HC Deb 22 December 1988 vol 144 cc599-608

11 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

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 be 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 a swathe of some 10 miles or more, and substantial parts fell on the town of Lockerbie causing the destruction of houses, a petrol station and cars on the A74, and substantial further damage from fire. Hon. 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. 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 American 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. I also express on behalf of the Government, and I am sure the House, our deepest sympathy with the American people and our great admiration of the emergency services which served us 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.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

On behalf of the Opposition, I offer our deepest sympathies to the relatives and friends of all those who died in last night's terrible tragedy. Last night in Lockerbie we saw a nightmare come true. All of us feel a deep sense of shock. Our thoughts are with the people of Lockerbie and those in Britain, the United States and other countries who have lost their loved ones.

The House is aware that the Secretary of State for Scotland and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) are in Lockerbie and will undoubtedly express the sympathy of the House for all those who have been affected by this terrible disaster.

Once more, the House is greatly indebted to the emergency services, including the police, the Army, hospitals, the fire brigade and others, for the rescue operation that was launched within minutes of the disaster, and is continuing throughout the day. Yet again, the House and the country pay tribute to their professionalism, dedication and heroism and to the courage of ordinary people who attempted to join in the rescue last night.

In the few remaining days of 1988, and only nine days after the Clapham rail disaster, this horrific aviation tragedy makes December 1988 one of our worst months for deaths in the passenger transport industries. It concludes almost two years of an unprecedented collection of transport industry tragedies, recorded in the names of the Herald of Free Enterprise, Piper Alpha, King's Cross, Clapham junction, and now Lockerbie, involving the loss of over 800 lives and affecting the relatives and many of those involved in our rescue and treatment services.

We welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that the investigation into the cause of this terrible tragedy has already begun and is being led by the Department of Transport's air accident investigation branch, which has the reputation of being one of the best in the world. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be better if we all withheld any speculation about what may have caused the disintegration of the plane until that investigation is complete? The task of all of us is to ensure that the chances of such accidents occurring are as rare as it is humanly possible to make them.

I assure the Secretary of State that he has our full support in ensuring that any lessons that are learnt in the course of the investigation into last night's dreadful accident are acted upon straight away. We can never make travel completely safe, but in 1989 we must all redouble our efforts to maintain and improve safety in our transport industries.

Mr. Channon

I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say how much I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said. I agree with every word that he has spoken this morning. No one could be more aware than me of the terrible disasters that have taken place in recent months. I am grateful to him for his tribute to the air accident investigation branch. I confirm that the investigation is taking place. If lessons are learnt quickly, immediate steps will be taken, but I entirely agree that at this stage it would be premature and wrong to speculate about the cause of this appalling disaster.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

As the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) told the House last night, he has gone to be with his constituents in Lockerbie this morning. Therefore, as the Member for the next-door constituency, may I convey to him and to the House the real and deep sense of sympathy felt throughout the south of Scotland for our neighbours in the town of Lockerbie and the surrounding countryside? We pray that the loss of life among the townspeople may yet prove miraculously less than was first feared last night. Our thoughts are also with the people in the United States who were looking forward to the return of their service men, students and others for family reunions at Christmas.

Is the Secretary of State aware that only two months ago, in the town of Galashiels, a full civil defence exercise was held simulating just such a crash, but I am afraid that nothing then imagined equalled the scale of devastation experienced last night in Lockerbie. Nevertheless, will he commend the value of such exercises and the work of the local emergency services as well as those from outside, such as RAF Leuchars?

May I make one request? The Secretary of State will know that the south of Scotland and the adjacent area over the border in England is used for low-flying exercises. Although there is no connection whatever between those and this high altitude accident, will he understand that the normal anxieties and frights that our people tolerate week in and week out will be greatly heightened as a result of the tragedy? Therefore, will he ask the Ministry of Defence to be sensitive and to suspend all exercises in this area over the Christmas and new year school holidays?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks and I entirely share his views about the value of the exercises that he has described to the House. In particular, I endorse what he said about the work of the emergency services, not only those nearby, but those who came from many places a long distance away. The House will know of the many tributes that have been paid to them on television. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who has been in his constituency, has confirmed that, and that is important. Low-flying aircraft are obviously a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I shall see that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks are conveyed to him at once.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I want to associate myself and those whom I represent with all that has been said so far in sympathy for those bereaved and in praise of the emergency services. This has not been a good month. It would be wrong to speculate about the cause of the accident at this moment. However, it must be said, for those continuing to fly in the Boeing 747, that it seems most unlikely that that aircraft, which is one of the safest in the world, having a basically military design, of which there are more than 700 in service, of which 168 are still on order, and which has a record of 23 million hours of commercial service, is at fault. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will confirm that. As to a bomb, it seems most unlikely that a terrorist would choose to plant one at Heathrow, where security is probably the tightest in the world.

