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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 8 May 2001

[Mrs. Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Light Aircraft Insurance and Regulation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Hill.]

9.30 am

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important subject of helicopter and light aircraft insurance and regulation. I look forward to hearing the reply of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, not least because all the information at my disposal has been put at his disposal, so that he can give an informed response. I shall be focusing on a particular tragic accident in Leicestershire just over three years ago, when a helicopter crashed killing all on board.

The case is important for three reasons. First, it highlights the hardship faced by the Linhart family in my constituency. Secondly, it shows severe shortcomings in the law and regulations concerning light aircraft and helicopter insurance, and pilot training. Thirdly, on the day when we all expect to hear when Parliament will be dissolved, it is as good a demonstration as any of how a Member works in Parliament to help those in tragic circumstances and puts forward ways in which to avoid similar incidents in future. I pay tribute to those who have been involved in the case during the past three years, in particular my long-serving private secretary, Mrs. Thurza Rowson, who has worked hard on the case, and Philippa Carling from the Library, who has also provided invaluable support.

On 19 April 1998, a Robinson 44 helicopter crashed into a hillside near the village of Gumley between Leicester and Market Harborough. The pilot, James Coulter, and his three passengers, sisters Katie and Helen Linhart, and Helen's husband, Andrew Byrne, were killed. Helen and Andrew's three young children were orphaned and are now being brought up by their grandparents, Michael and Mary Linhart who, sadly, are unable to attend today's debate. I feel strongly about the case. Michael and Mary Linhart have suffered a terrible tragedy, losing two daughters and a son-in-law, as has Rachael Linhart--the surviving sister--who lost two sisters.

The case has several wider implications. It has revealed a serious inadequacy in the insurance requirements for private pilots, helicopters and light aircraft. Three small children, one of whom suffers serious health problems, have been left without compensation and proper provision for their upbringing, welfare and education. Not one penny has been paid to these children for the loss of their parents. In fact, it has cost Michael Linhart, a 75-year-old pensioner, a considerable amount finally to establish the position.

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The three children now receive a total of £68.60 a week between them. It is made of £32.40 guardian allowance and £36.20 child allowance. That cannot be right in a society where such emphasis is placed on the provision for all eventualities and for the victims of every type of misfortune. From my involvement in the case, I have found that anyone listening to an account of the accident and its consequences for the first time expresses considerable amazement and anxiety about the situation. I can think of almost no other circumstances in which the children would end up with no compensation.

Before discussing how I understand the insurance situation, I shall briefly outline the circumstances of the crash. We must understand what happened to consider the insurance implications. The crash occurred on 19 April 1998 in Leicestershire, but not in my constituency. The party in the helicopter was returning from an evening meal at a nearby hotel, and the conditions were dark. Within five minutes of take-off, the pilot became disorientated, and the helicopter crashed. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Region's air accidents investigation branch at Farnborough concluded that

The East Midlands police air support unit, which is based 9 km south of the accident site, was scrambled but the weather conditions were so bad that their take-off was precluded. As the accident report states, at the time that the pilot took off from the hotel, the weather was unsuitable for his proposed flight. The accident that followed was catastrophic, and all people on board were killed.

I turn to the specific aspect of pilot training. Although I shall focus on insurance, I know that Mr. Linhart, who is looking after the children, feels strongly about that subject. I agree with him that the case raises important questions about helicopter pilot training. According to the accident investigation into the case, the pilot had completed the night instrument training necessary for a night rating. The night rating was achieved with only five hours flying at night, and entitled the pilot to fly at night, although outside controlled air space he was to fly in accordance with instrument flight rules. The so-called night rating does not qualify a pilot to fly with instruments at night if appropriate weather conditions do not apply. In other words, the pilot is qualified to fly at night with the appropriate visibility, providing that the aircraft remains clear of cloud and in sight of the surface. The Robinson 44 helicopter in question had limited flying instrumentation.

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A Civil Aviation Authority review of general aviation fatal accidents from 1985-94 commented that

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I apologise for not being here for the outset of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Increasingly, flying training organisations in this country are finding that their business is haemorrhaging, particularly to the United States. The US has virtually wall-to-wall blue skies, which is not the case here. Pilots who train in this country are subjected to bad weather; indeed, they train for bad weather, because otherwise they cannot get airborne.

Mr. Tredinnick : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I enjoyed clear skies in America when I was 23 and had the opportunity to fly in a light aircraft from Boston to Los Angeles and from California to Colorado. I remember what a wonderful way of seeing America it was, and how many light aircraft were buzzing around in America. By way of analogy, one could say that when diving--I am a diver--in the Red sea or the West Indies, the conditions are clear. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors in America runs courses that are designed for fair weather. However, the British Sub-Aqua Club trains in different and difficult conditions. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, may call me to order. We are not discussing diving today, although we could move on to sky diving. I do not want to make the debate flippant. We do not intend to spin out the debate--not that we ever do in the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are discussing the safety of passengers and how to protect them. I have always believed that the training afforded by British establishments generally, whether for the air or diving, to be among the best in the world. In this instance, however, insurance seems not to be right, and the aspects of training and the notification of qualifications are involved. These are key matters for the Minister to consider.

The issue is whether the pilot's qualifications are properly known and his insurance is properly advertised. In this case, the pilot took off in conditions that were unsuitable for his proposed flight. Other fatal accidents have resulted from rapidly changing conditions or circumstances that had no bearing on pilot judgment.

