will be an ordinary means of locomotion from place to place. As flying machines will then be in ordinary use accidents will naturally happen, and those accidents may cause a great deal of damage to houses and in other ways. It might be that a machine might descend upon a crowded omnibus, or a char-a-banc or even upon a passenger train. That sort of catastrophe is quite possible in connection with aviation. If damage is done by privately-owned aircraft how will compensation be forthcoming to the sufferer, the resident of a house, the passenger in an omnibus or whoever it might be?

According to the Common Law, which was quoted the other day by a Judge in New Zealand, I believe that the ownership of land carries with it the ownership of a column of air above the land right up to the skies. Whether that is true or not I am not able to say. It has already been affected by the Air Navigation Act of 1920. Section 9, subsection (1), of that Act distinctly states that no nuisance or grievance can be entertained by reason of a flying machine flying over anybody's land. It is clearly laid down by that Act that there is no trespass. The same subsection also states that for any material damage done by aircraft in flight, taking off, or landing or by any object falling out of the machine the owners of the machine shall be liable to pay compensation.

The second point I wish to deal with is that of low flying. Since my Motion appeared on the Paper the Secretary of State for Air gave a very satisfactory assurance in another place as to every precaution being taken to provide against people, householders and others, suffering damage by low flying. The question then arises whether you are always able to identify the flyer. In the answer to which I have just referred the Secretary of State said that suitable action was taken where there had been complaint of low flying, wherever the circumstances appeared to demand it and the machine could be identified. As I say, the question is how to identify the low-flying machine. There have been two recent cases, I think, in which accidents have resulted from low flying. There was a case last year at Bournemouth in which a herd of cattle was frightened by a low-flying aeroplane and ran in all directions. The farmer who owned the cattle took his gun and fired at the machine, but was acquitted, I believe, of any crime. There was, I know, another case at Edinburgh the other day in which a one-armed gardener was leading a pony. A low-flying machine came over and frightened the pony, which nearly pulled the one-armed man's remaining arm out of its socket. The machine, of course, went on and no redress was obtainable.

The first of the two chief points that I wish to impress upon your Lordships is that after flying has been very much developed there will be, no doubt, civil owners of aircraft as regardless of other people as are the motor cyclists who now tear about the country, and there may be people with no money at their backs using flying machines and doing personal injury to people and great damage to property. As far as we can see, there would be no means of recompensing the sufferers in such cases. The other point is that there should be means of identifying machines as far as possible—it is very difficult—in cases where there has been low flying. I understand that a law was recently passed in France to provide against these evils. It provides that every private owner of a flying machine shall belong to some recognised society, club or company; that there shall be well-defined means of marking the machines so that they can be identified and recognised, and also that the company or club shall be liable for any damage done by the owner of a machine. I can see no other way of remedying what I think may prove to be a very great source of evil.

I move in this matter because I think your Lordships will agree that when the motor was first established nobody realised what its full development would be. The result was that at the start roadside houses were rendered almost uninhabitable by dust. Then came fast-moving lorries and chars-a-bancs which shook the foundations of houses and so on, and the mortality amongst children playing on the roads was extensive and continues to be so to this day. Many of our roads are practically impossible for children or infirm and old people. We do not want to see the reproduction of such evils in connection with houses and so on to which very severe damage may be done by civil aviation when it becomes general. Therefore I beg to move.


My Lords, I am very glad indeed that this Question has been raised by my noble friend, as I welcome the opportunity of stating on behalf of His Majesty's Government that they are most desirous that the development of aviation in this country as required by the national interest shall be attended by a minimum of inconvenience to the general public. It is a matter of history that all similar developments of new means of transport have brought with them their own peculiar problems and have in general been attended, in the days of their early growth, by some measure of unavoidable inconvenience. It will be remembered that in the middle of the last century the best means of reconciling the urgent need for the development of railways with the rights of property owners and the convenience of those living in the immediate vicinity of the main arteries of traffic presented an acute problem, and gave rise at the time to sharp differences of opinion. More recently the rapidly increasing use of the motor car, alike for purposes of business and pleasure, has brought in its train other problems, some of which await solution at the present time. Yet if the railway and motor car have brought with them their difficulties and dangers, I do not think any one will to-day be found to deny that they have also conferred almost incalculable benefits on the community at large and have with the passage of time become absolutely indispensable.