Will my right hon. Friend do something to improve the telephone services for the emergency lines that have been made available? At this juncture, people want more than anything else news of what is happening. The emergency lines have been permanently engaged since the telephone numbers were announced.

Mr. Channon

I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks concerning the emergency lines. There have been many complaints, but obviously there can be difficulties at a time like this. However, I have asked my officials to pursue that matter with the relevant authorities as a matter of urgency to see whether more lines can be put into operation. I confirm my hon. Friend's comments concerning Heathrow's very good security record in the past, and I am grateful to him for pointing it out.

A formal structural review of the Boeing 747 took place a few years ago, and I understand that the Civil Aviation Authority has no reason to question the integrity of the aircraft in airline service—so I agree with my hon. Friend's observations.

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

I associate myself with the sympathy that has been expressed this morning. The Secretary of State will agree that the fortitude displayed by the people of Lockerbie and by bereaved relatives in the United States of America is remarkable.

Once the official investigation is under way, what will be done to mobilise resources for the benefit of the living victims of the Lockerbie tragedy? Will the Government give an assurance that there will be substantial mobilisation of resources from central Government to local government to deal with what will be fairly long-term difficulties in the aftermath of the disaster? I refer in particular to the demolition of houses and the need to rehouse the people who lived in them.

Mr. Channon

I agree with the comments made in the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. As to the questions he raises, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office is present and has heard the hon. Gentleman's comments. As the hon. Member knows, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is in the disaster area. Obviously he is examining the situation and will carefully consider what has been said by the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member will probably know that the regional council has opened an emergency fund, to which the Government will contribute in the normal way.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) has asked me to tell the House on his behalf that as he and I share a common adult experience of many years of flying service aircraft, and have a love of aviation, we are horrified by what happened last night. We both wish to make it clear that we accept that civil aviation is a very safe means of transport. We regularly fly between London and Scotland, and believe that the best example that we can give is to continue our lives as we have in the past.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that we in Scotland are shocked and horrified at what happened in Lockerbie, and we should like to place on record our thanks to the rescue services for their splendid work and the effectiveness of their operations. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department's view is that, at this stage, no one should express views or make statements that will in any way cast doubts on the integrity of the Boeing 747, which is one of the most reliable aircraft that the world has ever known?

Mr. Channon

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. His comments about aviation in general and about the Boeing in particular come very well from my hon. Friend, with his aviation experience, which carries considerable weight in the House. I acknowledge also his remarks about the emergency services. Everyone who has been to Lockerbie has expressed their admiration for what they have done.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

All of us who identify with the small town and village communities of Scotland identify this morning with the shock and grief that Lockerbie is enduring. On behalf of Scottish colleagues on the Labour Benches in particular, I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy, and also those of admiration for all the men and women of the rescue and humanitarian services, of whose efforts we stand in awe.

Clearly, there are two interlocking tragedies—the horror of a major air crash allied, almost uniquely, with such devastation on the ground. Lockerbie will endure a prolonged aftermath of human suffering, psychological trauma, and physical damage. I seek the assurance of Ministers that there will be generous resources to meet all needs, and that full attention will be paid to the sensibilities of the people living in the area affected—including those to which the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) referred.

On behalf of all Scottish Opposition Members, I express personal sympathy for the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro),whose anguish last night was the mark of a man who is truly a part of the community that he represents.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), and my right hon. and hon. Friends are particularly appreciative of his remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro).

As to the devastation on the ground at Lockerbie, a preliminary view is that about 10 houses are affected. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office will take full account of what has been said by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, and by other right hon. and hon. Members, and will urgently convey those views to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Again, I share the hon. Gentleman's comments about the emergency services.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

As one of Heathrow's Members of Parliament, although we are a long distance from the place of last night's events, I and all those whom I represent feel very close to that appalling tragedy. I join with other right hon. and hon. Members in expressing heartfelt sympathy for all those who are suffering.

I ask my right hon. Friend to join me in thanking all of those at Heathrow—the people who work for Pan Am and for Heathrow Airport Ltd., and the Metropolitan police —for all they tried to do in difficult circumstances, being so far away from the place of the tragedy. As I shall be going straight to Heathrow shortly, will my right hon. Friend allow me to pass on his thanks? Also, can he assure me that if, when the causes of the disaster are known, there are found to be any Heathrow implications, they will be included in the inquiry?

