HL Deb 22 December 1988 vol 502 cc1460-4

11.26 a.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission. Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the disaster that occurred last night at Lockerbie.

"A Boeing 747 aircraft of Pan American Airways, Flight 103 from Heathrow to New York, believed to he carrying 243 passengers and 15 crew, was following its normal track over south Scotland under surveillance from the Scottish air traffic control centre at Prestwick. Shortly after seven o'clock, when the aircraft was 20 miles north-west of Carlisle, and two minutes after the last radio contact, the controller at Prestwick observed the disappearance from his screen of the secondary surveillance radar response, which identifies the aircraft. The primary radar return from the aircraft then split into several returns around the last known position. I am assured by the Civil Aviation Authority that the Scottish air traffic control centre had no indication of any other aircraft in the vicinity at the time.

"Wreckage of the aircraft came down in an area in a swathe approximately 10 miles long and substantial parts fell on the town of Lockerbie, causing the destruction of houses, a petrol station and cars on the A.74, and substantial further damage from fire. Honourable Members may already have seen on their television screens some of the devastation that occurred as a result. The emergency services are still searching for survivors but it seems unlikely that anybody escaped from the aircraft. Some five people in Lockerbie have been taken to hospital but the full extent of the casualties on the ground is still not known.

"It is of course too soon to draw any conclusions about the cause of this terrible disaster. A team from my department's air accident investigation branch arrived at Lockerbie just after midnight and has already begun its work. Representatives of the US Government and the manufacturers are being invited to assist them in accordance with international practice. The inquiry will be conducted with all the urgency appropriate to an event of this kind. A full report will be published as soon as possible and an initial bulletin setting out the facts revealed in the first stage of the investigation will be published shortly.

"The House will wish to join me in an expression of deeply felt grief at this tragedy. It is already clear that the loss of life is greater than in any air accident that has previously taken place in the United Kingdom and as yet we have little indication of the extent of the losses among the people of the Lockerbie area. May I also express on behalf of the Government our deepest sympathy with the American people and our great admiration of the emergency services who served so well last night. Search and rescue and support helicopters, aircraft and mountain rescue teams were involved, as well as ground support medical and search teams from service units all over the country. Their work is still going on at the site of the crash and in the surrounding areas and will continue for as long as is required.

"Our thoughts today and throughout Christmas will be with those whose relatives and friends died there last night".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

11.30 a.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House is obliged to the Minister for repeating the Statement on this awesome tragedy. It gives all noble Lords an opportunity to join in the expressions of grief and sympathy for the families and friends of the large number of people who have lost their lives and also to express our regard and sympathy for the people of Lockerbie who are seriously injured and to give our best wishes for their recovery. Other noble Lords may, as I did, have listened to the reports throughout the early hours. As the Statement says, we must have admiration for all the emergency services which came in from various parts to assist and did all that they could to help in the circumstances arising from the terrible accident.

We should also express our gratitude to the Aviation Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, who hurriedly joined other Ministers visiting Lockerbie, especially as he was engaged with some of us late last night in the British Rail debate.

As the Statement says, obviously no conclusions can be drawn at this time. Many people are jumping to conclusions, as they often do when accidents of this kind happen. That is rather regrettable. We are pleased to note, as the Statement says, that the United States Government and the manufacturers will be involved in the inquiries, the results of which we shall all be awaiting with some anxiety.

I am one of those who has been through and stopped at Lockerbie many, many times. I listened to two local councillors this morning and one can understand the feelings of the local residents of Lockerbie. I have only one question to ask the Minister. In the event of assistance being required, will the Scottish Office give every possible assistance, especially with social services help with counselling? A considerable amount of that will obviously be required by many residents of Lockerbie.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, we too wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We feel a spirit of togetherness with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, who in a sense represents your Lordships' House at the scene of this terrible accident.

One is frankly overwhelmed by the year that we have just had. It seems to have been a terrible year of tragedy. This country's greatest ever air accident, coming right at the end of the year, leaves one feeling numb. The Government and all the other people involved are to be congratulated on the speed with which they reacted to the terrible disaster. As has been said, the emergency services swung into action with remarkable speed and efficiency in a part of the world where the centres of the emergency services must be somewhat scattered. I am not suggesting that Lockerbie is in the back of beyond, but it is not one of the most highly populated parts of the country. To be able to put in the amount of support that there was within a few hours is a remarkable achievement.

