Nantes Aircraft Crash

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd April 1979.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan Davies.]

8.48 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robin Hodgson Mr Robin Hodgson , Walsall North

I am pleased to have the opportunity this evening to raise with the Minister the subject of the Nantes air disaster and the compensation paid to relatives of British victims of that tragedy.

The accident at Nantes occurred on 5 March 1973, six years and one month ago. In all, 66 people were killed, of whom 46 were British. So far, the relatives of the British victims have received only the compensation payable under the Warsaw convention, which amounts in most cases to about £9,000.

I raise this question specifically on behalf of Mrs. Bess Wilson, of Tunbridge Wells, whose husband, David, was a personal friend of mine and was killed in the crash. I have mentioned this matter to Mrs. Wilson's constituency Member, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew), and I have his permission to raise the matter here this evening. I know that many other hon. Members are concerned about this accident, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) and Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley). They have a particular interest in the Minister's reply.

At the time of the crash, David Wilson was aged 38. His wife was aged 42. He had two children—Julie, aged 11, and John, aged nine. He was managing director-elect of an office equipment company and had a bright career prospect before him. He boarded a scheduled Iberia flight on a DC9 in Palma to fly to London. At about the same time in Madrid, 81 British holidaymakers were boarding a Spantax, Spanish air charter airline, Coronado on a non-scheduled charter flight, also to London. The route of both planes took them over the radio beacon at Nantes, in France.

At the time to which I refer—March 1973—the civilian air traffic controllers in France were on strike and had been replaced by military air traffic controllers, members of the French armed forces under the instructions of the Government.

Two important and tragic consequences arose from that decision. The first was that the military air traffic controllers were not familiar with the usage and terminology employed in world civilian air traffic. Secondly, the equipment that they were using was in some senses less efficient and less well maintained than that available to the civilian personnel.

The Spantax airliner was flying 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and therefore it had the same time of arrival over the Nantes radio beacon as the Iberia DC9. Until 22 minutes from the Nantes radio beacon the two airliners were at different heights. But, 22 minutes out from the beacon, the air traffic control told the Spantax pilot to lose height, and put him at the same altitude as the scheduled Iberia DC9 flight. From that moment on, a collision was inevitable.

The normal procedure when planes are due to arrive at a similar point at the same time is to order one of them to change height again. On this occasion, the air traffic control merely ordered the pilot of the Spantax airliner to delay his arrival over the Nantes radio beacon by eight minutes. That order was initially given 13 minutes out from the Nantes radio beacon. But, because the air traffic controller was not familiar with international air traffic usage, he did not confirm the order. It was only nine minutes out from the beacon that he finally confirmed the order to the Spantax pilot to lose eight minutes.

It is impossible to lose eight minutes flying time in nine minutes elapsed time, because a plane will not have the momentum to carry itself forward—it will stall. Normally, in such circumstances planes will fly what is known as a racetrack. They turn to starboard out of the traffic lane, fly back down the outside of the traffic lane and rejoin it when they have lost the amount of time required. If a plane wishes to lose eight minutes, it will fly a racetrack which has four minutes on each side to bring it back eight minutes later to the point at which it started.

Having been given the order nine minutes out from the Nantes radio beacon, the Spantax pilot did not immediately request permission to fly a racetrack and for six minutes, from nine minutes out to three minutes out from the Nantes radio beacon, he tried to reduce speed. If any fault seems to lie at the feet of that pilot, it is his failure to ask for permission to fly a racetrack earlier. But only three minutes out from the beacon was he convinced that he could not lose the time required, so he called air traffic control and asked for permission to fly a racetrack.

At that moment, the air traffic controller, in contravention of normal usage, told the pilot to change radio frequencies. There is some dispute whether the order to change frequencies was to be effective after the beacon had been passed or immediately. Whatever the rights or wrongs may be, the Spantax pilot believed that the order was effective immediately and changed his frequency. For two minutes, from three minutes out from the beacon to one minute out from the beacon, he called twice and asked for permission to fly a racetrack, but got no answer.

One minute out from the beacon he announced, having had no response at all, that he would fly his racetrack or he would be in defiance of the air traffic control order. In accordance with conventional usage, he turned to starboard, in thick cloud and flew straight into the DC9 coming up behind. The DC9 exploded on impact and everybody aboard it was killed. The Spantax airliner was severely damaged in the port wing but it landed at the French military airport at Cognac, and all passengers were saved.

