HL Deb 25 November 1930 vol 79 cc320-6

LORD AUCKLAND rose to ask His Majesty's Government for an assurance that all Papers and correspondence which passed between Government Departments and the Air Ministry and office files (whether secret or not), dealing with the construction and policy of the Airship R101 shall be produced for the. Court of Inquiry and especially all correspondence which passed between the Treasury and the Air Ministry on the subject: and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in view of the great catastrophe that has recently befallen this country, in the loss of the airship R101, and the lives of so many eminent, aeronautical experts. I feel that in bringing this Motion forward no apology is needed. The work of the Court of Inquiry is exceedingly difficult. Not only is it charged with endeavouring to ascertain the cause of the disaster, but its findings may have a profound effect on the whole future policy of constructing airships in this country. This Government showed great wisdom when they asked Sir John Simon to act as President of the Court, and I feel that this whole country owes him and his two able assessors a great debt of gratitude for the manner in which the Inquiry has, so far, been conducted. I fully realised that the subjects they have to investigate cover a wide range of scientific data and would have to be looked into and dealt with in turn by the Court. But there is the added difficulty of the Court having to elicit evidence from a very intricate organisation. For instance, there is the Headquarters Staff of the Air Ministry, the Technical Department at Cardington and the Inspection Department. Evidence from all these departments has got to be brought into play.

When I heard that a Court of Inquiry had been set up I felt somewhat dubious as to much good resulting, hut any doubts which I had were greatly minimised when the Attorney-General said in his opening speech that he was prepared to produce all Papers, secret, confidential or otherwise, and that as far as he was concerned no Papers would he held back. It would appear that a great many documents have been produced, but I am a little apprehensive on two points. During the proceedings somewhat startling evidence has been brought out under the skilful handling of the Chairman and we are beginning to learn that the whole question of gas-bags is far from satisfactory, and certain questions of inspection. Also, evidence was given of a small breakage of sorts in the airship.

During the time involved in the building of this airship, a great deal of correspondence and files must have been amassed, and no doubt it is proving a herculean task for the Air Ministry to produce all the necessary information, and I have no reason to think that the information asked for (under kindly persuasion) has not been given to the Court, but I am a little uneasy as to the manner in which some of the documents are brought to light. It would appear to me that there must exist, somewhere, a carefully planned co-ordinated system where the complete history from start to finish of the structural part of the airship together with all details as to the interior fittings, gas-bags, etc., is set down, and when evidence has been produced that trouble existed, I venture to suggest that the whole work of the Court would be greatly minimised if these records were already in Court.

I now deal with the question of policy. I think that we are beginning to realise that the decision to send the airship on its flight to India was to a certain extent based on the fact that the late Secretary of State was most anxious to demonstrate to the Imperial Conference the great future of airships. All honour to him; he was, perhaps, one of the most anxious to make this flight. Be this as it may, I am a little surprised that, so far as I have been able to ascertain, practically no mention has been made of any correspondence that must have taken place between the Air Ministry and the Treasury. We all know and realise that the work involved in the construction of this airship has covered a long period and necessitated spending vast sums of money. It is natural therefore that the Treasury should want to have a clear account of the manner in which the expenditure has been carried out, and I want to be quite sure that the Treasury, acting in all good faith, were not participators in the policy of flying at once in order to justify the amount of money that had been expended.

I have no desire to impute the blame for this tragedy to any individual person or any Government Department, but we must remember that this inquiry is not quite the same as some public inquiries that have been held on other catastrophes where human lives have been lost. The difference, to my mind, is that in some cases private capital only has been involved; whereas, in this ease the capital came out of public funds. No stone should be left unturned to furnish the Court with the necessary material to enable the President and his assessors to be in a position to give a clear finding and to make special recommendations for safeguarding our future policy. I am grateful for the way in which your Lordships have listened to me, and my whole desire, which I am certain is shared by everyone, is to see that steps are taken to ensure that nothing is kept back from the Court. I beg to move.


Your Lordships will permit me to take this opportunity of saying a few words on the loss your Lordships' House has sustained in the death of Lord Thomson, late Secretary of State for Air. I had the privilege and honour of serving under him when he first became a Cabinet Minister and Secretary of State for Air in 1924 and again in 1929. It was soon obvious to those of us who worked in the Air Ministry in 1924 that we had in Lord Thomson an unusual type of man, a man who was determined to face and grapple with all the problems that arise from air power. He was also only too ready to see any official or unofficial person, however junior or however senior, if it helped him in doing his work. I feel certain that we lost a man who believed in the air and had the mind to grapple with the problems of the air.

Turning for a moment to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, I am certain, and he himself said so, that he did not imply in any way that any documents were being kept back by the Air Ministry. But it has been implied in some places, as I have seen, that all the Papers are not being readily produced. After twelve years in Whitehall and in that office, I know the office, the officers and officials. It must be remembered that those officers and officials were brother officers and brother officials of those who were killed in the wreck of R101. Knowing them I am perfectly certain that their one ambition is to produce every Paper that will throw any light on the disaster. I feel certain that your Lordships will remember what a mass of documents there is. I have had some experience after twelve years of the mass of Papers written on any subject, and on a subject like R101 it will take a very long time to go through them. I am perfectly certain the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Air, will be able to give the assurance for which the noble Lord who moved the Motion asked.


