With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the results of the technical investigations which have been carried out into the possible failure of the ball cage in the front wheel drive constant velocity joint of certain British Motor Corporation vehicles.
Following earlier accidents involving some of these vehicles, the Ministry's mechanical engineers felt some concern about this particular design feature and took up the matter with the B.M.C. in May, 1964. The Ministry has since remained in close touch with the B.M.C., and supplied it with evidence of failures which had come to light as a result of accidents or vehicle inspections. No conclusive evidence, however, emerged. In November, 1964, the B.M.C. informed the Ministry that, for other reasons, the part in question was being modified and strengthened in new production.
As part of the Ministry's continuing technical investigation, following a fatal accident involving an Austin 1100 car on 1st December, 1965, at Guyhirn, in Cambridgeshire, the Ministry's engineers obtained a report from an eminent consultant metallurgist on the design part in question. The consultant's report expressed the opinion that the failure in the ball cage was due to metal fatigue, and the consultant gave evidence to this effect at the resumed inquest on 10th February. A copy of the report was supplied to the B.M.C. on 4th February.
Since then further joint technical investigations have been carried out by the Ministry's Chief Mechanical Engineer, the Directors and Service Design Staff at B.M.C., the designers and manufacturers of the part and the consultant metallurgist, Professor L. W. Derry. This included a detailed examination of further evidence, including the whole of the Austin 1100 involved in the accident. The agreed technical conclusion was that the fracture of the ball cage occurred as a result of the accident and was not the cause of it.
I hope that this detailed investigation and the conclusion reached will relieve any anxiety felt by owners and drivers of front wheel drive cars using this component.
I am sure that the House would wish me to express sympathy on its behalf with the widow of the victim of this unfortunate accident.
May I, on behalf of the Opposition, join the Minister in her expression of sympathy with the widow? I am sure that the whole House will feel great satisfaction that B.M.C. and Hardy Spicer have a completely clean bill in this matter.
Does the right hon. Lady share with me some concern at the way in which this case has been handled, in that, despite the satisfactory result, it may have done grave damage to our export trade? Will she ensure, both through her own Ministry and through the machinery available to the Government, that everything possible is done to minimise that damage both at home and abroad?
Finally, is the right hon. Lady wholly satisfied that her Department acted wisely in giving widespread publicity last Wednesday to the previous inquiry in May, 1964, to which the right hon. Lady referred in her statement, without making it clear that the Department and B.M.C. had agreed at that time that such fractures were the result, and not the cause, of certain accidents which were drawn to their attention?
I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman in criticising the way in which this has been handled. My Department has to try to maintain a most careful balance here. Obviously, it is not any part of our desire to cast imputations on any type of car unnecessarily, but, equally, as there had been a number of accidents in which a fracture had been found in this component, it was right that we should watch the situation carefully.
I want to make it clear that it is quite true that B.M.C. has always maintained that the fracture took place as a result of the accident and was not the cause of it. There was no conclusive evidence to show that any fears to the contrary would be justified. None the less, since in this particular accident there was an unexplained swerve of the vehicle, I think that the Department was right to get a further check from Professor Derry to make absolutely sure that every step was being taken to safeguard the users of this type of car.
I think that we are all delighted that, as a result of this thorough investigation, the B.M.C. has been cleared.
May I join in expressing to the widow, who is one of my constituents, sincere sorrow at this accident?
Is the right hon. Lady aware that the House is grateful to her that the inquiry was so speedily undertaken and is also very pleased at the result? Is she further aware that this statement will bring relief of mind to many thousands, including myself, who own this type of exceptionally fine B.M.C. car? But the Ministry had expressed doubts previously. Has she stated categorically that those doubts are no longer in the minds of the Ministry's experts?
I want to state categorically that my experts, including my Chief Mechanical Engineer, who took part in the investigation yesterday—which was very thorough and far-reaching—are entirely of the view that the fracture occurred after the accident and, of course, Professor Derry now shares that view.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that part of the unfortunate publicity mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rushcliffe (Sir M. Redmayne) was due to remarks made by a coroner following one of these accidents? Is it not rather regrettable that a coroner should make remarks which could have such unfortnun-ate effects?
No, Sir. I think that the publicity inevitably arose from the statement by Professor Derry, but now he has taken part in the very thorough investigation and we have his assurance that he is completely in line with the findings.
