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Tube Shelter Accident (Inquiry)

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 10 March 1943

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the disastrous accident which occurred last week on the staircase leading from the street to one of London's tube station shelters, which I, in common with all the members of the Government, and I am sure the House, profoundly regret.

While a number of people were moving quickly down these stairs to the shelter a woman fell and this caused the fall of a number of those behind her, thus causing a stoppage which, through the unintentional pressure of the crowd from above, quickly grew into a tangled mass of people who could not release themselves or be extricated for some time. As a result, 173 persons lost their lives and 61 were injured and removed to hospital. The Government are determined to do whatever is possible to throw light upon the circumstances attending this sad event. Without in any way assuming that there was negligence in any quarter, the Government wish to be assured, and wish the public to be assured, that any avoidable defect either in the structure and equipment of the shelter, or in the arrangements for its staffing, or for the supervision of those within the shelter, is brought to light so that steps can be taken both in this shelter and elsewhere to minimise the risk of any repetition.

For this purpose the Government have decided that an independent inquiry should be held, and I have appointed Mr. Laurence Dunne, one of the Metropolitan Magistrates, to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of the disaster. Mr. Dunne will begin work to-morrow. As many aspects of the incident concern Civil Defence arrangements related to acts of war, on which it is undesirable that information should be given to the enemy, the Government have decided in the national interest that the inquiry shorn be held in private; but the conclusions will, subject to security considerations, be published. All communications relating to the inquiry should be addressed to the Secretary of the Tube Shelter Inquiry at the Home Office, S.W.I.

May I take it that one of the questions that will be inquired into is whether that shelter and other shelters are properly lighted?

Will special facilities be given for the relatives of those who suffered in this appalling disaster to give evidence, and will counsel be employed, or what is the procedure likely to be?

As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the determination as to procedure and witnesses must rest with Mr. Dunne, who is conducting the inquiry. I should doubt whether this matter is of a nature in which counsel could assist in the inquiry. With regard to witnesses, that matter will be within the discretion of Mr. Dunne, but I should have thought the material witnesses would be the persons who are concerned with the administration of the shelter and persons who were present. However, it is, of course, a matter for Mr. Dunne to determine whom he should hear and whom he should not hear.

In view of the fact that there are rumours that certain persons shouted that they saw bombs falling, and encouraged a stampede, has the right hon. Gentleman sufficient power to deal with such scoundrels at present?

If these were malicious statements, we certainly should have powers to deal with them.

Would it not be possible for part of the inquiry to be held in public, even if some of the things alleged in the public part were repressed in order not to allow the enemy to hear anything which, in the opinion of the Home Secretary, he should not be allowed to hear?

I have considered that point. Naturally it is exceedingly difficult to draw an arbitrary line as to what is security and what is not, and there is also the point that you cannot be sure of what a witness is going to say when he is in the middle of saying it.

Whose is the responsibility of seeing that tragic accidents of this kind do not occur? Does it rest with the local authorities, the Regional Commissioner, the Metropolitan Police or the Home Secretary?

The Parliamentary responsibility is undoubtedly fully mine, and I accept it. The local responsibility is primarily that of the local authority, in association with the Regional Commissioner.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, even under peace-time conditions, many of the stairways leading into the tubes are definitely dangerous, if they have to be used owing to failure of the lifts, unless there is adequate control, and will this also be inquired into?

I am afraid I have not enough knowledge of all tube stairways to answer that Question, but this is not a point that would be inquired into. Only the accident at this shelter will be inquired into. But, if anything comes out which would be applicable to other Tube stations, no doubt the Minister of War Transport would consider any general steps which might be desirable. I do not think it would be wise for any of us to presume at this stage what conclusions Mr. Dunne might have on the point.

As the inquiry is to be conducted by one person and held in secret, will arrangements be made for some representatives of the local authority to be present throughout the proceedings? Of course, I am not making any reflection on Mr. Dunne.

I should not like to give a firm answer. It is a matter within the discretion of Mr. Dunne. If he wishes to have the local authority people present all the time, he can do so. The local authorities, the Regional Commissioners and myself are potential subjects of criticism, and that point must be kept in mind.

Is it desirable that a secret inquiry should be conducted with no one present except the person conducting the inquiry and those whose evidence is being heard?

There is no difficulty whatever in Mr. Dunne having any assistance he wishes, and I have no doubt he will require assistance of various sorts, and that point will be in his mind.

I should like to be assured that this inquiry in private, in view of the very wild statements and the blame that has been laid in the locality on persons likely to be proved not blameworthy, will give a full opportunity for those persons to be exculpated from all blame.

The point my hon. Friend is putting is whether it is fair to the authorities who are normally responsible for the administration of the shelter, and there is point in that. I have given the matter very careful consideration, and, while in peace-time I would not hesitate at all that this inquiry should be public, we are at war, and there are lessons not only for ourselves but for the enemy in the tactics he uses against us. I am sure that in the public interest this inquiry must be held in private, although, as I have said, the conclusions, subject to security considerations, will be published.