It would, I think, be too much to expect that the development of aviation in this country will not be beset by somewhat similar problems and the matter is one to which the Air Ministry have for some years past given a great deal of thought and attention. As a result, in so far as civil aviation is concerned, the question was dealt with by legislation eight years ago. I refer to Section 9 of the Air Navigation Act of 1920. Under this Act aircraft may fly over land without trespassing if they do so at a reasonable height. At the same time those responsible for Air administration have throughout felt that some protection for property owners and others on the ground is essential. Accordingly, it is further provided in this section of the Act that where material damage, injury, or loss is caused to persons or property on the ground by an aircraft taking off, landing, or crashing, or by articles falling from it, damages shall be recoverable from the owner of the aircraft without consideration of negligence or intention or other cause of action, except where there is contributory negligence by the injured party. Under that section of the Air Navigation Act which I have quoted there is, therefore, given a statutory remedy against the owner or hirer of the aircraft as distinct from the pilot, without, of course, in any way abolishing or interfering with the rights already possessed by the injured party under the Common Law of the land. The section is, in short, a compromise between the requirements of civil aviation and the rights and interests of property owners and others on the ground. Its object is, in fact, to ensure that, whilst the legitimate development of flying shall not be cramped, it shall proceed under conditions such as to protect so far as possible the rights and reasonable amenities of the property owner and facilitate his obtaining redress.

I may add that with a view to minimising the likelihood of damage the regulations governing aviation, whether civil or service, are most stringent in their prohibition of all flying which may endanger persons or property on the ground. For example, they prohibit flying over cities or towns except at such an altitude as will enable the aircraft to land outside the city or town in case of engine failure. They place severe restrictions on the performance of trick flying and aerial acrobatics, and in general they prohibit any kind of flying which, by reason of low altitude or proximity to persons or dwellings, is likely to cause unnecessary danger to persons or property on land or water.

As to the identification of aeroplanes, in order to enable the individual machine to be distinguished, all service aircraft bear an identifying letter followed by not more than four figures, which are painted in colours chosen to give the greatest degree of legibility against their background. For instance, if the surface is aluminium they are painted in black, whilst if it is dark green they are painted in white. These identifying letters and figures are painted both on the underside of the lower planes so that they may be clearly visible to persons on the ground, and also on both sides of the hull or fuselage. It is prescribed that, to facilitate recognition, they shall be as large as the available surface permits. In the cases of the standard training machine in use in this country the height of the letters and figures painted on the lower planes is 2 ft. 6 ins., their width 1 ft. 6 ins. and their thickness 4 ins. The identification of any individual machine flying low should therefore present no difficulty. A civil pilot who infringes the regulations is liable to have his licence suspended, and also to prosecution, with penalties of fine or imprisonment on conviction. A service pilot in similar circumstances would be dealt with by disciplinary means and could be court-martialled. Under the King's Regulations especial care is to be taken to avoid flying low over stock during the breeding season.

In conclusion, I should like to say again that it is the Air Ministry's most earnest desire to take every precaution possible to ensure that the growth of flying shall cause the minimum possible interference with the convenience and amenities of the public. They will welcome any suggestions which may be of assistance to this end and are anxious to enlist the support and sympathy of all classes of the community (and not least of your Lordships' House), in this new and far-reaching development of flying, which I believe will be immensely valuable to mankind. The noble Lord mentioned a point in regard to the people who are not able to afford to pay for the damage which their machines have done. There is at present in this country no system, such as they have in France, by which clubs are liable for damage, but there is a system of third-party risk insurance. I do not think the Government would consider it necessary to make this compulsory at present, because one is averse from grandmotherly legislation. Still, the Government have an open mind on the subject and will be very glad to consider any further suggestions the noble Lord may make on this or other points.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Duke for his reply. To a great extent we are in agreement, but the difficulty is how you are to get money out of a man who has committed damage if that man has no money. Anyone with £200 can buy a light flying machine and traverse the country, and possibly such a person might do great damage to private residences. How are we to get the money out of him if he has none with which to pay? He might, for instance, drop into a char-a-banc and seriously injure quite a lot of people, and yet those people might be unable to get any compensation from him because of his lack of means. I do not think it is compulsory that a flying owner should be a member of a club or association. As to identification, how can any one swear as to the colours or numbers of a machine flying low at a rate of 100 miles per hour? It is absurd. I admit that it is an extraordinarily difficult problem to deal with, but I think the Government ought to consider whether they should not adopt the French system by which an owner must belong to a recognised association. There might then be some means of tracing to which association the pilot of the machine belonged, and thereby of identifying him and enabling the people injured to secure reparation for the damage done. I think the Government ought also earnestly to consider whether they should not make third-party risk insurance compulsory. I would ask the noble Duke to request the Government to consider those two points—an obligation to be a member of a recognised club which would have funds with which to compensate sufferers and compulsory third-party risk insurance.


I will.


I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.