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Mr. Wilkinson: Is that not the case? To do anything other than what the hon. Gentleman has described is to imperil the aircraft and to fly it in a grossly negligent manner.
Mr. O'Neill: The hon. Gentleman is making my point for me. For men of the distinction of the pilots who have been accused of gross negligence, nothing would be further from their training, their habits or their behaviour. We are dealing with an element of gross negligenceeveryone is agreed that it is extremely difficult to proveinvolving pilots of the highest calibre, men who expressed misgivings about the craft that they were flying prior to the incident, men who would not take risks, having been so open and frank with their superiors and with others. They said that they had worries about the aircraft that they were required to fly. It might be said that that story could be fabricated, but it comes over in the evidence time and time again.
Mr. Wilkinson: The hon. Gentleman is most generous. Will he take it from me that history is littered with the wreckage of the careers and lives of the most experienced and wonderful pilots, who for various reasons seem to have broken all the rules and killed themselves, and perhaps others? That is a sad fact of aviation history.
Mr. O'Neill: I have heard that argument advanced before. I accept the point. I return to the responsibility with which the men concerned were charged. They had to take the cargo or the assets, whichever word we want to use. They had to take some of the most important people who were engaged in a war. Two of them were in the one aircraft at the one time, behaving negligently. I find that hard to understand.
The air marshals have always fairly maintained that the pilots never saw Mull and that no technical failure or malfunction occurred that deprived the pilots of control
If we are to read the interrogation or cross-examination that results in that conclusion, we see that it is not coming from someone who wishes to dissemble, or someone who wishes to put out a picture that is not true. It seems that we have almost lost sight of the wood for the trees. There is a welter of data. It must be saidthis is one of the shortcomings of the tribunal systemthat those with the greatest expertise are not necessarily the best people to weigh evidence. That is what the sheriff was able to do. It was what Lord Jauncey and his colleagues, doubtless under his direction, were able to do. That is where we are moving into new territories.
In the past, I have questioned people's integrity. I worried about the fact that there was a war. I have been concerned about technical data. I do not think that we need concern ourselves with those issues now. We have the facts. The way in which the inquiry has conducted its affairs requires our response. I hope that tonight we do not have votes and a confrontation. I hope that we can give the Government more time to pause and reflect.
It could be said that for the Department to change its mind on this issue is akin to a large tanker turning round. I make no reference to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie). Much reassessment is required. It is correct that before such a process is undergone, every piece of evidence both for and against is submitted to the greatest scrutiny. That is why I do not disparage the attempt to re-engage with Boeing on this issue.
I would like to think that the young men concernedthe members of the crew who were with them and their passengersand their families will know that justice has been done. At present, too many people believe that justice has yet to be done.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill). Today, our thoughts are with the crews of the Chinook helicopters that are about to fly out from Odiham to Afghanistan. I live three miles from Odiham, and I have fought to keep the Chinook base there because the local community is so proud of what the Chinook fleet does for the country.
We know that the crews will acquit themselves well in Afghanistan. We know that they will acquit their country with great honour, because they always do. A year or so ago, they acquitted themselves utterly brilliantly in Sierra Leone, and we know that they will do no less in Afghanistan.
Our thoughts are also with the families of the crews. Being left behind is one of the hardest tasks of all. The families will be hoping, as will we all, that their loved ones will come back safely. Yesterday, the Secretary of State told us that there may be casualties in Afghanistan. The families will know that if, God forbid, something dreadful happens during the campaign, they will not have to go through the agonies that the families of Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook have been through. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) has said, the Royal Air Force has rightly changed the rules. The attribution of blame for negligence is now left to the civil courts. However, it is not enough to change the rules when we see that the rules are not working. If the Royal Air Force imposes rules on itself it, like everybody else, it is obliged to follow them. The key rule in all of this is the rule,
In the debate on defence policy on 14 February, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ruislip- Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made the best defence I have yet heard of the decision by the Ministry of Defence to stick to the verdict of the board of inquiry. He made a number of important points. First, he said that an aircraft that had not had clearance from the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down should never again
That brings me to my first question to the Minister. In his winding-up speech on 14 February, the Minister of State for Defence asked
Mr. Dalyell: Is the right hon. Gentleman not shocked that apparently the then Secretary of State, Malcolm
Mr. Arbuthnot: Yes, I am shocked that Malcolm Rifkind was not told. Someone in the MOD should have said, "Look, Secretary of State, something is going on." However, the present Secretary of State should recognise that that is a new fact and was not available to the board of inquiry when it reported. For Ministers to come to the House, or speak on television or radio programmes, and say that the various inquiries have produced nothing new is an utter travesty of the truth.
Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree, given the quality of this evening's contributions, that it would reflect well on the MOD and the armed forces to acknowledge that things were not as they should have been? There is a need for changethere has indeed been a culture of changeand we must progress more constructively.