We too wish to join in sympathy with the American people in the tragedy they have suffered of friends and relatives going back for the Christmas holidays who simply do not appear. The devastation that that will cause for so many families will cone inue for many years to come.

Thankfully the number of casualties at Lockerbie seems to be somewhat less than originally supposed by the media. Like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I am anxious not to speculate on what might have been the cause of the accident. That will be found out soon enough. Sufficient today to repeat the words of the Statement on all sides of the House and say that our thoughts and prayers today and throughout Christmas will be with the relatives and friends of those who died in the accident.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to express our sorrow at the sad happenings of last night. As Chairman of the Scottish Peers in the House, on whose behalf I presume to speak, perhaps I may say that we should like to share the great sadness that has descended on our community. In the past few weeks we have experienced a number of major tragedies. Despite that, we are deeply sensitive and saddened by an event of this kind happening on our c wn doorstep. Lockerbie is a douce and decent Scottish village. Those of us who know the community can readily realise the extent of the tragedy in its midst. Like other noble Lords, we join in the expressions of sorrow to the Americans who were making their way home to celebrate Christmas.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister to speed up the investigation if possible. I know that such investigations take a long time, but in the case of the Manchester disaster it was possible to make an interim public statement which allayed some of the speculation taking place. Perhaps I may make an appeal to the media, through the Government, to stop speculating on these matters and almost prejudicing judgments before they are made. Finally, let me say how much we appreciate the services which were made available last night and the prompt presence of the Secretary of State for Scotland at the scene of the tragedy.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Underhill. Lord Tordoff and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for their expressions of sympathy at this time. Like them, I believe that the response from the emergency services was second to none. The Dumfries and Galloway social work department is helping the bereaved and homeless with comfort and support. I am grateful for the remarks made about my noble friend Lord Brabazon and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland who hurried to the scene. The Government will do everything in their power to ease the blow which has befallen Lockerbie. I repeat our sympathy for the American people at this time.

With regard to speeding up the AAIB report, as I said in the Statement, a special bulletin describing the circumstances of the accident will be published as soon as possible. I mean what I say there. I take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said about the Manchester inquiry. As to his comments about the media, I am sure that they will have heard them and will have taken note.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester

My Lords, perhaps I may associate my colleagues on these Benches with the expressions of distress and sympathy. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has already issued a statement asking all Church people to remember in their prayers now and over Christmas all those who are suffering as a result of this terrible disaster. I am sure that we shall all respond to that plea and bear in mind not only those who are suffering but those who are involved in the exacting and harrowing rescue work.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for those words. It is a sad event, especially at Christmas time, and the relatives and friends of those who have perished and those who are injured are much in our thoughts.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, we all share the deep distress that has been expressed about this appalling accident. I fully understand that information is still coming in, but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us a little more about the casualties on the ground. I believe that he said that five people have so far been identified as dead in the town of Lockerbie. Can he tell us which villages and small towns in the 10-mile swathe of which he spoke are the worst affected, what are their names and whether he has any information about the casualties there?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I must refrain from speculation on this matter and stick to the facts which were given to me from a report at 8.30 a.m. this morning. Five people attended Dumfries Royal Infirmary with injuries arising from the disaster. Of those five, two have been discharged. Two elderly people have suffered major burns and are described as being in a very serious condition. The remaining person has suffered a scalp wound which is not believed to be serious. That is an interim report, it is factual. No information on the surrounding villages or how they have been affected has yet come to me.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend convey a very special expression of sympathy from this country to the families of those American servicemen who had been participating in the defence of the free world and who were going home for their Christmas holidays? Will he convey the understanding, particularly of those of the wartime generation in this country, of their real grief and of our desire that they should be comforted in every way?

May I also ask the Minister whether The Times is accurate in its article stating that the aircraft in question was rather more than 18 years old? If that is right, is urgent consideration being given to an examination of aircraft of the 747 type of similar age on the British register?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, as regards the expressions to the American people and particularly those who are in the services, I thank my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for his remarks.

As to the safety of the Boeing 747, again I should not like to speculate on that nor to talk about the age of the aircraft. I am sure that at this stage my noble friend would like me to look into this and as soon as information comes to hand I shall drop him a line.

Lord Hayter

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in catastrophes like this all the media should ask everybody to stay away from the area unless they have reason to be there? And in particular people should be asked not to flood the telephone with the numbers given on the radio and television unless, again, they have real reason to ring up, should they not?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those remarks. I could not agree with him more. It hinders the task of the emergency services when this kind of event happens and I am sure that due note will be taken of the circumstances of the situation.