I apologise for going into some detail in the lead-up to the accident, but I want the House to realise that it is clear—and counsel's opinion made it clear—that between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the blame for the accident lies with the French air traffic authorities and only 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. with the Spantax pilot.

The French Government, since March 1973, have persistently refused to allow satisfactory negotiations to get under way. In my opinion, the French Government stand condemned on two counts. First, article 1384 of the Civil Code in France says that a person who has charge of a thing —for example, an air traffic controller in charge of an aeroplane—is strictly liable, without proof of fault, for death or injuries to third parties without limit of liability.

The second reason is that in May 1977 the French Government made an informal offer of 50 per cent. of proved claims, but at that stage no offer was made with regard to interest or costs. That was already some four years after the crash had taken place. Obviously, the costs that the families had incurred at that stage were quite considerable, and the interest due to them arising out of the four-year delay from crash to time of offer was another important factor. Moreover, the French Government said that it would take a long time to work out a final settlement. They referred at that stage to the problem of the elections in France, which were shortly to take place. The offer was never proceeded with.

The question might be asked "Why have no legal proceedings been taken by the relatives of those who were killed in France?" I refer to an article in The Sunday Times of 13 August. Many of these people are very poor. They cannot afford the risks and the costs—and the fact that they might end up in a French court with nothing—involved in taking a French authority to court. The article states: One widow, who received only an insurance payment of £6,000 for the death of her husband, has been evicted, with her young daughter, from two houses in turn for non-payment of rent. Her lawyer has now lost touch with the family. Another widowed mother of five sons received the same payment "— that is, £6,000— and is now forced to rely on supplementary benefits. Many people—not, I am glad to be able to say, Mrs. Wilson—have been forced to the brink of penury and are not in a position to fight for their rights in a legal form in the French courts.

The Minister has been extremely kind and courteous and has answered very carefully and fully the inquiry I have put to him, I do not for a moment suggest that his task in this case has been an easy one. I do not want him to think that what I am saying is in any way directed personally against him or his Department. The Department has been extremely courteous and helpful in dealing with my inquiry. I have been following this matter because of my particular interest in it, and my friendship with David Wilson, since I came into the House two and a half years ago. It might be helpful if I were to give the House a few of the most salient features of the negotiations over the past six months.

The Minister wrote a letter to me in August last year in which he said: I do not think it would be right to put further pressure on the French Government at this stage to give a timetable. We have been assured that the French Treasury Solicitor has been instructed to take steps to co-ordinate negotiations leading to the out-of-court settlement envisaged in the French reply and that the necessary contacts will take place as soon as possible.' That was on 11 August. On 25 October, the Minister wrote a letter saying: Our Ambassador in Paris therefore wrote to the French authorities on 13 October to express concern at the apparent lack of progress since July and to inquire how matters now stand. We await the French response to this latest approach. On 30 November, the Minister again wrote to me saying: The Embassy in Paris have been pressing for a reply to this letter. That was the letter of 13 October. The Ambassador wrote again on 14 November and the matter was raised again with the Quai as recently as 24 November. That meant that another three or four months had elapsed from the time that the Minister—quite justifiably, no doubt—had said that we should not be putting pressure on the French Government.

On 21 December, the Minister was kind enough to report that the French had agreed to prevent the time bar coming into force. That is to say, so much time had elapsed since the accident that there was a danger that any settlement or court action would be ruled out because of time-barring. I know that the relatives of the victims are grateful to the Foreign Office for what it has achieved in that regard.

On 24 January, some six months after his first letter, the Minister again wrote to me saying: One of the difficulties is, of course, that the attempts to negotiate an overall settlement covering all the claims means that those claims which are perfectly straight-forward and fully documented are held up as long as information is lacking in respect of some of the other claims. In this connection I understand that some of the British solicitors involved have now said that they should shortly be able to supply the outstanding information required in respect of some of the claims. I was extremely unhappy with that reply, because part of the French informal offer in May 1977 had required the proving of the quantum—that is to say, the amount that was being claimed by each relative on behalf of each victim—and a great deal of work and effort had been done by the relatives to prove their claims. Indeed, I know that Mrs. Wilson, with the help of her chartered accountants, had to do a great deal of work on her husband's tax returns regarding his previous year's earnings, to say nothing about his financial status, and so on. I understand that a similar process had been followed with regard to the relatives of the other victims.