On the key issue of insurance, I am worried about what insurance cover is required and whether the pilot has been negligent. It is precisely when the insured is negligent that victims in the aircraft or on the ground require adequate liability cover. I have some

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connections with insurance, being a member of Lloyd's--an interest that I have registered in the Register of Members' Interests, although it has nothing to do with this constituency case--and some appreciation of insurance matters. I understand that most claims are made by passengers rather than as a result of surface damage or injury to persons on the ground, but rare claims must be covered.

In January, in another potential accident, a pilot heroically guided a faltering Piper Seneca away from a school at Shoreham, bringing it down without loss of life, although damaging property. At the same airfield yesterday, a small aircraft made a crash landing coming into Shoreham airport, on the beach at Lancing. No one was hurt, thanks to an observant bystander who cleared the beach. One wonders about the frequency of such accidents. All too often we read in the newspapers about aircraft getting into trouble. I am reminded of the accident that happened at the weekend in France, in which a pensioner and, from memory, his daughter, who was about 20, were killed in similar conditions. An aircraft--from memory, a helicopter--came down. I wonder what the insurance situation was in that case.

In the Linhart case in Leicestershire, the pilot, Coulter, seems to have been seriously irresponsible in many respects, and my constituents were the innocent victims. I understand that when the coroner announced the verdict of accidental death, those present at the inquiry gasped in astonishment.

Coulter had hired the helicopter from a local company, Heli Air Ltd., on a self-fly, hire-only basis. As such, he was neither allowed nor qualified to give instruction to others, yet it emerged during the coroner's inquiry that he had offered shares in the helicopter and had received more than £3,400 from various sources, including Mr. Andrew Byrne, who paid £3,400 in cash, which was receipted. In return, those who had paid received a part share in the aircraft or helicopter, as well as instruction from Coulter. Although it is accepted practice for pilots to take petrol money, that does not seem to be the case in this instance. Mr. Coulter, under the name Helitravel Ltd., advertised services of sales-hire-charter-pilot training through local leaflet drops. He was, therefore, flouting the rules, just as he went on to do at the controls of the helicopter when he took off at night in breach of regulations.

Apparently, Mr. Coulter held no personal insurance but was insured by the owners of Heli Air Ltd. for flight subject to all warranties, terms and conditions of policy, which are the normal terms of an insurance policy. However, because he flew the helicopter in conditions that were manifestly prohibited by the insurance agreement and the aircraft's manufacturers, the leading underwriters, Ace Global Markets, denied liability to indemnify Heli Air Ltd. in respect of the accident on two grounds: illegality and failure to comply with air navigation orders and manufacturer's instructions. The underwriters further stated that Mr. Coulter had taken the helicopter without permission, in direct contradiction to the sworn statement given to the coroner by Mr. Mark Greenway, who was in charge at Stoughton airdrome, that he had given permission for the flight that night. The underwriters refused to pay compensation to the relatives and, when liability was denied, Maxwell Marland and Associates of Wandsworth, the aviation loss adjusters, stated that

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they had no authority to let Mr. Linhart's solicitors see a copy of the insurance policy. Essentially, the underwriters, on behalf of the hire company, denied liability on the ground that the pilot had broken conditions of the insurance cover.

The weaknesses in the law appear to be as follows. Insurance should be a buffer to provide protection against human error, but liability in this case manifestly did not apply when error occurred. That seems ludicrous. In the three years before I was able to bring the case before the House of Commons, Mr. Linhart instructed Mr. Paul Balen of solicitors Freeth Cartwright of Nottingham to act on his behalf. Despite every effort, Mr. Balen was unsuccessful in obtaining compensation for the children. However, he had other important qualities and responsibilities.

Many passengers are carried by aircraft helicopters and balloons, almost certainly believing that they or their relatives are covered when, in fact, they are not. That will continue as long as there is no statutory requirement for operators or pilots to hold third-party insurance. That is the nub of the case that we are discussing. The requirements for light aircraft, including helicopters and balloons, are in stark contrast to those for car drivers, who must have third-party insurance under the Road Traffic Act 1988. Hon. Members will recall that extensive negotiations took place years ago between the insurance industry and the Government to ensure that third-party cover. I suggest that the Government need seriously to consider such provisions for the light aircraft industry.

There is no scheme similar to the Motor Insurers Bureau to deal with uninsured losses. Furthermore, no legal requirement exists for pilots to show their passengers and the company from which they hire aircraft evidence that they have insurance. In the case to which I am referring, it seems that everything was jolly; the parties involved were friends with a part-share in the helicopter. However, basic, fundamental issues were not addressed; insurance cover was not in place and no questions were asked. That brings us back to pilot regulations. Perhaps insurance certificates should be placed on the wall. After all, hon. Members must have an insurance certificate for liability insurance on the walls of their offices. I wonder whether that applies in the light aircraft industry. I look forward to the Minister's comments.

At present, there is no statutory requirement in the United Kingdom for aircraft insurance of any sort. That is astonishing but true. The Civil Aviation Act 1949 included provisions setting out a scheme for compulsory insurance for third-party liability. It included a limitation of liability provided that an appropriate insurance policy could be issued, and further restricted the right of the insurer to repudiate claims up to the specified limitation of liability. However, those provisions were never brought into force and were subsequently repealed by the Companies Act 1967, which changed the insurance terminology used in the 1949 Act.

