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RAF Shackleton (Crash)

3.30 pm

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the crash of the RAF Shackleton in the Outer Hebrides.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-on-Tweed) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : I will take points of order after the statements in the usual place.

Mr. Beith : My point of order arises out of Prime Minister's questions.

Mr. Speaker : I know. The hon. Gentleman knows that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

Mr. Beith : My point of order arises out of Prime Minister's questions.

Mr. Speaker : I know. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archibald Hamilton) : It is with much regret--

Mr. Beith rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very senior Member of the House. He knows that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

Mr. Beith : My point of order arises out of Prime Minister's questions.

Mr. Speaker : I know. I repeat to the hon. Member, who has been here as long as I have, that I take points of order in their proper place, after the statements.

Mr. Beith rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Hamilton : It is with much regret that I have to confirm to the House--

Mr. Beith rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I do not know whether the hon. Member can hear what I am saying to him. I am saying that I take points of order in their proper place after the statements--and that I will certainly do--and not now. We are still in the middle of Question Time. This is a private notice question which I have granted.

Mr. Beith rose--

Mr. Speaker : I must now order the hon. Member to sit down.

Mr. Hamilton : It is with much regret that I have to confirm to the House that an RAF Shackleton airborne early warning aircraft based at RAF Lossiemouth, crashed on a hillside near Northton on the isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides yesterday afternoon around 12.30 pm. Tragically, all 10 RAF personnel on board the aircraft

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were killed. I am sure that the House will join me in extending our deepest sympathy to the families of those concerned.

A board of inquiry has been convened. As the House will be aware, until the board's investigations are complete it would be inappropriate to speculate about the causes of the accident.

Mr. Rogers : On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I join the Government in extending to the families of the airmen who were killed our most sincere condolences and sympathy.

I would also like to place on record our tremendous regard for the aircrews of No. 8 squadron who have to fly the Shackletons, often in extreme conditions, and also for the groundcrews of the squadron who have the incredibly difficult task of keeping these 40-year-old aircraft in service. The task has been made extremely difficult in recent years because of the reduction of operational Shackletons from 11 to the current six. During this time, planes which have gone out of commission have been cannibalised to keep the rest in the air, which is a significant achievement.

The provision of early warning planes has had a sorry history in this country--

Hon. Members : What is the question?

Mr. Speaker : This is a private notice question, not a statement.

Mr. Rogers : We find it difficult to understand why the Shackleton seems to have had no upgrading in recent times. Apart from the many questions relating to the condition of the aircraft there are questions peculiar to this crash that need to be answered. One matter of great concern is the role that the aircraft was playing at the time of the crash- - [Interruption.] We are investigating a crash in which 10 aircrew were killed.

I understand that the RAF spokesman said that the Shackleton was participating in a missile-firing exercise, but he went on to say in the same statement that no missiles had been fired for at least an hour and a half before the plane crashed. If the plane went on to do flight training, as we were told in the statement, perhaps the Minister will tell us why it was flying at 700 ft when the normal operational mode is 6,000 to 8,000 ft, levels at which the plane is not equipped to fly. It has no terrain- following radar or all-weather radar--it has only the Doppler radar which is required for its functional role.

Why was no warning given to the aircraft by the air defence radar, which is only 20 miles away on the mainland and which was acting as an air control station during Exercise Elder Forest?

The Opposition have drawn to the attention of the House the fact that the cuts of recent years have led to a fall in the operational efficiency of the RAF. It is because of such cuts that tragedies like this occur.

Mr. Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman referred to cuts. I remind him that one or two of these aircraft at a time are operational, out of a fleet that was six, so there is no question of putting lives at risk when flying these aircraft. They have kept up the high standards of maintenance that we have come to expect from the RAF, particularly during peace time, and there is no question of anyone having been put in danger.

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The board of inquiry has started its investigations and it would be wrong to pre-empt their outcome. It is up to the board to decide what happened.

I wish to put the hon. Gentleman straight on one matter. The aircraft was not participating at this stage in the exercise that was taking place at the time. That had finished some hour or so before, and the aircraft was 60 miles away from the training area and was on a training flight.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries) : I join all hon. Members in expressing my deepest sympathy to the relatives of those killed in this tragic accident. As one who is closely involved with RAF Lossiemouth, may I emphasise the exceptional record of that station and of No. 8 squadron in maritime reconaissance and air-sea rescue work? I share the Minister's view that we should not speculate on the causes of the accident before we hear from the board of inquiry. Does he agree that no Royal Air Force aircraft of whatever age ever flies unless it is fully serviceable and airworthy?