I found, therefore, that that reply was extremely disappointing. It seemed to be taking us over the ground that had already been covered. It was particularly disappointing because the French Government say that they will not make an offer until a claim has been proved. But why should the families go to the trouble of making their claim clear if they do not know what the French Government's offer will be? It is a circular argument. All that the families suspect is that the higher the total amount of claims becomes, the lower the French Government's offer will be, relatively speaking. Therefore, it is only fair that the families should want to be reassured that the French Government will put an offer on the table. The French Government are then quite entitled to ask those families to provide proof of the claims that they are making. To ask the families to prove the claim before an offer is made seems to be an unsatisfactory way of proceeding.

Some of the questions that have emerged from France in the past six months have not, in my opinion, been of a relevant nature. In his letter, the Minister referred to the difficulties of co-ordinating the claims. I have here a letter from the Société D'Avocats dated 31 October, addressed to Mrs. Wilson. This letter asks for: A certificate that the widow Bessie Wilson has not remarried. I cannot understand why whether Mrs. Wilson has been able to remarry in October 1978 should in any way affect the liability of the French Government to make a payment arising out of the negligence of their military air traffic controllers in March 1973. From my conversations with some of the solicitors, I suspect that many of the questions that have been asked are not of a relevant nature, and, indeed, are designed only to spin out the process of negotiation.

I understand that this issue is an extremely delicate one, but I ask how long the relatives of the victims must wait. There must be a limit. Though I have said nothing publicly for almost two and a half years, I believe that the limit has now been reached. One thing is sure: David Wilson and 45 other British people boarded an airliner in Palma one bright March morning over six years ago, and they for certain had no responsibility for the tragedy that ensued. However, their relatives are the ones who continue to suffer.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister either that a settlement has now been reached and that money will quickly be paid to the relatives, or that Her Majesty's Government intend in future to follow a policy in this matter that is more publicly critical of the French Government and their attitude.

9.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frank Judd Mr Frank Judd , Portsmouth North

We are grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) for the way in which he so factually raised this agonising story. I want to make it absolutely clear at the outset that the Government are deeply concerned about the distress that has been caused to a number of British families following this accident.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who have shown an interest in the issue. Amongst those prominent in concern immediately spring to mind the names of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), as well as of the hon. Member for Walsall, North himself.

On a number of occasions, both I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade have had a chance to hear these representations on behalf of constituents, and on behalf of those who have dependants who are suffering as a result of the accident. My hon. Friend and I have always appreciated these opportunities because they have enabled us to build up a far better acquaintance with the facts of the whole sad story. We entirely share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the financial hardship and frustration experienced by the relatives of the victims in their attempts to secure full compensation. For a long time, my hon. Friend and I have taken, and continue to take, a close personal interest in this issue. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we remain anxious to do everything we can to help.

The hon. Gentleman sketched out the story. I do not think there is much disagreement about the facts. It is certainly true that on 5 March 1973 there was a mid-air collision over Nantes between two Spanish aircraft—an Iberia DC9 flying from Palma to London and a Spantax Coronado flying from Madrid to London. All seven crew and 61 passengers, 46 of whom were British, on the DC9 were killed when the aircraft broke up and crashed. The Spantax aircraft managed to make an emergency landing, and fortunately the crew and passengers escaped uninjured.

The disaster took place during a strike of the French air traffic controllers, which certainly at the time led to speculation in the French and British media that the military ground controllers, who temporarily took over the jobs, may in some way have been responsible because they were unfamiliar with the civilian equipment and procedure.

The circumstances in which this crash occurred were unusual. It is likely that the responsibility for the disaster is divided. On the basis of the official report of the commission of inquiry, the judge in Nantes was unable to attach blame for criminal negligence exclusively to either the Spantax pilot or the military ground controllers. The consequent decision by the French authorities that they could not institute criminal proceedings has certainly made it harder for the claimants to pin down who was to blame and to recover compensation.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that Iberia's liability for passengers was limited under the terms of the Warsaw convention, as amended by the Hague protocol, to a maximum of £10,780. We understand that payments were offered to the dependants in fulfilment of this obligation without undue delay. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, relatives are seeking to recover additional sums from the French Government on the ground that the crash was largely caused by negligence on the part of the French air traffic controllers.