Mr. Channon

I can give my hon. Friend all the assurances that he seeks. The people at Heathrow should have not only my best wishes but those of the whole House for working far beyond the call of duty and for behaving extremely responsibly and helpfully after last night's appalling disaster; it was very encouraging to see them on television.

I endorse my hon. Friend's expressions of sympathy for all those suffering from the appalling accident—not only the Scottish but the American families affected. Of all the terrible things to happen, perhaps such a disaster is even worse at this time of year. All implications will be considered, and the inquiry's report will be published in the usual way.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

While joining in the condolences to the families and to the loved ones of those who have died, can I ask the Secretary of State whether there is anything that he can do to speed up the process of inquiry? Does he recall that the major accident at Manchester airport, in which over 50 lives were lost, was on 22 August 1985, yet we will still await a full and definitive report on the inquiries that were made? While I appreciate the Minister's difficulties, and the need for complete thoroughness, does he recognise that there is genuine public concern about the time that it takes to complete air disaster inquiries, and that if lessons can save lives, then urgency is very urgent indeed?

Mr. Channon

I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, although I hope that in respect of the particular accident to which he refers it will not be long before a full report is published. As to the Lockerbie disaster, its causes must be found and the report must be thorough and, if possible, be published much quicker. More important even that, if lessons are to be learned, they must be applied straight away—long before the report is necessarily published. The air accident investigation branch will issue a special bulletin describing the circumstances of the accident as soon as it can. Even before, or after, that special bulletin, if action is shown to be needed in whatever field, we shall take it straight away.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

While sharing in the immeasurable grief sustained by the families of those who have lost their loved ones in this appalling accident, may I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that security at Heathrow and Gatwick is at a very high and sustainable level and will remain so? Will he accept that the thoughts and support of the whole House are also with him in having to deal with the appalling tragedies of the past few weeks?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind personal remarks. I certainly confirm that the security arrangements at Heathrow and Gatwick are among the best in the world. We intend to maintain them at that level, and if more needs to be done it will be done.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

May I offer my deepest sympathy to the families, American and Scottish, who have suffered so grievously as a result of this tragic accident? May I remind the Secretary of State that the events following the Piper Alpha accident plainly demonstrate that it is possible to offer compensation and assistance to the victims of such tragedies rapidly and expeditiously, and will he urge on those concerned that similarly rapid and expeditious assistance be given to the Scottish families who have suffered in this tragedy?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman has made a very fair point. In the short time that has elapsed it has been impossible to go into the matter in enormous detail, but I shall see that the hon. Gentleman's important suggestion is vigorously pursued.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

Having had some experience in the past of aircraft accident investigation, I hope that there will be no constraint on the time available for the inspectors to investigate the accident, and that they will not be rushed into giving credence immediately to any particular theory.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether there is any evidence yet that the black box flight recorder has been found?

Mr. Channon

I understand—although it is a very preliminary impression—that one recorder has been found. [Interruption.] I understand that two have now been found, although that will have to be confirmed. When I arrived at the House it was thought that only one had been found.

My hon. Friend is right: there can be no constraint. We must get at the truth. I hope, however, that it may be possible at an earlier stage to give the House and the public more information if there are immediate lessons to be learnt or ways of allaying anxiety. We shall not try to hold back.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South)

It is less than six months since I was in the Chamber stumbling for words to express adequately the grief and shock that I felt after the Piper Alpha tragedy. People in the north-east of Scotland and in my own town of Aberdeen still feel that sense of shock, and they will sympathise today with those in the south-west who have suffered so tragically. May I on their behalf express sympathy and condolences to the relatives of the victims?

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) has made an important point. In the past two years, since the Chinook disaster and more recently the Piper Alpha disaster, we in the north-east of Scotland have been embroiled in claims for compensation. In this country compensation claims follow on proof of negligence, and there may be some difficulty in proving negligence if some of the current speculation proves correct. Will the Secretary of State consider that aspect and allow us to avoid complicated trans-Atlantic legal processes?

Mr. Channon

Like his hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), the hon. Gentleman has made a fair point, which will obviously have to be gone into as speedily as possible. It is a human and difficult question, and if it can be resolved speedily I am sure that the whole House will be pleased.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether the passenger list has yet been published? Having had close personal experience of a serious aircraft accident myself, I have to say that on balance, even if the existing passenger list is not accurate —and it may well not be—my right hon. Friend would be well advised to see whether it can be made public.

Will my right hon. Friend also question the merits of the proposition that relatives should be flown to the site of the disaster?

