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7.25 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the most welcome and significant news this evening of Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth, which we have long advocated in view of the violence and intimidation surrounding the presidential election there, have you had word from the Foreign Secretary that he will come to the House at 10 o'clock to make an urgent statement about the situation, the future of the Commonwealth and our relationship with Zimbabwe?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I know that there is great concern in the House about these matters. I have not had any indication that such a statement is to be made, but the House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you be so kind as to advise the House whether it is possible at this hour to put down an application under Standing Order No. 24, requiring the Foreign Secretary to come to the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The right hon. and learned Gentleman should probably inquire at the Table Office about matters of that sort.

19 Mar 2002 : Column 235

Chinook Crash

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.27 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I beg to move,

This is an unusual motion for an Opposition day debate because it is sponsored on a cross-party—indeed, almost an all-party—basis. That is because it is virtually an apolitical subject: there is no ideology involved, and no party difference. Furthermore, the original decisions that we are seeking to put right were taken under a Conservative Administration. We are not, therefore, seeking to score political points. We are seeking simply to correct a miscarriage of justice that has gone on for too long. In the light of this cross-party approach—subject, of course, to getting a reasonable response from the Minister—I am not minded to press the matter to a vote tonight, but we shall wait and see.

At about 1759 hours on 2 June 1994, a Royal Air Force Chinook mark 2 helicopter, ZD 576, on a flight from Aldergrove to Inverness crashed into a cloud-covered hill on the west side of the Mull of Kintyre. The pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, the other two crewmen, and the 25 passengers—all senior members of the Northern Ireland security services—were killed. The aircraft was completely destroyed in the crash and subsequent fire, and many of its component parts, including much instrumentation and the digital engine control unit, also suffered total destruction. Neither a cockpit voice recorder nor an accident data recorder was fitted. There were no eye witnesses to the crash, nor any radar trace.

Because of the absence of hard evidence of what happened on that fateful day, the investigating board made no finding of negligence on the part of the pilots. Nor did the two station commanders who reviewed those findings. Nevertheless, the two air marshals to whom the investigating board's report was submitted concluded that the pilots were negligent and that they failed to take appropriate action when approaching deteriorating weather near the mull. Furthermore, the air marshals maintained that the pilots voluntarily did not take the necessary action safely to avoid the land mass ahead of them. Both pilots were therefore found guilty of gross negligence. Not only did they lose their lives, but their reputations—and the peace of mind of their families—were destroyed. They were allowed no defence or appeal, and were denied the benefit of the doubt of the RAF board of inquiry. They were effectively convicted of causing the deaths of 27 other people.

RAF rules in force at the time provided that deceased air crew could be found negligent only when there was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". That is a higher standard of proof than the "beyond reasonable doubt" required in criminal trials, and it is very much higher than

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the "balance of probabilities" laid down for civil law. In practice, the "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" standard means that every other possible explanation of the crash must be positively disproved. The House of Lords Select Committee demonstrated that the air marshals had come nowhere near that level of proof.

Early in 1996, a fatal accident inquiry was held in Paisley sheriff court. The sheriff, Sir Stephen Young, conducted an inquiry involving evidence and submissions taken over some 16 days. The sheriff concluded:

The sheriff was applying the lower standard of proof appropriate in civil law, namely the balance of probabilities. In other words, the air marshals had not even shown that their conclusion was probable, let alone certain. The Ministry of Defence refused to accept the judgment, on grounds subsequently shown to be flawed.

In November 2000 the Public Accounts Committee, under my chairmanship, reported on the MOD's acceptance of the Chinook mark 2 helicopter. The Committee considered that an engine-control software fault or other technical malfunction on the ZD 576 was a real possibility, and that there was not enough evidence to rule it out as at least a potential cause of the crash. In its view, it was

Again, the MOD refused to accept the judgment—a judgment that the Committee had reached unanimously, after extensive investigation by the National Audit Office.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): In the Treasury minute that constituted a reply to the recommendations of my right hon. Friend's Committee, the Government claimed that there was no proof that the FADEC software system was at fault. I can buy that; but having made their assertion, the Government went on to say that because there was no explanation of why the helicopter had hit the Mull of Kintyre, the pilots must have been guilty of gross negligence. That is in paragraph 8 of the minute. It is surely a jump in the logic of the Government's argument, which I do not find very convincing.

David Davis: My hon. Friend—the new Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—is entirely right. He has highlighted the point that the Government have always walked around the issue of requirement of absolute proof. The onus is on them to demonstrate that the FADEC was, in effect, perfect, which we know it was not. There are plenty of examples of its causing serious problems, cited in the report.

In July 2001, the House of Lords appointed a Select Committee to consider whether the finding of negligence was justified. Six weeks ago the Committee, consisting of five peers including four very distinguished lawyers and a very distinguished engineer, reported on the accident after hearing evidence for six months. Its members concluded unanimously that

19 Mar 2002 : Column 237

The Government have said that they need time to consider the Select Committee's report, but Ministers' immediate response was that it covered

They said that there was

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Is the case being made by the right hon. Gentleman and the Opposition that the House, and indeed the Government, should simply accept the report of a Select Committee in the other place without further consideration?

David Davis: That was a timely intervention. I shall come on to exactly why we have concerns about the Government's response.

The ministerial response that there was

misses the point. The required evidence never existed in the first place. The House of Lords report shows unequivocally that the so-called facts underpinning the air marshals' judgment were at best educated guesswork, and at worst demonstrably wrong.

Nevertheless, it was reassuring that the Government did not reject the report out of hand in the first instance. The same does not apply to other reports. That gave hope to the families of the pilots and to those who had campaigned for many years to see their names cleared—volunteer supporters, Channel 4 and Computer Weekly, for instance.

We now understand, however, that the Government plan to order a new simulation from Boeing. That points to the likelihood that they intend to find a reason for sticking to their finding of gross negligence. Such a course is wrong, in my view. The House of Lords Select Committee has demonstrated numerous flaws in the original Boeing simulation used to investigate the accident, and criticised the air marshals' treatment of the output of that simulation as fact.

The original simulation assumed a combined speed and rate of climb that have since been found to be unattainable—impossible in practice. It produced the wrong rotor speed, and it produced a ground speed during the final manoeuvre that was 11 knots higher than that measured by the ground-speed indicator. Perhaps most significant of all, it presupposed that before the crash the aircraft had been under control on a steady course and at a steady speed.

As well as depending on a mixture of dubious data and guesses about the Chinook's position, height and speed, a further simulation would not—indeed could not—deal with the possibilities of technical failure. Put simply, it would be another "garbage in, garbage out" exercise.

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