In the United Kingdom, it is obligatory to obtain insurance only if an operator applies for an air transport licence. Such a licence is essentially required only by scheduled carriers and not by all public transport operators--taxi operators, for example. The law is

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deficient because it is full of holes and complexities that often preclude relatives or passengers from obtaining compensation. That is what happened in the Linhart family's case--for various reasons, the insurance companies involved have denied liability and there is no cover in place, which has had awful effects. As I said, the children receive only a tiny amount of money.

In developing the arguments on insurance, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Warsaw convention, which is a set of legal rules governing--among other things--the liability of carriers for death and personal injury of passengers. The rules were originally written with regard to international carriage by air. The Carriage by Air Act 1961 makes the Warsaw convention part of English law for international carriage by air. The Carriage by Air Act (Application of Provisions) Order 1967 applies a modified version of the convention to non-international carriage, which includes carriage entirely within the United Kingdom. Hon. Members must forgive me; this is technical, but it is important that we address such technicalities.

The Warsaw convention applies only to carriage of persons for reward and to gratuitous carriage performed by an air transport undertaking. Therefore, in order to qualify for the compensation levels fixed by the convention, the passenger must be a paying or a non-paying passenger who is flown by an air transport undertaking. Unfortunately, many flights are undertaken without charge by non-air transport undertakings. In my constituents' case, liability was denied on two fronts. First, if the pilot was carrying passengers for reward, he was in breach of the terms of hire for the helicopter. Secondly, if he was not carrying passengers for reward, he was not covered by the Warsaw convention--or the policy, which, in any event, would have been voided by his negligence.

There is no insurance or scheme to act as a back-up to protect victims. Some pilots have hire arrangements with air transport undertakings for the provision of light aircraft, balloons or helicopters and carry passengers without charge. When such pilots crash, causing injury or death, the passengers and their relatives are not protected by the Warsaw convention. The pilot could still be liable for negligence, if negligence were applicable, but is unlikely to be adequately insured or, as in the Linhart case, insured at all.

When the Warsaw convention does apply, the liability of the carrier is strict--without proof or fault. However, the carrier may be able to avoid liability by proving that it did everything possible to avoid the accident. The carrier may also be able to avoid liability if the pilot was negligent. However, an individual claimant cannot bring a claim against the carrier for negligence. We examined all such matters in the hope of finding a way for Mr. Linhart to claim insurance, but following a decision in the House of Lords on Sidhu v. British Airways in 1997, that type of claim is not available in the United Kingdom. Most standard aviation insurance policies covering convention liability exclude liability if the carrier--including the pilot--has not done everything reasonably practical to avoid the loss. Yet, many accidents are caused by error. However, a CAA official said that most responsible operators in the general aviation sector do have insurance, as was the case with Heli Air Ltd. I remind those present that liability was denied due to a breach of warranty

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stipulations, which must be adhered to, although warranties have been consistently criticised.

The 1979 Law Commission working paper noted that

Robin Allan, who is the deputy secretary and legal adviser of the CAA, was involved in the consultation set up by the Department of Transport for a possible general scheme within the UK for compulsory third-party insurance for all UK operators and pilots. In 1990, Mr. Allan delivered a speech to the Insurance Institute of London, entitled "Compulsory Third Party Insurance for Aircraft and its Implications for Insurers". The situation has not changed since he made that speech. Although he pointed out that it seems certain that the vast majority of aircraft are insured, as I mentioned, he said that it was less certain whether policies were sufficiently comprehensive and whether the amount of cover was adequate, and raised questions of what should be done in the event of uninsured risk, which is a central issue.

Mr. Allan suggested that the following four questions would need to be addressed if a compulsory scheme were considered:

I have shown today that the concerns that I have raised in this debate have been considered in the past. Sadly, however, proposals have been shelved, possibly because it would be by no means easy to tackle such issues. Although I wholeheartedly support the avoidance of red tape, which may have been part of the

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thinking in the past--perhaps the inadequacies that I have highlighted today were not given sufficient airing previously--I have come to understand, following extensive investigation of Michael Linhart's case and the devastating impact on his family, that regulation and a positive response from the Government are necessary, albeit that the Government may not be in office much longer. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) will be sitting on a Conservative Government's Front Bench in a few weeks' time. However, the Minister has an opportunity to go out in glory and tell us his Department's considered proposals. Although I say that with a smile, I do not jest, as this is a serious subject.

I have argued that the law must be reviewed in respect of both helicopter insurance and pilot training. It is fundamentally wrong that effective third-party insurance, along the lines of motor car insurance, is not available for helicopters, light aircraft and balloons. A strong case also exists for reviewing helicopter pilot training and regulation to make rogue flights by rogue pilots less likely. I urge the Minister to agree closely to examine the present situation, which--almost beyond belief--has left three young children orphaned with just £68.60 a week between them and no legal remedy.

10.5 am

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I am pleased to take part in the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) on securing it. As it happens, I was about to lodge a piece of paper with the Table Office two weeks ago to secure a debate on the wider issue of general aviation and not just insurance. However, today's debate ranges wider because my hon. Friend was clever enough to include the word "regulation" in its title. That enables us to debate more widely than his remarks about a tragic episode suggested.

I declare my interest as a life long aviator. I have held a pilot's licence since I was 17 and one of my claims is that I received three licences in four days: a licence to fly an aeroplane on 10 September when I was 17, a licence to drink on 12 September when I turned 18, and a licence to drive a motor car on 14 September. I will not embarrass myself by informing the Chamber of the year in which all those events took place.

