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Mr. Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend says that there was no confirmation of any technical malfunction. That is not the test. Is there a possibility that there was a technical malfunction? That is the test.

Mr. Wilkinson: The test is the one that we are looking at today—whether gross negligence was the right finding.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilkinson: No, I cannot.

By changing the way point from the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse to Corran, the crew deprived themselves of the certainty of the reference to the lighthouse that was their turning point. The lighthouse was in cloud and, having removed position information with reference to the mull, this could have been the crew's fatal error. Indeed, I suspect that they were looking for the mull lighthouse. We know that they were south-east of track, and that there was error on the TANS, which had been faultily programmed before flight. The engines were running normally at the time of the crash, and there was no evidence of a flying control failure that would, of itself, have precipitated the accident.

Their lordships and their supporters have indulged in many speculations, relating to FADEC problems, control system jams, undemanded excessive left rudder input on the part of Flight Lieutenant Cook, who was flying the aircraft in the right-hand seat, and to much else besides. However, the accident parameters are entirely consistent with cruising flight into high ground, with a last-second attempt to flare the aircraft and to yaw away from the hill to port.

As in so many accidents, there are a number of events which, while not contributory, cannot pass unremarked. It is true that Flight Lieutenant Tapper could self-authorise without a briefing officer, and if the squadron leader on

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duty had been available, he might perhaps have prevented the sortie by persuading the flight lieutenant not to choose the Mull of Kintyre routing in those weather conditions, or by persuading him to consider other possibilities.

The weather is paramount here. I have mentioned the forecast of a 30 per cent. probability of instrument meteorological conditions around the mull. The actual forecast made by a qualified observer closest to the time of the accident was that of the Sea King pilot, whose log stated that there was, at worst, seven eighths stratus at 200 ft and, at best, seven eighths strato cumulus at 900 ft. The log also states that the visibility was, at worst, a quarter of a mile. The height of the top cloud was 1,500 ft, which is more or less the height of the top of mull. The weather was, therefore, in no way suitable for flight in visual flight rules.

The crew ought to have aborted the sortie or climbed above safety altitude as soon as a deterioration occurred or as soon as there was a likelihood of deterioration. Coming in off the sea, with the fishbowl effect that occurs when flying low over water, makes these judgments particularly difficult, and makes it negligent to press on without firm visual pinpoints, which there is no evidence that the crew possessed.

In conclusion, I can only say that the air marshals fulfilled their duty as I believe they were required to. The criteria relating to negligence are


Given all the evidence of the weather conditions prevailing and the flight profile decided on, I believe that the air marshals were correct, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence upholds their judgment.

9.40 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. Along with the Secretary of State and every other speaker, I share the sadness of the families of the two pilots and the two crew members, and those of the 25 passengers who were on board the Chinook.

In the run-up to the debate I was struck, as one of the newer Members, by the view—taken by many during the election campaign—that Parliament and politics are a cynical business in which there is no agreement between parties or between Members with differing opinions, on the left or on the right, on constitutional questions. I am therefore proud to take part in this debate, and to support the motion along with Members on both sides of the House. I am also humbled by the fact that others here have contributed so much in the past—for instance, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), a long-standing campaigner on this issue, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who made one of the most significant speeches I have heard during my short time in the House in a defence debate on 14 February, and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). We should also bear in mind the comments of the former Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands.

Like everyone else who supports the aims of the motion, I do not think that this is a party political issue. The debate can send a powerful message to the MOD and

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to Ministers that elected representatives throughout the House are deeply unhappy about the findings of negligence. We are not interested in who is to blame. We would be delighted to know who will break the logjam, clear the names of Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, and maintain the good standing of the MOD.

Mine is primarily a constituency interest. I represent two of the largest RAF bases in the United Kingdom. I speak to many people serving on those bases, and I know that a number of them share the disquiet expressed by nearly every speaker today. They are not interested in second-guessing the motives or questioning the professionalism of those who arrived at the negligence finding; what they want, what I want and what so many who have spoken today want is natural justice. They believe that the balance of proof has not been achieved, and that this is an issue of judgment.

This has been oft repeated, and I repeat it again: I cannot get my head around how a conclusion of negligence could have been reached in the first place, given that the test is "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". I am a great supporter of the Scots legal system—of its rigour and its high standards—and I am sure that even a first-year Scots law student just starting a course would find it difficult to understand how, if negligence could not be proved with the standard "balance of probabilities" constraints of the fatal accident inquiry, it could be proved with the higher RAF standard of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever".

I am concerned about the prospect of a new simulator. I agree with other Members that if all that is available is an average speed, a hypothesis based on another hypothesis and inconclusive input data, a simulation will not produce a finding that will support the truth.

I welcome the comment by the Secretary of State that he would take new legal advice. That is perhaps a glimmer of hope that we can take from the debate.

It is not our job to prove that the flight crew were not negligent. It is up to those who support that unproven finding to prove that they were. The Government should listen to the bipartisan views expressed in this debate. They should set aside the verdict. I hope that they do so at the earliest opportunity.

9.45 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I shall be very brief. I wanted to speak in the debate for several reasons. First, I represent a large number of RAF personnel based at Marham and Coltishall. Secondly, I represent the family of Jonathan Tapper, who live in Burnham Thorpe in my constituency. Thirdly, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Malcolm Rifkind when my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) was special adviser. I have no doubt, having spoken to Sir Malcolm, that had he known at the time that the MOD had been in dispute with the manufacturers, he would not have accepted the advice of the two air marshals. I am absolutely clear on that fact.