Does the right hon. Lady intend to publish the findings by Professor Derry and the agreed technical conclusions of this evaluation, so that we can see how it happened that he originally came to a conclusion that failure was caused by fatigue and has now revised his conclusion?
I think that the House has all it needs in the joint statement issued yesterday, to which Professor Derry was a party. Professor Derry believes that there was evidence of some incipient metal fatigue in the part, but he does join in the conclusion that that was not the cause of the accident and that the fracture occurred as a result of the accident.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the only person who can be criticised in connection with this matter is Professor Derry himself, who changed his mind after going further into the subject? Is she further aware that many people, including myself, who happen to own a Austin 1100, will be very much relieved by her statement?
I cannot accept that Professor Derry should be criticised. He maintained, and still maintains, that there was some incipient metal fatigue, but, as a result of the far more thorough examination that was possible at the joint meeting yesterday, he says, without in any way refuting his evidence at the inquest—and that is part of the agreed statement—that he is now able to join in the conclusion that this fracture was not the cause of the accident. I think that we should concentrate on that.
The Ministry must take every possible precaution to safeguard the public, but, equally, we should take every possible step to see that, when a manufacturer's name is cleared, clearance is given as much publicity as possible.
Mr. Gresham Cooke:
These high technical matters often take many months to resolve. In this case, however, the matter has been satisfactorily resolved quickly. Is it not unfortunate, therefore, that the thing was blown up, causing alarm and despondency all over the world to owners of these cars? This component is fitted to foreign cars and is sold overseas. Will the right hon. Lady take steps to see, through her public relations officers, that such things are not made a first-class world issue before Ministry experts have made up their minds?
It was not blown up by my Ministry and I am not responsible for the British Press. I am glad that the Press today has equally blown up the clearance given to the cars. I suggest to the House that this is what we should now concentrate upon. All my Ministry did was to answer some questions which the Press, understandably, put as a result of the inquest and Professor Derry's evidence. We did not attempt in any way to conceal anything from the public. Now it has all been brought into the light and the publicity has been concluded. I suggest that we concentrate on getting that across.
While appreciating that, after the right hon. Lady's statement today and this searching investigation, the technical reputation of these cars probably stands higher than ever in the eyes of the whole public, will the Minister consider whether she can do anything to help in the export field, considering that these cars are among our most successful exports? Could she use her influence with the Government machine so that British commercial attaches abroad and the British Information Services ensure that the reputation of these fine English cars is properly re-established in the markets of the world?
I am sure that my hon. Friend who is responsible for commercial attaches will be only too anxious to take any step to help in this matter. For my part, I shall be only too glad to do anything I can in this direction and to make any information available which will enable the commercial attaches to go in to the counter-attack.
While fully agreeing with what the right hon. Lady said about the duties of the Ministry to be most vigilant in matters of this kind, in the light of her statement does she really still feel that the statement made by the Ministry earlier this week, with its very grave implications, was well advised?
No statement was made by the Ministry. Certain answers were given to certain very probing questions by the Press, which was rightly interested as a result of the inquest and Professor Derry's statement. The Press would have been failing in its duty if it had not pursued the matter, and it probed it with my Ministry. As we had nothing to hide, answers were given. I am sure that the House would agree that we have been equally quick in following this matter up by the rapid investigation and in publicising the results of the investigation.
While I appreciate the expeditious and efficient manner in which my right hon. Friend has handled this matter, is she aware that the owners of these vehicles have gone through agonies of anxiety during the last week or two and that considerable damage has been done to the export trade as a result of what would appear to the majority of people to be irresponsible action on the part of someone? Is she seriously suggesting that no one should get his knuckles rapped—whether the coroner, Professor Derry, or the newspapers?
I am only responsible for my Department. I am satisfied that in this matter it should not get its knuckles rapped. I believe that it should be congratulated on a mixture of great vigilance in the public interest and great willingness to clear the manufacturers concerned as soon as this was possible.
I should like to revert to the comment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes). The Minister, quite properly, is defending the Ministry, but does she not realise that very often in these matters there is greater wisdom in not answering questions until the issue is decided?
This is a matter of judgment, of course, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that, in the light of the inquest and Professor Derry's statement, whatever answers we had given would have been held to be wrong.