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Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State's preliminary remarks about the terrible consequences of the tragic accident for many people? He urged us all to be dispassionate, and so we should be, but I regret that I cannot conceal my disappointment at the nature of his statement to the House of Commons. Nothing that he has said today has shaken my belief that the board of inquiry, in good faith, made an error of judgment and failed to apply the necessary high standard of proof. Its failure led to an injustice that the House ought to put right.
I find it difficult to understand why the Secretary of State should attach so little weight to the views of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the then Secretary of State for Defence, who says that he would not have accepted the findings of the board of inquiry had he known then what he knows now. Can the right hon. Gentleman recall a similar instance in which a former Secretary of State has publicly sought to reverse a difficult decision that he took during his tenure as Secretary of State? I most certainly cannotit is a unique feature of this matter.
How can the Secretary of State justify ignoring the conclusions of the sheriff, Sir Stephen Young, conscientious to a fault, who presided over the fatal accident inquiry for 16 days, supervised two days of legal submission, and wrote a judgment in excess of 120 pages, but could not accept the Ministry of Defence's explanation of the way in which the accident occurred? How can the Secretary of State fail to accept the conclusions of a Select Committee of the House of Lords chaired by Lord Jauncey, one of Scotland's most eminent judges in recent times? He concluded that the standard of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" was simply not present and did not justify the conclusions of the board of inquiry? Do not those independent, impartial and painstaking conclusions fatally undermine the finding of negligence against those pilots?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who has looked at the issue over a long period of time. I do not in any way take lightly his serious comments, but I hope that he will look at the further report from Boeing and my statement to the House today in considerable detail, as I believe that they will satisfy a number of his concerns.
I invited Sir Malcolm Rifkind to my office when it was clear that the matter would be raised again, and we had a thorough and detailed conversation. I accept that Sir Malcolm is not here to give his side of the story, but his essential point was that were he to look at the case again today he would reach a different view from that which he took at the time. While that is a perfectly proper position, it is not a sufficient reason for disturbing a carefully thought-through finding from the board of inquiry. As I indicated at the outset in my statement, at least 10 Ministers from two different Governments have looked independently and separately at the issue, serving their country and the House of Commons as best they could at the time, and each independently came to the conclusion that the findings of the board of inquiry were justified.
The weighing of evidence, however, from different sources, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and others are undoubtedly seeking, is not necessarily the right approach. The right way is to look objectively at known facts that can be established beyond any reasonable doubt, and to apply the circumstances of the case to those known facts. I simply make it clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Committee in the other place accepted that at the way point change the aircraft was functioning normally. It is also clear that in the last few seconds the aircraft responded to a command from the pilots because it gained ground and hit the Mull in a particular way. It did not hit the Mull head on. It hit the Mull having responded to what was clearly an effort to pull up in time to avoid an impending crash.
In those circumstances, any plausible explanation of what went wrong must satisfy the pretty stiff test of what could have happened in those last 20 seconds that arguably cleared itself by the time the pilots were in a position to take what they tried to takeavoiding action. I should be grateful if right hon. and hon. Members would concentrate on that 20-second period, because it is the crucial period, as members of the Select Committee accepted. They accepted that the aircraft was functioning properly at the way point change.
Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and accept that it is not an easy duty for him to perform. I respect his attempt to be dispassionate, and his success in that, but it is difficult for me to be dispassionate. Under the previous Government, I was a member of the Defence Committee that decided not to hold an inquiry. I now regret that and I congratulate the House of Lords on holding its inquiry.
When people in our armed forces put their lives in harm's way to defend our country and our democracy, it is fair for them to assume that they have, at the very least, rights equal to those of every other citizen whom they seek to defendin other words, that the onus of proof is not on the deceased, but on those who say that they were to blame. The onus of proof today, I say with respect to my right hon. Friend, is on him. I have not heard anything in his statement or read anything so far that supports the decision of the Secretary of State to come to the House and support a board of inquiry that consisted of two air marshals against a previous RAF inquiry that found that there were no human failures at all.
Mr. Hoon: If my hon. Friend studies my statement, he will see quite clearly that I acceptand I set it out for the benefit of the Housethat it is a question of being able to show that there is no other plausible explanation. I conceded to the House, and I concede again, that if there is another plausible explanation, the test set by the board of inquiry under the relevant rules will not have been satisfied. There is no other plausible explanation.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): This simply will not do, will it? The Secretary of State accepts that he has to rule out all other plausible hypotheses, and in doing so he has to accept that, unless he can disprove something else that is plausible, it is not enough to say that there is no evidence that something did not happen; he has to disprove it. So will the Secretary of State please explain to the House why he personally has absolutely no doubt whatsoever that, for example, neither of the pilots was taken ill during the last two minutes of the flight?
Mr. Hoon: Because, again, as I told the House a few moments ago, having looked carefully at the facts as agreedso far, none of the facts has been challenged by anyone in the House, although I recognise that everyone must have the opportunity of reading the reports in detailthe issue is what happened in those last 20 seconds or so. The Committee in the other place accepted that, at the way point change, the aircraft was working properly. The evidence is that in the last few seconds, there was a flarethe aircraft was pulled up suddenly in order to avoid what was clearly going to be a crash.
There is no evidence whatsoever of any possible reason why, in between, the pilots were not fully in control of the aircraft. In any event, the point that the right hon. Gentleman overlooks is that the reviewing officers found negligence even before the way point change, given the distances involved, the cloud cover of the Mull, and the altitude at which the aircraft was then flying. The issue is not what happened in the last 20 seconds, although I recognise that if there were any possible explanation, it would enormously help the effort that the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have made to disprove the findings of the board of inquiry. However, I have heard nothing to suggest that that is the case.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I refer to the question that I asked on 19 March at column 244 of Hansard and repeat it: what explanation has been given by the Ministry of Defence as to why it did not tell Malcolm Rifkind that legal proceedings were taking place against Boeing?
Mr. Hoon: I am not in a position to answer that question precisely, as that was obviously a matter for previous Ministers. My hon. Friend will be aware of the rules affecting papers supplied to previous Ministers. In any event, the question of legal proceedings arose out of the testing procedures relating to FADEC. [Interruption.] If my hon. Friend will listen to the answer, I can tell him that the Committee in the other place made it clear that the FADEC issue was not, in its judgment, relevant to anything arising from the causation of the crash.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): May I commend the Secretary of State for having the courage to come to the House and make a statement about an accident which has understandably caused deep emotion? Is it not the case, however, that in analysing military accidents, or any flying accident, we must be guided only by the truth as the circumstances disclose it? Is it not true that the more one looks into the causes of this accident, the clearer it becomes that the original judgment of the reviewing officers, Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day, was correct? Is it not, prima facie, negligent to fly a serviceable aircraft in instrument meterological conditions in the proximity of high ground? In those circumstances, the finding was entirely correct. I applaud the Secretary of State on this occasion, and, as probably the only person in the House who spent his formative years in military cockpits, I think that most professional people will agree with the judgment that he has given to the House today.