Mr. Hamilton : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks and for his experience in these matters. He is absolutely right to say that we have had an exceptional record with these aircraft. The last one that crashed was in 1968, and it was a maritime patrol version of this aircraft. In 1972 the aircraft were given strengthened air frames and were updated for the airborne early-warning system, and none of these updated aircraft had crashed until this regrettable tragedy.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : As the local Member of Parliament for Lossiemouth, I thank the Minister and all other hon. Members who have expressed their deep sympathy to the people of Lossiemouth and the men at the base. I left Lossiemouth only this morning, and it was a numbed and stunned community. It has not been a stranger to tragedies in other aspects of its life. At a time like this, our thoughts and prayers must surely be with the families of the bereaved, some of whom are known to me personally.

May I ask that there be no further idle speculation about the possible causes of the tragedy? As the inquiry proceeds, will the Minister ensure that the privacy of the families in Lossiemouth and the surrounding areas will be fully observed, and that all action is taken to expedite any practical matters which may help the bereaved?

Mr. Hamilton : I can, of course, give the hon. Lady that undertaking. I remind the House that the board of inquiry is sitting. If it comes up with prima facie evidence of technical faults or something to do with the structure of the aircraft which would cause disquiet, the fleet would be grounded at once.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : Does my hon. Friend agree that when accidents occur, personnel at Royal Air Force stations are always shocked and their thoughts are with the dependants of those who died? Does he further agree that the Shackleton aircraft has a remarkable safety record and that Royal Air Force pilots and aircrew sign only for aircraft which have been passed as fit and fully operational, and that under no circumstances do RAF aircrew take into the air aircraft that do not meet those criteria? Speculation should therefore not be allowed at this time.

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Mr. Hamilton : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. It is certainly true that the RAF maintains the highest possible standards and there is no question here of those standards having been in any way lowered.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles) : As the Member for the area in which the accident occurred, I add my condolences to the relatives of those who were killed. The whole community in the islands feels very deeply for the relatives and colleagues of those who died. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the emergency services at the scene of the accident? Does he agree that they responded in an efficient, prompt and thoroughly professional manner?

Mr. Hamilton : I join in the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the emergency services. It was a tragedy that there was so little that they could do when they arrived on the scene of the crash.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East) : My hon. Friend will have read that, according to the newspapers, the aircraft of No. 8 squadron were grounded following the tragic accident. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is not the case, despite press speculation, and that the fact that the aircraft are not flying is a mark of respect for the sad loss?

Mr. Hamilton : That is absolutely right. As a mark of respect, the aircraft are not flying today, although there is one standing by in case of emergency. There is no question of the aircraft being grounded unless the board of inquiry comes up with something that causes it disquiet, in which case it would ground them. At the moment, we have no evidence that the accident was caused by a technical fault.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : May I assure the Minister of the sympathy of my right hon. and hon. Friends for the families and service colleagues of the bereaved? He has already confirmed that it is too early to speculate on the cause of the accident. It is distasteful to try to make political capital out of speculation. It is a tribute to the Shackletons that they are still in service after so many years, carrying out the role assigned to them. Can the Minister give us any indication of when the AWACS replacements will come into operation?

Mr. Hamilton : We are not happy with the capability of the Shackleton as an airborne early-warning aircraft. We are happy about its operations capability and the safety of the crew, but its ability as an airborne early-warning system is not good and we should like to replace it as soon as we can. The AWACS will be coming in the spring of next year. We hope that the whole order for seven aircraft will be completed within about 12 months from then.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham) : Will my hon. Friend undertake to take a personal interest in the welfare of those who are bereaved, bearing in mind that in the case of my constituent who was widowed by an RAF helicopter crash it took nearly two years to reach a settlement? Such a delay is too long and must never be allowed to occur again.

Mr. Hamilton : I take my hon. Friend's point that two years seems a very long time. We shall certainly do all that we can to make sure that settlements for widows are speeded up.

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Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall) : As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, which has gone into the whole question of RAF and civil flying, may I ask the Minister to ensure that the inquiry removes any suspicion that flying in the normal flight paths could endanger the safety of the public?

Mr. Hamilton : We are always mindful of the need to ensure that air safety is kept at the highest possible standard, but we should not anticipate the outcome of the inquiry. We do not know the cause of the accident. We must wait until the board of inquiry has reported and we have a clearer idea of what happened.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth) : As we join together in mourning the loss of the flight crew of No. 8 squadron, will the Minister confirm that it matters not the age of an aircraft so long as during maintenance no structural fatigue or

inter-crystalline corrosion is found? Does he also agree that an aircraft's age should not be predominantly in the minds of people when they make certain assumptions?