My Lords, I believe I am in a position, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, to give the assurance for which the noble Lord has asked in his Question. But before dealing more specifically with the Question put I Should like, if I may, to associate myself with the noble Lord, Lord Trenchard, in the tribute he has paid to the memory of Lord Thomson. Lord Thomson was my friend. I had the privilege of an intimate acquaintance with him, certainly for only a short period, but during that time I was able to appreciate his sterling qualities and his great abilities.

With regard to the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, he will forgive me, and I am sure your Lordships will forgive me, if I do not deal with any questions which may affect the matters that come directly before the Court of inquiry now sitting. The Inquiry itself is sub-judice and it would be inappropriate for me, and I take it for anyone, to anticipate the findings of the Court; but I may in answer to the noble Lord's Question state clearly that His Majesty's Government, in setting up the Court of Inquiry, determined that the Inquiry into the cause of the accident that befell the airship R101 should be full and searching. As the noble Lord suggested, the Attorney-General, who is conducting the case at the Inquiry, requested that in view of the nature of the case, every document bearing upon the matter, whether directly or indirectly, should be produced and that all questions of privilege should be waived. His Majesty's Government agreed to this request, and instructions were given accordingly. These instructions have been duly and faithfully carried out; the one aim being to ascertain the cause of the accident to the airship and to render all possible assistance in ascertaining the cause.

The Court of Inquiry, which is presided over by Sir John Simon, has compulsory powers to require the attendance of witnesses, to examine them on oath and to enforce the production of documents. The Treasury Solicitor was retained to prepare the case for the Inquiry and the Air Ministry has placed at his disposal, without reserve, all files, documents and other Papers in possession of the Department, whether at headquarters in London or at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington, where the airship was built, which might elucidate or which might be of assistance in elucidating the cause of the accident. No distinction has been drawn between open, confidential and secret Papers, all of which were made freely available. These Papers include all correspondence between the Air Ministry and the Treasury and other Government Departments dealing with the construction and policy of the airship. This, I think, answers the Question asked by the noble Lord.

I would, however, like to add that the Papers are voluminous, as they cover the whole period of the design and construction of the airship, about four or five years. Representatives of the Treasury Solicitor have visited the offices of the Air Ministry, and, with the assistance of the staff of the Ministry, have made a comprehensive examination of all Papers relating to airships, and not only airship R101. The examination covered more than 1,100 registered files and, in addition, the airship Papers in the offices of the Secretary of State, of the Air Member for Supply and Research, and of that branch of the Ministry dealing with airships at headquarters. Further, at the suggestion of the Attorney-General, the counsel concerned with him in the case have themselves visited the offices of the Air Ministry and have checked n very large number of files.

I have mentioned that Papers are also kept at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington. The efforts of the staff to produce relevant Papers have been supplemented by a representative of the Treasury Solicitor. It will be appreciated that the search at the Royal Airship Works has been carried out under very difficult circumstances, as most of those responsible for the branches chiefly concerned perished in the accident. The Director, and two out of three Assistant Directors, are dead, and the one or two senior officers left, after a period of exceptionally heavy pressure of work following the accident, had to be in continuous attendance at the Court during the Inquiry. Nevertheless, every effort has been made to produce all available information. The widows and relatives of those who lost their lives have been asked to search for Papers in their homes, which they have kindly done, and any relevant Papers have been produced. In more than one instance useful information has come to light by examining note- books of shorthand typists. I mention these facts to show how exhaustive the examination has been. In view, however, of the mass of Papers that had to be gone through and the fact that those who were familiar with the Papers at Cardington had lost their lives, the examination was prolonged. This accounts for the fact that at the Inquiry Papers could only be placed before the Court as and when they were found and not in snore orderly sequence.

As a result of the steps which have been taken, it can, I think, be confidently stated that it is highly improbable that anything likely to be of assistance to the Court has not come to light. This is also confirmed by the recollection of those who have been associated with airship matters during the past few years. I have the authority of the Attorney-General to say that he himself and the counsel engaged with him are satisfied that the Air Ministry have kept nothing back having a direct or indirect bearing upon the subject of the Inquiry. I think it right to add that the disclosure given in this ease has been fuller than that given in any previous case in which a, Government Department has been concerned. No question of privilege has been raised and inter-departmental communications have not only been produced to the Court but made public; and the Attorney-General has had to make it plain that the extent of the disclosure made in the course of the Inquiry must not be treated as a precedent in asking for a similar disclosure in other cases. The noble Lord asked for Papers—


I beg leave to withdraw the Motion. I Should like to thank the noble Lord for the satisfactory reply which he has given.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes before five o'clock.