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House of Lords

Monday, 12th June 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Airliners: Width of Aisles

Lord Gainford: My Lords, in asking the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I wish to declare an interest, in that I am president of the Air Safety Group.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government whether steps are being taken to implement the proposal by the Civil Aviation Authority that the minimum width of aisles in airliners should be increased from 20 inches (51 centimetres) to 30 inches (76 centimetres) to facilitate the escape of passengers from any airliner in a case of emergency.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, following the accident at Manchester Airport in 1985, the Civil Aviation Authority commissioned a study into the effect of cabin configuration on aircraft evacuations. That study concluded, among other things, that the optimum width for passageways between floor to ceiling rigid structures, such as galleys, was 30 inches. The study made no recommendation relating to the minimum width of aisles between passenger seating. The CAA proposals based on those studies are now being considered by the Joint Aviation Authorities' Cabin Safety Group.

Lord Gainford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and offer my commiserations on her unfortunate throat affliction. Further to the tragic accident at Manchester, can my noble friend say what lessons have been learnt and what remedies possibly put into effect in relation to passenger evacuation in an emergency?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his sympathy regarding my voice. The main lesson learnt from the Manchester accident is that behaviour of passengers in a real emergency evacuation must be taken fully into account in the design of passenger cabins. As well as changes to the minimum width of passageways between rigid structures—to which I referred—the Civil Aviation Authority is considering changes to the design of over-wing emergency exits. The main possibility being considered is providing the current disposable hatch with a hinged mechanism.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some proposals are in hand to try to fit additional seats in existing aircraft to increase the payload? Will she support opposition to that type of proposal? It is one of the worst features being considered in the carrying of people by aeroplane.

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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord but I did not hear everything he said. It appears that none of us did. There may be something wrong with the microphone. Will the noble Lord kindly repeat his question?

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, there appears to be a tendency among certain airlines to try to fit more seats into existing aircraft against the interests of the travelling public. Wherever that is suggested, will the Government oppose the idea?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am sure that the Government will oppose the idea. As your Lordships are aware, we consider safety to be paramount at all times.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, in view of the great experience of the Civil Aviation Authority in matters of air safety—probably the most effective experience anywhere in the world—will my noble friend indicate that the Government are paying serious attention to its recommendations?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, indeed they are.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, the House has every sympathy with the noble Baroness in her plight. I have promised to be especially nice to her on this occasion. Can the Minister indicate when the Joint Aviation Authorities' considerations are likely to be complete and when it is likely, in consequence, that the Government will be able to announce to Parliament their consideration of its recommendations?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, as your Lordships are aware, the Civil Aviation Authority has been pursuing the proposals through the Joint Aviation Authorities. Any amendment to Joint Aviation Requirement 25, such as the increased minimum width of passageways, would have to be progressed through the JAA and the EC Aviation Safety Committee, in consultation with airlines through the normal notice of proposed amendment procedure. We believe that the consultation period will start in a few months' time.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can my noble friend say whether she saw the reports in the weekend newspapers of the difference in accident results arising from the different brace positions adopted by passengers in crashing aircraft and the difference in the types of fracture sustained? The position adopted can have a significant effect on one's chances of escape from the plane. Can my noble friend inform me also whether such matters are the responsibility of the CAA and whether it is possible for research to be carried out into claims that our brace position causes spinal injuries?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am happy to tell my noble friend that it does come within the ambit of the Civil Aviation Authority, which is due to publish a document later this year. My noble friend may be pleased to know also that British aeroplanes seem to have a better record from the point of view of fractures sustained than some European aeroplanes.

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Lord Molloy: My Lords, will consideration be given to seeking the views of the crews on aircraft who look after the passengers? If we ask that they tell us of their difficulties, I am sure that they will give us first-hand information of what can be done to improve the situation.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the consultation with the airlines should take in the views of cabin staff. I shall make that point known.

Nuclear Arms Control

2.43 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, as proposed by Germany, they will agree to a verifiable nuclear weapons register under the auspices of the United Nations; and if not, why not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley): My Lords, after discussions with our allies, we concluded that the proposal would not make the positive and practical contribution to nuclear arms control that the German Government had hoped.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware, and does he agree, that now that the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been concluded it is absolutely essential to make sure that it works? Is he further aware that Russia and the USA have declared their missile strength and that it is only Her Majesty's Government's refusal to do the same that is holding up the conclusion of an addition to the treaty which should provide the necessary transparency?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord, but he would not be surprised at that at all. We welcome the unanimous decision to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty indefinitely and we attach great importance to it. As regards declaring exactly what our strength is, our position is very different from that of the United States and the Russians. We have only a minimum nuclear deterrent and revealing the exact size of our forces would compromise their effectiveness, with consequences that are obvious even to the noble Lord.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this is a serious proposition from the German Government? The German Government seek to have greater transparency in the declaration of nuclear weapons. While we have no doubt about the veracity of the Government's statement that each Trident boat will deploy no more than 96 warheads, is it not the case that Trident is capable of deploying many more than that? Therefore, in the spirit of transparency, would it not be sensible for the Government at least to enter into negotiations on this matter? As I understand it—the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—it is only Her Majesty's Government and France who are opposed to this.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I had better start by correcting the noble Lord. My understanding is that it is the United States, France and Her Majesty's Government and other members of NATO who have opposed this

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suggestion. My understanding is further that the German Government have dropped it and put forward further proposals which we understand have not been taken any further. As regards the capacity of Trident, I can only say, as I think the noble Lord knows full well, that we intend that Trident shall deploy a maximum of 96 warheads and on some occasions fewer.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is not the Government's position on this matter quite out of keeping with their enthusiastic support for the United Nations register of conventional weapons? Is it not even more necessary that everyone shall be aware of what the position is in relation to nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction? If that is not the case, how can one be sure that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is working?

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