Mr. Hamilton : I totally sympathise with my hon. Friend about that. We are aware of the stress and fatigue problems in terms of the air frames. That is why they are carefully checked on aircraft of that age, and it is because they are so carefully checked that we are happy that it is a safe aircraft when in the air.

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European Council (Dublin)

3.45 pm

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the informal meeting of the European Council in Dublin on 28 April, which I attended with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The text of the Council's conclusions has been placed in the Library of the House.

The Council was convened for two main purposes : to consider the consequences for the European Community of German unification ; and to discuss the way ahead in the Community's relations with eastern Europe. We made useful progress on both issues.

The Council agreed clear guidelines for the detailed discussions which will be necessary in order to incorporate East Germany into the Community, taking account of the interests of other member states. Those discussions will cover trade, agriculture, fisheries, the environment and many other issues. It will be for the Commission to make proposals for any transitional arrangements which are necessary. I emphasised that derogations from Community law and practice should be brief ; and that we must avoid unfair competition and disruption to trade. Those points are well understood by the Federal German Government.

In the period before unification, East Germany will have access to normal Community funds which have been set up to help eastern Europe : and will also be able to benefit from full access to the European investment bank. Chancellor Kohl indicated that the federal republic is not seeking any special fund for Community financial assistance to East Germany.

A very welcome feature of the discussion on German unification was the strong support expressed by Heads of Government for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and for the view that a United Germany should be a member of NATO. That corresponds very much with our own views and those of the United States.

As regards eastern Europe, the Council reached two main conclusions : first, that assistance from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development group of 24 countries ought to be extended to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as to Poland and Hungary as at present ; and, second, that, as soon as possible, we should negotiate association agreements between the European Community and those eastern European countries which are making decisive progress to market economies and genuine democracy. That responds to a British initiative before the Strasbourg European Council last December and we very much welcome the decision.

The Council also provided an opportunity to take forward discussion on other items of European Community business, in particular political union. That has never been defined : and it was clear from our discussion that there are widely differing views on what it covers. I pointed out that the term political union raises anxieties among many people about a loss of national identity, national sovereignty and national institutions. I suggested that we should all make clear that political union does not mean, for example, giving up our separate Heads of State, or our national Parliaments, or our legal or electoral systems, or our defence through NATO.

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I also proposed that we indicate that we do not intend to alter the role of the Council of Ministers as the Community's main decision-making body, with Ministers each accountable to their national Parliaments ; and that we are opposed to centralising powers in Europe when decisions are better taken by national Parliaments and Governments. If we could agree that none of those things would happen as a result of political union, we could show that many of the fears about it were groundless.

I suggested that the positive way forward lay instead through ever closer co-operation among member states and reform of the Community's existing institutions to make them more effective and more efficient. We shall ourselves have constructive ideas to put forward for that. I found a number of these views shared by other Heads of Government. Indeed our discussions during the day, particularly on matters concerned with foreign affairs and defence, showed very clearly that in practice we all continue to think in terms of keeping certain key issues as matters for national decision.

We therefore agreed to instruct our Foreign Ministers to analyse more thoroughly what political union should cover and report back to the European Council at the end of June, with a view to a decision then on the holding of an intergovernmental conference. Such a conference can, of course, be convened by a simple majority of member states, but its decisions have to be reached by unanimity and approved by national Parliaments.

I will summarise briefly the other main issues that we discussed. First, the Council confirmed the commitment to complete the European single market by 1992.

Second, we agreed to intensify preparations for the

intergovernmental conference on economic and monetary union, which will start in December this year. We also set an objective of finishing the work of that conference in time to permit ratification of the results by the end of 1992. It is rather early to say at this stage how feasible such a target is. The results of that conference would have to come before the House, which has already expressed its views on stages 2 and 3 of the Delors plan.

Third, we confirmed our commitment to a successful conclusion to the Uruguay round of trade negotiations in the GATT.

Fourth, we repeated our desire to strengthen relations with the EFTA nations and extend the single market to them.

Fifth, we asked our officials to make proposals, in time for the next European Council, for improving the effectiveness of the Community's co- operation against drug trafficking and drug abuse. Foreign Ministers also discussed a number of international issues. They agreed a statement on Cyprus, as well as guidelines for our approach to the CSCE summit, which we expect will be held later this year. Those texts are annexed to the Council's conclusions. The additional meeting of the European Council set the way ahead for the Community on several important issues. It was also an opportunity to put clearly on record Britain's views on what political union should and should not mean, and not least our determination to defend the powers of this House.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn) : I thank the Prime Minister for that statement. I welcome several aspects of the Dublin communique agreed by the Heads of Governments, in particular the improved co-ordination of action against

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drug trafficking, the statement on Cyprus-- which will have resonance for many hon. Members--the new arrangements for dialogue with the United States of America, and the undertakings given by the German Government on the process of unification.