The hon. Gentleman may feel that the limit of liability to which I have referred is too low—£10,780. I assure the House that the Government share this view and that British carriers, as a condition of their licence, must contract for at least the equivalent of $58,000. Similar limits are offered by the carriers of many other countries. I understand that Iberia also recently agreed to contract for a higher limit of liability of the same order.

The Embassy in Paris has on repeated occasions emphasised to the French authorities the importance that the British Government attach to the resolution of this longstanding problem, and has pressed for it to be treated as a matter of priority. Hon. Members will know that it was in response to these repeated representations by the Embassy and to a personal approach I made to the French Ambassador that the French conveyed to us on 28 July last year their decision to propose on overall compromise settlement.

The House will, of course, understand that it is for the claimants and their lawyers to decide how to respond to this proposal for an out-of-court settlement and to any offers that may be made in this framework. The alternative is for them to pursue their claims through the appropriate French courts. It would, frankly, be improper for me to offer any comment from this Dispatch Box on what they might decide to do.

Photo of Mr Robin Hodgson Mr Robin Hodgson , Walsall North

The Minister says that it is up to the claimants to respond to the offers that have been made. Has an offer been made? I understand that only a broad framework—the suggestion that an offer could be made—has been put forward. No money has been talked about, or any basis of that sort at all.

Photo of Mr Frank Judd Mr Frank Judd , Portsmouth North

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall deal specifically with that point shortly.

At this juncture, I must remind the House that at this stage there are no official legal grounds whatsoever for the Government themselves to intervene. I can quite understand that the hon. Gentleman and others who are personally exposed to the sadness and distress which has followed the accident may wish that it were otherwise. But that is the position in international law, for international law does not provide for a State to bring a claim against another State for wrongs done to it in the person of its nationals until all local legal remedies have been exhausted, and then—and only then—if there is evidence that the claimants have been denied justice. As no court has yet reached a decision as to liability, the case remains sub judice and we are obliged to allow French legal procedures to take their course.

What we have been doing is repeatedly to urge the French Government to speed up those processes and to follow up their commitment to the principle of an overall compromise settlement by making firm offers. The Embassy in Paris has remained in close contact with the French lawyers acting for the British claimants in the case.

Following the repeated representations to which I have referred, we were told in December last, as the hon. Gentleman has recognised, that the French Treasury Solicitor had completed his study on the basis of the information available and had asked the lawyers for supplementary information to fill certain gaps in the official documents. The French Government reaffirmed their commitment to accept responsibility for their obligations and duties in this matter, in accordance with the principles of French law. They also confirmed earlier assurances that the necessary arrangements had been made to suspend the time-barring of the prosecution—a point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Contacts then took place between the lawyer representing the French Government and lawyers representing the claimants, but when no firm offer was forthcoming from the French, the Ambassador in Paris called again, on 12 January, on the Secretary-General at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on my instructions, to emphasise our increasing concern at the lack of progress.

The Secretary-General promised that he would take up the matter with the then newly-appointed Foreign Minister, M. Francois Poncet. Shortly afterwards, on 29 January—because I was far from satisfied, to put it mildly, with the whole way in which this thing was dragging on—I raised the matter personally with my French ministerial opposite number, M. Bernard-Raymond, during his official visit to London. He assured me that the matter was receiving his personal attention and that he would do all he could to persuade the appropriate authorities to conclude an early settlement.

Only last week, we heard informally that the French Government had made offers to some, but not all, of the British claimants. These offers are under study by the claimants' lawyers. Since we have not been informed of the precise content of any of them, I cannot say tonight whether they are likely to be thought acceptable.

It will in any case be for the claimants and their legal advisers and not for the British Government to decide whether an offer is acceptable in their case. But I can assure the House that we shall continue to keep a close watch on developments. I am sure that hon. Members will welcome the news of the recent offers as an indication at least of movement in a situation that we all agree has been dragging on for far too long. I hope that the fact that the hon. Member for Walsall, North has tonight so effectively put the case will help the claimants and their lawyers in what they are trying to negotiate.

In conclusion, I should like to repeat the deep sympathy of the Government for the relatives and dependants of those who lost their lives in this disaster. The Government will continue to do all that they can to encourage a speedy settlement of their claims, which will help a little to alleviate the hardship that they have suffered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Nine o'clock.