We have had some excellent speeches, but I just wanted to say that the families of the two pilots have been through hell and back. Their sons were found guilty of gross negligence, a finding that was not upheld by the first two inquiries and by the third inquiry of the House of Lords Select Committee. One does not have to be a lawyer to

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conclude that, had either of those pilots survived, they probably would have faced charges of manslaughter. We are seeing an appalling slur on their professional reputations, a slur on their families and an undermining of two young men who had an impeccable service record. Having looked at the House of Lords report very clearly, I feel that the Government have an opportunity to set aside the findings. If they do that, they will restore honour to the Department.

9.47 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The House has heard some very moving, wonderful, well-balanced speeches from both sides of the argument. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in offering our renewed condolences to the families of all the 29 people who were killed in the tragic crash of Chinook ZD 576 on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994, but we pay particular tribute to the families of Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, who have fought a long and determined campaign to change the conclusion of the original RAF board of inquiry that they were guilty of gross negligence.

We have heard a number of outstanding speeches from hon. Members with a great deal of knowledge and interest in the tragic incident. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) has taken a long-standing interest in the case since he chaired the subsequent PAC inquiry into it. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who were the Ministers responsible for the original decision, have been very courageous in now admitting that their original judgment was incorrect. As the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) reminded the House, no one now believes that the pilots flew at the wrong speed, at the wrong height and in the wrong place, as was accepted wisdom at one time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire also has a strong constituency interest, with RAF Odiham in his area, from where it was announced yesterday that three Chinooks were to be deployed to Afghanistan with the 45 Commando battle group. All parts of the House will wish to join him in wishing those personnel well and in thinking of the families they leave behind. Incidentally, the Minister might like to tell us whether the three Chinooks will be fitted with black box flight recorders. I hope that they will.

Uniquely, hon. Members on both sides of the House spoke in support of the Conservative motion. I mention in particular the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who has been involved in this matter for so long, the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). The broad cross-party agreement on the issue may be something to which Ministers will wish to pay particular attention, and in recognition of it, we will not seek to divide the House this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who speaks with such authority on all aviation matters, spoke with great courage and was the only hon. Member to seek to persuade the House that the original conclusions of the air marshals were correct. I sympathise with his view that respect for the chain of

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command must be paramount in the maintenance of proper military discipline, and it is extremely unusual, to say the least, for this place to seek to question a conclusion that has been reached.

In doing so—as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) reminded us—we are not seeking to challenge the honour or integrity of Ministers or senior RAF officers; we are seeking to question their judgment. The experience of the two air marshals concerned is beyond question. None the less, we would appeal to them to reconsider the conclusion that they came to four or five years ago.

Under normal circumstances, Her Majesty's loyal Opposition go to lengths to support ministerial operational and deployment decisions. Our support for the Government on everything that they have done in Afghanistan is testimony to that. However, we have come to the clear conclusion that it really is time to revisit the MOD's original decision on the Chinook crash.

Since the original RAF board of inquiry in 1995, there has been the fatal accident inquiry in 1996, which left wide open the question of what caused the accident. In 1998, the Select Committee on Defence stopped short of making any judgment on the cause of the crash. In 2000, the Public Accounts Committee—chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden—went further and disputed the original findings. Most recently, the Select Committee in the other place overturned the original inquiry's findings altogether.

The sheer weight of evidence that those various inquiries have produced, and the legal and military distinction of many of those who are calling for a rethink, must give all of us cause for concern about the original conclusions.

In particular, it would be difficult for any of us to do other than to listen carefully to the Select Committee's conclusion that

Now is not the time to revisit the evidence in detail. That has been done convincingly by a number of hon. Members tonight and satisfactorily by all four inquiries. Listening to them, it seems to me that the only conclusion that any dispassionate observer could possibly come to is that the sequence of events that led to the crash remain, and will always remain, to some degree unclear. We do not know what happened on the Mull of Kintyre on that fateful day, and we will never know.

Since that is the case, it is simply incorrect to conclude that there is "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that gross pilot negligence was to blame. No court in the land—no court in the world—would come to the conclusion that there was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that gross pilot negligence was to blame. That point alone should be more than sufficient to lead Ministers to overturn the conclusion of the RAF inquiry.

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The Secretary of State agreed in his introductory remarks that internal MOD procedures have now changed so that the sequence of events could not happen again, particularly with regard to the verdict of gross negligence, which would now have to be arrived at in a civil court. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that these circumstances could not arise today under current law, he could surely revisit the findings of the inquiry at the time?

The Government's amendment to the cross-party motion this evening asks the House to await their official response to the Select Committee report. Will the Under-Secretary tell the House when that will be? The Secretary of State talked generally about it being within six months. It has to be within six months, or the Government will be grossly neglecting this House. We want to know precisely when it will be. In particular, we do not want the Secretary of State to choose a particular moment to release the report; for example, as we come up to summer recess. We want him to release the Government's reply at a sensible time, and as soon as possible. In doing so, we must be certain that he will rely on more than Boeing's re-simulation, which of course would be unsatisfactory.

In simple terms, it seems to us that the principle of innocent until and unless proved guilty should, beyond any shadow of doubt, apply in this case. There is a long and honourable tradition of an assumption against deceased pilot error in the RAF.

Despite the Opposition's very real reluctance to do anything that might, or might be thought to, undermine the authority of the chain of command—and I reiterate our respect for the two air marshals concerned—it seems that on this occasion a very tragic miscarriage of justice has occurred. We appeal to Ministers and the RAF to take this opportunity to clear the names of these young pilots. Only then will their families be able to lay their memories to rest.

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