I have a close personal interest in the debate. Only yesterday, as a treat for my chairman's father-in-law, whose birthday it was, I took him on a surprise flight from Blackbushe airport in my constituency. The last time that he flew was about 40 years ago in a Mosquito when he was in the Royal Air Force. I was not quite able to emulate the manoeuvres of a Mosquito, but had a good go within the safety parameters that the Chamber and the Minister would expect.

I want to address a few points arising from the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, and some wider issues about which I have given the Minister's office notice. The Minister has been briefed and I thank those in his office for their courtesy in doing so.

My hon. Friend raised a tragic case. I put it to him, however, that it is exceptional. One rather crude adage states that sad cases make bad law. I would not want him to believe that I think that it is a sad case in the popular sense--it is a tragedy. However, I am not sure

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that we should extrapolate a huge raft of regulations from that specific incident to deal with it and prevent it from happening again. My hon. Friend rightly said that we are both members of a party that believes in the reduction of red tape. As an aviator, I have seen regulation after regulation piled on. We need to consider carefully how far we continue to pile them on--always, of course, in the interests of safety--before we finally throttle an industry in which Britain leads the world.

On insurance, my hon. Friend made a fair point: anyone taking to the skies should ensure that they are properly insured. However, that is not without its difficulties. Having led a hitherto fairly carefree existence, on getting married I faced up to the realities of life and my new responsibilities and, like others in my situation, took out various life assurance policies. However, I discovered that a loading was placed on my life assurance policy, in that any private flying that I did would invalidate it. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that that loading was dropped within a few years, and in recent times none of my life assurance policies has incurred such a loading as a result of my flying activities.

However, my hon. Friend will find that it is fairly common practice among insurers to provide exclusions for activities that they deem particularly dangerous, such as mountaineering. I am not sure whether diving falls into that category. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend indicates that it might well do so, and it is certainly true that private flying sometimes does. Different insurers take different views. Specialist aviation insurers recognise the associated risks, but because those risks are perceived as relatively low, the insurance market is lively. If the risks were intolerable, no one would insure private fliers, but the fact is that everyone can obtain insurance for their aircraft and their flying activities.

There is the ancillary point that passengers are also at risk. How many people who, on a glorious sunny day such as today, are invited by a friend or relative to fly to, say, Le Touquet for lunch, consider insurance cover before taking to the air? I suspect that most do not. Indeed, the very act of looking up one's insurance policy would probably inspire a nervous reaction. Despite the statistics quoted by my hon. Friend, flying in the United Kingdom is a relatively safe activity. There are some 60,000 private pilots in this country--of whom about 30,000 are active at any given time--and approximately 10,000 aircraft. Putting the accidents to which my hon. Friend referred in that context shows that flying is a relatively safe activity. Of course, the moment that one leaves terra firma, one is in a third dimension that brings added risks, but I believe that those risks are quantifiable.

Mr. Tredinnick : Is my hon. Friend saying that third-party insurance for motoring has not been a success? Surely it is possible to apply the same principle to the aviation sector without overburdening pilots with masses of regulation. I am not sure that I see a difference between motoring and aviation in that regard.

Mr. Howarth : My hon. Friend makes a good point, but there is a fundamental difference between motoring and aviation. The motoring market consists of millions of policyholders, but the aviation market is very much smaller. I am told that the aviation industry cannot operate a scheme such as that run by the Motor Insurers

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Bureau because the levy required would be great and would bump up costs enormously. A huge levy is not necessary in the motor industry because the scale of the operation is much larger, and most of the millions of motorists in this country get through a given year without an accident. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend raises an important issue and it is right to consider ways of ensuring that the tragic circumstances that he has described are not repeated.

I return to the point that my hon. Friend made about weather, on which I intervened. It is important that flying training organisations in this country should flourish and that we should not export the business to Spain or to the United States of America because weather conditions in those countries are wholly different from those here. The Minister will recognise that my remarks are addressed largely to him.

If a person is to obtain a pilot's licence to qualify them to fly in this country, it seems less than sensible for all their training to take place in a climate where weather conditions are so favourable that, when they return to this country and are pitched into low cloud or fronts suddenly coming through, they will be completely at sea. Being subject to adverse weather is part of the experience of flying training in this country. People must make calculations.

I had to make a calculation yesterday morning. I got up at 7 o'clock, looked out of the window and saw that the cloud base around Farnborough was low. I headed off to Blackbushe airport and saw that the cloud was breaking. I checked the weather forecast from Avbrief--there is the commercial plug for avbrief.com, a very good company that provides private pilots with aviation briefing--and found out that at Farnborough there was a cloud base of broken cloud at 1,000 ft, which tallied with what I could see in the sky. The forecast was good, so I took off and found that the weather improved as the day went on.

Private pilots in the United Kingdom must make such calculations all the time. A pilot who learned in the United States or in Spain would probably not encounter any bad weather apart from looking out for the odd tornado here and there. Here, the only Tornado that one needs to look out for is one coming the other way, up a valley in the Lake district or in Wales, in which case, one hopes that it is a bit lower than oneself. That is one of Her Majesty's Tornados, rather than the Almighty's, and is not quite as potent, although a potent weapon nevertheless.

Every flying club operates proper insurance cover so that aeroplanes are hired with insurance. No one can fly solo who has not had a check during the previous 28 days. I belong to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency flying club, which has its own aeroplane maintained by members of DERA. It has a self-imposed rule, whereby someone who has not flown for 56 days has to have a check. The activity is becoming ever more regulated, ever more draconian.