Mr. Channon

I do not think that the latter point is a question for me. I understood that the suggestion had come from Pan American Airways, but I do not think that the Government or I could be involved in it. However, I take note of my hon. Friend's reservations.

Again, it is for the aircraft company to decide when to release the passenger list. There is a difficult balance to be drawn; I do not think that it is possible to get it right. My hon. Friend may well be correct, but on the other hand passenger lists are liable to change up to the last minute. The flight was not fully booked and people may have got on at the last minute, or got off. I understand the reluctance to publish the list too early, but I am sure that it is common ground between us that when an accurate account can be published, the sooner that people are put out of the appalling agony of waiting the better, and I know that the airline has that in mind.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Before the House becomes too concerned about security at Heathrow, will the Secretary of State confirm that the aircraft started its flight in Frankfurt? Will he also tell us whether he knows how many American military personnel were on board returning to the United States on leave?

Mr Channon

The hon. Gentleman is wrong: it was a through flight. The flight numbers were the same, but there was a change at Heathrow. After the Frankfurt-London flight, a new plane was to take the passengers from London to New York.

I certainly shall not speculate on possible causes of the accident now, but I want the House to understand the factual position. I am not sure that I have the exact number of passengers who came from Frankfurt, but we believe it to be about 31. That, too, will become much clearer in the next few hours.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Of course it is too early to speculate on the causes of this ghastly accident. I also acknowledge that Heathrow and Gatwick—and, for that matter, Frankfurt and Berlin—are among the safest airports in the world. Nevertheless, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the inquiry will be wide enough to consider a point that I have raised before—that checks for explosives carried out at airports are very inadequate compared with, for example, checks carried out in the Houses of Parliament?

Mr. Channon

That too is a very important point. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend would expect me to agree with him until I have had the matter checked, but anything that is relevant to the disaster will have to be carefully considered.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

One of the most appalling aspects of this tragic disaster is the sudden death and destruction that descended on people living on the ground. Is it absolutely necessary for a flight from London to the United States to travel for more than an hour over our land? Is it not possible to reach an international agreement whereby planes could be routed out to sea, possibly flying parallel to either our eastern or our western coastline, and thus avoid this kind of risk?

Mr. Channon

The aircraft's flight pattern was one of the normal patterns, although flight patterns depend on wind and a number of other factors. Routes must be reasonably short; they must also fit in with the wind patterns of the time, and they therefore vary. A great many aircraft have to fly over land, and I do not know whether there is much chance of avoiding that. I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend has said, but I would not like to hold out any hope. It is probably impractical to change the practice.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

All of us with constituencies that lie beneath the airways of Britain will wish to be associated with my right hon. Friend's expressions of sympathy to the people of Lockerbie.

My right hon. Friend has said that the flight originated in Frankfurt, and that the passengers changed aeroplanes at Heathrow. Can he confirm that it would be possible for a passenger starting his journey in Frankfurt to leave the aeroplane at Heathrow, but that his baggage would go on to the new aeroplane and continue on its outbound flight without further checks? If he cannot answer now, can he confirm that the inquiry will look into the question?

Mr. Channon

That is clearly pertinent, although it depends on what caused the crash. It will clearly have to be investigated.

A passenger in transit from Frankfurt to New York is kept on the air side. He does not go through immigration or customs, but goes into a transit lounge on the air side, and his baggage is also moved from one plane to the other through the air side. The passenger never goes into the terminal. I should not have thought it possible for a passenger to leave the plane and for his luggage to stay on board, but I do not want to commit myself: that will obviously have to be looked into.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

May I add to the expressions of sympathy that have already been offered? As one who has travelled more than once on flight PA 103 from Frankfurt to London, may I also pay tribute to the security screening at Frankfurt, but also ask my right hon. Friend to look particularly at the question of baggage? I understand that it is put straight on to the new plane, whatever may happen to the passengers. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that angle is thoroughly examined?

Mr. Channon

Yes, that will clearly have to be looked at. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said in the first half of his question.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Is it not the case that many of the passengers had been involved in defending freedom in the West? In view of that, when the Government send their condolences to the people of the United States, will they include thanks for the work that those passengers were doing on behalf of us all?

Mr. Channon

Yes. A large number of American service men were, unfortunately, on the plane. I agree with my hon. Friend. I shall make sure that that is done.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I am sorry that it is not possible to call all hon. Members who wish to participate but I am sure that all those who have not been called wish to be associated with the expressions of distress about this tragedy. I suggest that the hon. Members for York (Mr. Gregory) and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) should take half an hour each for their Adjournment debates instead of three quarters of an hour.

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