While we welcome the Council's conclusion relating to support for the economies of eastern Europe, and want that to be extended, will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that any commitment by Britain in that direction will not result in a reduction in the resources that we allocate to Third world countries, whose needs remain as great as ever?

I wish to raise two issues relating to the Community. First, has the Prime Minister made any progress in efforts to locate the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, which is where it should be located? Secondly, in the light of the Chancellor's prediction yesterday on the rate of inflation, can the right hon. Lady update the House on the timing of Britain's entry into the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system? The Dublin summit obviously reflected the process of events immediately before it. Was the Prime Minister personally consulted by Chancellor Kohl or President Mitterrand before they sent their letter to Lithuania last week? If so, why was not Britain associated with that constructive initiative? Was she personally consulted by either Chancellor Kohl or President Mitterrand before their letter of 19 April to the Community Heads of Government, setting out their proposals to convene an intergovernmental conference on European political union?

Has it occurred to the Prime Minister that, when Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand are taking important and significant initiatives and Britain is not directly involved, it is because the right hon. Lady has put our country on the sidelines and left others to determine the course and the nature of the new Europe? We are just six weeks away from a Community summit which, contrary to the Prime Minister's professed wishes, will now consider proposals for an intergovernmental conference on political union. Is not it obvious that the Prime Minister has no positive strategy for that summit? Do not those events make it crystal clear that, because of the way in which the Prime Minister has conducted affairs, she has been pushed to the fringes from which she can exercise only marginal influence on events? Is not it plain that the Prime Minister has made herself merely a spectator, the lame duck of the Community, and she has only herself to blame?

The Prime Minister : I shall go through the points which the right hon. Gentleman has made. Help for the economies of eastern Europe should not diminish help for the Third world. That is very much in the minds of all our colleagues and we do not intend that it should diminish help for the Third world. Help for eastern Europe has been provided out of a special fund.

With regard to the new European bank, we have applied to have it in London. Of course, it is not a Community bank ; it is much wider than that, so we have also been in touch with the United States and others who will contribute to it. Many people feel that it should be in London. There is also a battle going on, if I might refer to

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it in that way, about who should be president or governor of that bank. I suspect that the two issues will be settled together. With regard to inflation, I have nothing to add to the Madrid conclusions about when we shall join the exchange rate mechanism. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, some countries have yet to have full freedom of capital movement and to remove their foreign exchange controls. It is expected that Italy will do that before the beginning of July. There is still not full freedom of financial movement, but the main thing is to get inflation down now before we can join the exchange rate mechanism.

The statement on Lithuania issued by Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand was done at one of their bilateral meetings. May I point out that, when all the Foreign Ministers met the week before, they jointly issued a communique on our approach to Lithuania under the terms of the political co-operation treaty which requires us all to consult one another before we make statements, if possible, so the Foreign Ministers have made a joint statement.

Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand did not consult others before they issued their statement, although it was inside the political co-operation treaty that they should have done so. I am not surprised or disappointed that they did not. The fact that we agree on political co-operation does not mean that we relinquish our sovereign right, unilaterally or bilaterally, to make our own statements. I thought that it was rather on my side that they were giving practical evidence that they did not intend to give up their sovereignty unilaterally or bilaterally, although they were talking about political union without any definition whatsoever. The document that they put before the Council on political union talked a great deal about political union without defining it. Certainly in the first stage they meant increasing the efficiency of Community institutions and increased political, economic and monetary union. It is difficult to define political union by reference to other unions by repetition of the word. They also meant increasing co-operation on security matters, but, of course, one has to remember that each of the nations of the Community takes a very different view. Many of us are fully under NATO ; some are not militarily integrated into NATO and some are neutral. So it did not seem a very good example of political union.

On the right hon. Gentleman's final point, may I remind him that Britain was one of the principal political players in that informal session. Many people supported what I said and we got our own way in asking Foreign Ministers to analyse what was meant by political union.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that that she was absolutely right at Dublin to seek a clearer definition of European political union? Does she accept that there is, indeed, a strong case for political progress and development in Europe but that it should be constitutionally based on strengthening the role of national parliaments and not on bureaucratic centralism or simply increasing the power of central institutions without proper accountability? Does she agree that that is an excellent case which can be put well by the British, that she has made an excellent start in putting it, and that she should continue to do so with great vigour?