It is all very well talking about more regulation and about making aeroplanes safer. The ultimate safety is not to leave the ground, but I remind my hon. Friend and the Chamber that aerospace is the one area where the UK is not struggling to keep up. We are a world

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leader, with the United States, France and possibly Germany. We rank equally with the United States in terms of talent, although not in terms of size.

We should not kill the golden goose. We should not make it completely impossible for ambitious and inspired young people to learn to fly. That would kill the business. I believe that there are plenty of safeguards. Air traffic control services in this country are absolutely brilliant. Although human error accounts for virtually all accidents, air traffic control is there to help. If one gets into trouble, the first thing to do is to call it and ask for help. It is only too willing to help. It is not there to try to catch private pilots out, and I think that it does a first-class job.

The cost is increasingly becoming a deterrent. It costs £140 an hour to hire the most basic of aeroplanes. That is a huge amount of money, especially if one does a 35 or 40-hour course--my hon. Friend can do the mathematics as well as anyone else. It is not just a rich man's game. Many people who learn to fly are young boys and girls who do a newspaper round or work in Tesco at the weekend to try to earn the money to do so. The consequence of more regulation is that the cost is pushed up, so that people cannot afford to go flying and lack the necessary experience, which has an adverse impact on safety.

That brings me to my second point. We need a national private pilot's licence that is applicable to people who fly in the United Kingdom but do not wish to fly beyond it, as is mostly the case. Some choose to go abroad. It would not apply to me, for example, because I have flown in France and in Germany and have a JAR--joint aviation requirements--licence anyway. Eighteen months ago, I suggested to the Civil Aviation Authority that we should have a national private pilot's licence. It seems to be coming round to the view that it is a good idea, and has undertaken negotiations with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), said in a letter to me the other day that he hopes that it will be effective from the beginning of next year. I welcome that prospect.

Private flying clubs are up against it. The lousy weather has meant that they have been unable to fly. Huge and onerous conditions have been imposed on them by the JAR flight crew licensing requirements. They now see the prospect of a national private pilot's licence, but it will not be effective until the beginning of next year. That means that people are standing off, saying, "I won't start a flying course until the new NPPL comes in." No flying hours that are carried out now will qualify for the NPPL, which is nonsensical. I take this opportunity to say publicly what I have said to the Under-Secretary: any flying that is undertaken as from 1 June should qualify for the NPPL. In his letter to me, he said that

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I shall give some examples of the exercises that are carried out by private pilots in securing their licence. The first exercise is aircraft familiarisation, which I imagine would be common to both licences. The second is preparation for action for and action after flight, which I imagine would also be common. The next exercises are air experience, effective controls, taxiing, straight and level flight, climbing, descending, turning, slow flight, stalling, spin recovery at the incipient stage, spinning, take-off and climbing to a downwind position--I am halfway through the list already. I cannot imagine that those exercises will be in any way different under the NPPL. I urge the Minister to give the industry a lifeline by saying that from 1 June it will be perfectly lawful for any flying that is undertaken to count towards the NPPL, as long as the student makes it clear at the outset that that is the licence that he or she wishes to go for.

I recognise the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth. It may well be necessary to ensure that people are properly covered when they go flying. An element of caveat emptor is involved. Someone who is not a pilot and goes private flying should first check whether the pilot is insured and that they are not invalidating their own insurance cover. If a company hires an aeroplane to someone, it has a responsibility to ensure that that person is competent and has the necessary insurance cover. I should like to see common sense applied to those matters rather than further regulation.

All of us who are engaged in aviation in Britain know that the number one priority is safety, the number two priority is safety and the number three priority is safety. The Royal Air Force trained me, and I can assure my hon. Friend that safety is the number one interest of all of us engaged in aviation, because our lives are at risk.

10.26 am

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) on securing the debate. He has set out the tragic events at Gumley in April 1998 and the frustrations and difficulties that followed for the Linhart family, which was tragically affected. He has opened up a range of issues that deserve serious consideration and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to them.

According to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), sad experiences make bad law. However, he has not made his case because the important issues raised by that tragic accident have wider repercussions. I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to the hon. Member for Bosworth and that he will have something positive to say at the end of the debate.

The debate has highlighted not only the horrific lack of regulation or control that started the chain of events, but, despite comparisons with car accidents, that there are many accidents that involve helicopters, light aircraft and microlights. Indeed, the relevant statistics were laid out at the beginning of the debate. The consequences for insurance or regulation will not necessarily be the same in each instance, but we cannot be complacent and ignore those issues; we must treat the matter seriously.

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The hon. Member for Bosworth focused on training. He highlighted the adverse weather conditions on that night and questioned whether the pilot was properly experienced and should have decided to fly. He also raised issues from the accident investigation report about its recommendation that there should be additional Civil Aviation Authority oversight of that type of aircraft. It would be useful if the Minister can tell us what changes, if any, have been made as a consequence of that.

The main thrust of the argument has rightly and properly focused on insurance. In the Linhart's case, liability was denied and compensation removed because of the illegality of the operations undertaken by the pilot, which ignored whether air navigation orders were followed and whether manufacturer's directions were complied with. Shockingly, in all the inquiries that took place afterwards, relatives were unable to see the documents that were at the root of the insurance cover.

The hon. Member for Bosworth said that insurance should be a buffer to protect individuals in the event of error. However, it appears from the way in which current legislation is crafted that exclusion seems possible when error has occurred, which makes nonsense of that principle and makes that a fraught area to consider. The worrying aspect highlighted by the hon. Member for Bosworth is that many passengers may be uninsured, perhaps inadvertently, but perhaps, occasionally, with knowledge. Without a requirement for third-party insurance, that is likely to continue.

The hon. Member for Aldershot referred to the sense of ensuring, before flying, that insurance is in place and regulations are followed. That may be sensible and proper, but perhaps defies reality. How many of us check the insurance status of our driving companion when we accept a lift? The system includes checks and balances, and reviews by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the CAA of the issues may have suggested that belt-and-braces provisions existed. The Linhart case--I believe that there will be other, similar cases--illustrates that although logical protection seemed to be in place, a family suffered a tragedy for which there was no compensation available. Compensation cannot bring back those who have died and cannot hope to make up for the resulting difficulties and emotional traumas, but it would at least provide a future for the family and the young children who were affected.

The hon. Member for Bosworth said that the law must be changed. He made an eloquent case for that and I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that something will be done.

10.32 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I shall be brief so that the Minister will have time to do justice to the subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) on securing the debate and on the work that he and his staff have done in pursuing the issue. It is a serious issue because, as we have heard, when people get into an aircraft, many do not realise the difficulties that can arise for their friends and relatives if the aircraft crashes and they are killed. My hon. Friend set out the difficulties experienced by the family with three young children, and we should consider carefully how to improve the situation and ensure better insurance cover.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made a balanced and sensible contribution, and it emerged from both contributions that it is necessary to make changes in the requirements for insurance. My hon. Friend also referred to the problems that pilots sometimes have in obtaining the most appropriate insurance. To move forward, we need a balanced approach in which passengers are covered and pilots are helped to obtain proper insurance cover.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth said, international flights are covered by the Warsaw convention, which allows compensation to be paid without passengers having to prove fault. That is critical, because it takes a while to investigate air crashes and if legal action is taken the process can continue for years. My hon. Friend's suggestion for third-party insurance was very reasonable. There is no statutory requirement in general aviation for operators or pilots to hold third-party insurance. That is a matter of concern and contrasts with the requirement for third- party insurance for car drivers under the Road Traffic Act 1988. The Motor Insurers Bureau scheme might be worth investigating. We are aware that the narrower market may make it more difficult to set that up, but it should be investigated.

My hon. Friend also referred to the difficulty of warranties and set out the Law Commission's comments on breach of warranty and the fact that suggestions have been made over the years to improve the situation, but, thus far, no one has taken it up. The matter was raised in a ten-minute Bill on the Floor of the House in 1993 by Anthony Coombs, the then Conservative Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest. He said that there were 11,000 small aircraft and expressed his worry about microlight aircraft not being covered by insurance, particularly were they to crash and cause damage to an individual or property. We must review the position and investigate the possibility of such a scheme, as that operated by the Motor Insurers Bureau.

Gliders are required to have third-party insurance. At present, hobby fliers and those with small aircraft who do not ply them for hire are not required to have insurance in respect of passenger liability or third parties. Such a position should be put right. Section 76 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 imposes on pilots and fliers an absolute liability to pay compensation to people who are injured and or when property is damaged as a result of their activities.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot said, unless pilots can receive adequate insurance and be confident that insurance companies will not use small print to get out of paying such insurance, they can end up being sued and lose their homes and businesses. Some years ago, the racing driver, Graham Hill, crashed when flying back his formula one team from the south of France. The resulting legal action wiped out his estate, so his widow and his son, Damon, virtually had to start from scratch because all the money earned from motor racing and sponsorship over the years had suddenly disappeared. Damon Hill has been successful in starting from scratch to becoming a top racing driver. There seems a great deal of sense in our looking not only into insurance matters to cover passengers, but giving private pilots greater protection who otherwise might face a lengthy legal battle that might eventually wipe them out.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot made some good points about training pilots in the United Kingdom, given our delightful weather and the difficulties that that creates. The only time that I have ever considered learning to fly was when I went to the Cranfield air show. While talking to a salesman of a light aircraft, I watched an aircraft take off after which time it stalled, crashed and killed two people. At that point, I decided to stick to less dangerous pursuits such as politics. The debate has been good and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. We should be examining ways in which to plug the gap and avoid some of the tragedies referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth.

10.38 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) on securing this debate on such an important subject. He has carried out enormous research and he understandably feels strongly about it. I thank him and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for their courtesy in giving me notice of the key points that they wished to raise. The worry of the hon. Member for Bosworth certainly led me to study the report on the crash by the air accidents investigation branch. I am also grateful for the helpful interventions of the hon. Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore). I hope to deal with most of the questions that have been asked. Those that I do not deal with today, I shall follow up in writing.

I much regret the tragic circumstances that have prompted the debate. It has drawn attention to several important issues in relation to aviation insurance, compensation and the training of pilots. I welcome the opportunity to explain the Government's policy on such issues. I shall also say something about how that sector of the aviation industry is regulated. Helicopters and light aircraft that are flown for commercial purposes usually require the operator to have a licence issued in accordance with Council regulation 2407/92 and to be adequately insured. The Civil Aviation Authority stipulates the minimum level of insurance required for the purposes of holding an operating licence. For single-engined non-turbine aircraft and all non-turbine helicopters, the minimum amount of insurance required is £3 million, which includes an element relating to third-party risks. Obviously, the figure is higher for larger aircraft. However, for helicopters and light aircraft operated privately, for pleasure or some other purposes, no statutory insurance obligation exists.