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The Prime Minister : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I agree wholeheartedly with him. There has been a tendency to increase the central powers of the Commission. That is going the wrong way. The Commission needs some increase in powers in one respect--a quasi judicial respect--it needs powers to enforce some of the directives. In other respects we need a greater distribution of powers for decisions. Those should be taken through the national Parliaments and the Council of Ministers. We have particular proposals to put forward about strengthening the Court of Auditors. The Commission's accountability on finance could be greatly improved.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley) : Following our exchanges in the House last Thursday, is the Prime Minister aware that her strong, clear statements in defence of parliamentary sovereignty accurately reflect the views of people not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I believe that it reflects our views. We are by far the oldest Parliament and we probably report far more often to our Parliament about everything that goes on in the Community than do many other Heads of Government. The fact that at the outset other Heads of Government were not prepared to put any limitation on political union was alarming, but it could mean that they go step by step towards relinquishing the things which are absolutely vital to our parliamentary traditions.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from being isolationist or lacking in influence in Europe, the outcome of the Dublin summit proves that we are leading Europe from within and, furthermore, we are doing so on the basis of our insistence on real parliamentary democracy and asking simple questions of those in authority?

The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely wrong that people should use phrases without defining them. It is our task as Heads of Government to define them and set strict limits on them. I could not possibly come back to the House without doing precisely that. It took a good deal to do that at the informal summit, but it is now being done. In precisely the same way, and by being isolated at first but obtaining a reasonable settlement, we obtained a rebate of £1.7 billion this year. If we had not taken that path at previous summits, we should be paying £1.7 billion more to the Community than we pay now.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : Is the Prime Minister aware that many people in all parties throughout Britain do not necessarily believe that it is in Britain's interest that she gets her own way? Is the right hon. Lady aware that many people feel that here attitude in Dublin was negative and insular? Does she accept that many people believe that the development of a federal Europe, far from being a threat, is the best protection of our pride, realistic sovereignty and economic well-being? As for our electoral system, the sooner that we get rid of that wretched and unfair system, the better.

The Prime Minister : It is not my way that one achieves. It is the way that the Government feel is best for Britain. The Government have done well for Britain in finance,

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agriculture, trade, competition and so on. In particular, we have obtained a realistic budget and seeing that we had a realistic contribution to make. I noted what the hon. Gentleman said. Clearly he does not mind losing little by little, or even faster, the powers of the House to a federal Europe. I disagree with him. We should stop any more centralisation and make certain that the future of the Community is implementation of measures through the national Parliaments.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : As the President of the European Commission has made it clear that he envisages European political union in a structure in which the majority of decisions that affect the people of this nation will be taken in Brussels, and as Chancellor Kohl made it clear at Dublin after the summit that he saw increasing power being vested in the non-elected Commission members, will the Prime Minister give the House today a categorical assurance that if the conference moves to add to or change the treaty of Rome she will give this nation the opportunity by referendum to say whether it will go on that course?

The Prime Minister : We shall receive the report of the Foreign Ministers at the next meeting in Dublin in June when doubtless they will give a number of proposals about the way forward. I believe that an intergovernmental conference will then be set up because most people want it and that could be done by a simple majority vote. We shall have our own proposals about making institutions work better. We are very much aware of the enormous powers that are vested in the non-elected Commission. We do not believe that those powers should be increased. There would, of course, be a tremendous attempt to increase them under monetary union and economic union, and that is where the main battles will come. Everything, fortunately, will have to come back to this House for approval. One remembers that the whole time when one is negotiating and believes that one has the feel of this House that it does not wish to yield up any more of its sovereignty than it has already.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney) : Although the communique rightly welcomes the unification of Germany under a European roof, is not it a pity that the communique was not similarly forthcoming about the now independent countries of eastern Europe? Would not it be a good thing if they, too, were brought under a European roof? Is not it a fact that the whole priorities of the Community are distorted and that the achievement of a wider Europe should be the first and central aim? Would not an enlarged Europe be a far more effective counterweight to over- arching German economic power than these half-baked proposals for political and monetary union in western Europe?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman knows that I share his view about the proposals on monetary and economic union, and the House made its views clear in a debate. With regard to what I call the wider Europe, I am very conscious--and I made a speech about it--that Europe and European civilisation were created long before the treaty of Rome and the European Community. I am, therefore, very much aware that eastern Europe is also a part of Europe.

I do not think that eastern Europe could come under the European roof straight away. East Germany is an

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