That situation may seem anomalous to the hon. Member for Bosworth, and he has so argued, but there are good reasons why successive Governments have not seen fit to introduce a requirement for mandatory third-party insurance cover for private pilots.

First, no evidence exists that those seeking compensation for damage caused to people or property on the ground by helicopters and light aircraft are unable to recover the cost of their damages. The number of accidents involving third-party damage is,

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thankfully, low and, even when significant damage occurs, we are not aware of claims for compensation not being met.

Secondly, most helicopters and light aircraft are kept at airfields, where it is normally a condition of storage that adequate insurance cover is arranged. People who own and operate such craft, which are expensive items to purchase and maintain, are unlikely to be foolish enough not to ensure that their asset is adequately insured for all risks.

Thirdly, introducing a statutory insurance requirement for pilots would need to be administered and enforced, which would necessarily impose a cost on private pilots. Unless a strict enforcement regime were implemented, there would be no guarantee that those who fly without adequate insurance would comply with the law. Although car drivers are required to have third-party insurance, a significant minority of irresponsible people continue to drive without insurance.

I hope that it will be understood that, for those reasons, the Government do not intend to impose a requirement for insurance on private operators of helicopters or light aircraft. Even if such a requirement were imposed, there is no evidence that those affected by the--thankfully--low number of accidents would do any better than at present. If I have correctly understood the case to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the details would suggest that, even if the pilot had been insured, he would have invalidated the terms of his insurance by attempting to fly in the poor weather conditions that prevailed at the time of the accident. The accident that we have been discussing was a result not of error but an illegal act by the pilot in choosing to fly when conditions were unsuitable. He was insured by Heli Air, but he invalidated the insurance by his action. We may legislate on many things in Parliament, but we cannot prevent people from breaking the law.

Mr. Gerald Howarth : The Minister makes a good point. However, do not ultimate decisions on whether to fly and, particularly, whether to land in adverse weather conditions, always remain with the commander of the aircraft? The pilot himself made the decision.

Mr. Hill : It certainly was his decision, and it is a matter of the pilot's judgment. However, I want to explain the conditions, which are clearly laid down in law, that may guide the pilot's judgment in those circumstances.

The only way for provision to be made for compensation to be paid when such uninsured losses occur would be for the industry to introduce a scheme similar to that established for road vehicles, by the Motor Insurers Bureau. The hon. Member for Bosworth mentioned that body, as did other hon. Members. However, it is doubtful whether such a scheme would be economically viable, given the relatively few private pilots compared with the millions of motorists. The hon. Member for Aldershot made that point. Furthermore, it would be necessary to introduce legislation requiring all pilots to be insured, thereby imposing a regulatory and financial burden on this sector of the industry. As there seems to be no compelling case to do that, successive Governments have been reluctant to regulate in an area in which, as far

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as possible, industry self-regulation is to be preferred. I might also add that private boat owners have no obligation to carry third-party insurance cover.

The hon. Member for Bosworth mentioned compensation. I shall explain the circumstances in which compensation is payable in the event of an accident. He mentioned the Warsaw convention, which was first adopted in 1929 but has since been amended several times. It sets out the basis on which victims or their relatives may request compensation from air carriers in the event of an accident.

Although the convention applies to international carriage by air, the UK has adopted the same basic provisions for the purposes of domestic flights. More recently, Community legislation has been introduced that has resulted in much better terms becoming available for air passengers. However, in both cases, the provisions apply only in relation to commercial operations, and exclude private flying. In such circumstances, no statutory right of compensation applies in the event of damages caused by the actions of private pilots.

I do not want to diminish the tragic circumstances surrounding the case that has been brought to our attention this morning, but such events are rare, and the incidents of victims or their relatives being unable to obtain compensation are few and far between. I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Aldershot: I am not sure that it is right to legislate to cater for virtually one-off events. Sad or hard cases make bad law.

On pilot training requirements, under the Civil Aviation Act 1982 and the Air Navigation Order 2000, the Civil Aviation Authority has responsibility for regulatory oversight of a wide range of aviation-related matters, including training standards, licensing and aircraft certification. The Government have consistently made it clear that they are not minded to interfere in the CAA's day-to-day regulatory functions.

Pilot training requirements for helicopters and aeroplanes are set out in the joint aviation requirements on flight crew licensing--JAR-FCL--which are issued by the Joint Aviation Authorities and implemented in the UK through the Air Navigation Order 2000. The requirements comply with internationally agreed minimum standards and are aimed at ensuring that the student pilot can fly safely and efficiently under visual flight rules, which generally exclude night and poor weather conditions.

The JAR-FCL syllabus covers theoretical and flight instruction, including supervised solo and cross-country flights. Typically, helicopters flown by private pilots are simple in design and are equipped and certified for flight only in good weather conditions. Even in the case of more sophisticated, better-equipped helicopters, pilots are still limited to flights in visual conditions unless they hold a full instrument rating.

The CAA has been worried about the high rate of small helicopter accidents caused by pilot disorientation following inadvertent entry into poor weather conditions. Since the accident, the CAA, supported by the UK helicopter industry, has introduced a range of measures to educate pilots about the risks of encountering poor weather unexpectedly, which is a particular danger at night, when bad weather is harder to detect until too late.

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One of the measures introduced recently is the new private pilot licence (helicopter) qualification for night flight, which includes much more instrument flight instruction than formerly. Although the qualification does not permit a pilot to fly in other than good conditions, the additional instrument training provides him with a better chance of recovering safely should he inadvertently lose sight of the ground. However, the best way to reduce the risk of such accidents is to educate pilots better about the dangers of operating small, inherently unstable helicopters in anything other than good visual conditions.

If a pilot flies outside controlled airspace at night, he must fly in accordance with instrument flight rules, which require that the aircraft remains clear of cloud and in sight of the ground surface, unless the pilot holds an instrument rating and the helicopter is suitably equipped. Given the additional training necessary to obtain the new helicopter night qualification, the cost to an individual pilot has increased, but the previously high accident rate suggests that that is fully justified in the interest of flight safety.

The national private pilot's licence is intended to provide an alternative to the JAR-FCL private pilot's licence for pilots who wish to fly simple aircraft in good flying conditions within the UK. A major concern of the general aviation community about the implementation of JAR-FCL was the increased cost burden on pilots obtaining and maintaining the private pilot's licence. In particular, more stringent medical requirements mean that private pilots are now required to undergo an increased number of expensive medical examinations throughout their flying careers. The NPPL's training and medical requirements, although not as demanding as those of JAR-FCL, will be appropriate to the limitations placed on the exercise of the privileges of the licence, and will enable many hobby aviators to continue to fly safely in UK airspace.

The hon. Member for Aldershot raised the question whether there may not be many areas of flight training that are common to all syllabuses and that could be undertaken and credited against the NPPL syllabus. Presently, private pilots are free to commence training under JAR-FCL. If the NPPL subsequently came into effect and the pilot decided instead to train to that new syllabus, he could apply to the body responsible for administering NPPL to apply for credit to be given for common areas of training. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the NPPL proposals have yet to go to consultation. Therefore, it would be wrong for the Civil Aviation Authority to allow pilots to commence training, particularly on a non-JAR-FCL course, in the hope that the NPPL will come into effect in future.

Mr. Howarth : I cannot understand why there has been a huge fuss made about the differences. A part of the parliamentary answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East, that I meant to quote and did not, states:

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Mr. Hill : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes his points in a forceful, through reasonable, manner. I appreciate that they are based on his own experience and expertise in these matters. Of course, officials and the CAA will carefully read the remarks made by all hon. Members. I am sure that the CAA will give genuine consideration to the points that the hon. Gentleman made effectively.

I shall clarify the regulatory controls that apply to non-commercial flying. As I mentioned, the CAA has ultimate responsibility for aviation-related regulatory matters. The authority has sought to achieve a reasonable balance between maintaining central regulatory control and the devolution of certain flying activities to approved sector bodies. However, there is no suggestion that the CAA should divest itself of its core safety responsibilities. Therefore, for instance, the development of the technical requirements for the proposed new national private pilot's licence is being carried out by representative bodies from the industry, but the CAA will retain responsibility for the auditing of quality and safety standards. "Devolvement of responsibilities" is a much-misunderstood phrase, and the CAA will continue to hold ultimate regulatory responsibility, but will devolve certain oversight activities to approved organisations to act on its behalf. Again, safety standards will be assured.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Bosworth for the opportunity he has afforded the Chamber to discuss these questions in some detail.

Mr. Tredinnick : I am grateful to the Minister for giving me a cue to intervene because I wish to address one or two of the points that he made for further comment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made the point that law should not be made on the basis of one bad--or, rather, exceptional--case. I gave the Minister a list of 120 fatal accidents. It would be instructive if his Department examined them, as that might lead it to decide that the matter encompasses more than just one exceptional case.

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Reference has been made to new licences that are being introduced, such as new night licences and new standards. Does the Minister not think that there is a case for ensuring that pilots operate within the existing regulations? Greater emphasis should, perhaps, be laid on ensuring that they do not stray from the fold. That could be easily achieved.

Guidance for passengers should also be provided: perhaps it should be a statutory requirement that a leaflet should be given to them. It might be argued that an organisation similar to the Motor Insurers Bureau should not be set up because, although there are millions of passengers in cars, there are only a few pilots. However, there might be inexpensive ways of overcoming that problem to ensure that passengers and their dependants are aware of the horrendous risks that they might run when they fly, notwithstanding the expertise and good faith of most pilots.

Mr. Hill : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for discussing this tragic case in such a reasonable manner.

I have been informed that, during the past three years, there have been, on average, 190 accidents involving helicopters and light aircraft with a gross weight of less than 2,370 kg. Of every 100 accidents, fewer than eight were fatal. On average, two people were killed in each fatal accident.

With regard to third-party damage, during the past three years there have not been any reported injuries to people on the ground, and only 10 instances of damage to property.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point about the need for pilots to operate within the existing regulations, but it is important to remember that, on the night of the tragedy in Leicestershire, the police and Royal Air Force helicopters were grounded due to poor weather. On the whole, public agencies and private flyers operate within the regulations, but that was not the case on this tragic occasion. That reinforces the hon. Gentleman's point about the need for education, and I and the Government concur with that.

The Government are not complacent about these matters. The training requirements for helicopter pilots have been improved in the three years since the accident. I do not wish to minimise the tragic consequences of the accident, but there are few such incidents, and there is little, if anything, that Government can do when all means to cover uninsured losses prove to be ineffective.

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