Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I would be less than honest with the House if I did not say that there were times when I thought that it might have been easier to take a different way out. I am grateful for his observations about the fact that I chose not to do so.
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House to make the statement, as it would have been very easy for him to hide away for the recess. It would also be helpful for us to have a debate in the House after the recess, as well as the one that I imagine will be conducted in the House of Lords.
Is it not the case that the black box cannot be found in military helicopters, that TANS is no substitute for a black box and that conclusions about anything that happened are drawn on the basis not of facts, but of hypotheses that can be challenged and in which lie the doubts that many of us have about the soundness of the judgment?
Mr. Hoon: I assure himI suspect that other Ministers can confirm thisthat a new Minister in a Department who is faced with such an issue wants to ensure that it is considered thoroughly and properly. I knew that at some stage I would have to face the House of Commons, and that simply to accept the advice that was put in front of me would not necessarily equip me with the arguments and information that I would need to be able to answer right hon. and hon. Members' questions. It is for others to judge whether I am able to do so. I assure my hon. Friend that I personallyand other Ministers serving in the Departmenthave gone to a great deal of trouble to challenge the advice put in front of us.
On the legal advice, I doubt whether any Minister could have set a higher bar as regards what it is necessary for the Ministry of Defence to show in order not to disturb the finding of the board of inquiry than to say that there should be "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that negligence occurred. I have accepted the highest legal standard that any Member of Parliament has ever proposed to the Ministry of Defence. In those circumstances, my hon. Friend's looking at the legal advicewhich in any event, as he knows, is not something that any Department publisheswould not assist him, because I have accepted that there should be a very high standard for the Department to satisfy in order not to disturb the original finding.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the Secretary of State aware that the parents of Jonathan Tapper are constituents of mine? Jonathan Tapper was an officer with a completely unblemished record and a true professional of the utmost integrity. Given that three reportsthe fatal accident inquiry, the House of Lords Select Committee report and the Public Accounts Committee reportoverruled the finding of gross negligence, the parents of the two pilots were hoping and praying that the Secretary of State would follow those reports and quash the finding of gross negligence. Does he understand the heartache and grief that those families are suffering? Does he also understand that it is bad enough to lose a loved one, without having to endure the
Mr. Hoon: I understand to some extent. Although I do not claim possibly to be able to share the anguish that they have gone through, I understand the difficulties that they have faced and I have sought to face up to them myself. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), I thought of taking what would have been politically a much easier way out than coming here to make the statement, but I felt unable to do that having personally considered carefully the facts of the case and having gone through an enormous amount of detailed information about the circumstances. I am sorry that I am unable to assist the hon. Gentleman in the way that he describes.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): The Father of the House suggested that the Secretary of State should look at the papers that misled Sir Malcolm Rifkind in reaching his conclusion about the accident. Would my right hon. Friend welcome an initiative by Sir Malcolm to lift the ban on present incumbents looking at previous incumbents' papers?
The Secretary of State said that he felt unable at the present time to conclude that he should overturn the decision. On several occasions he told us to consult his statement carefully. I have a copy of it here. One of the phrases that he used is that there was to be "no doubt whatsoever that the pilots' negligence was a causealthough not necessarily the sole causeof the accident." Does not that shift the grounds of the standard of proof from what we had all thought them to bethat is, "absolutely no doubt whatsoever"? Is not there a worrying trend among suppliers of armaments to the Government whereby when rifles do not work properly, the suppliers blame the service men for not being able to fire them, and when helicopters do not fly properly Boeing lends its weight to blaming the pilots?
Mr. Hoon: I would certainly be willing to look at Sir Malcolm Rifkind's papers and I have indicated all along that I would be willing to look at any new evidence. As I said to the House earlier, I commissioned a new reportwhich is now available to right hon. and hon. Membersspecifically because I wanted to see from scratch the material that was available, so far as it could be, to Ministers. I am certainly willing to consider any further material that anyone supplies to me at any stage. I do not, however, accept my right hon. Friend's further observations; they are unfair, and that is not the way in which we have gone through this process.
Angus Robertson (Moray): May I express my disappointment at the missed opportunity to overturn the findings of negligence against the Chinook pilots, Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook? Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if there were to be an RAF board of inquiry today, it would not be able to reach a finding of negligence because the rules were changed after the crash on the Mull of Kintyre?
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I congratulate the Secretary of State on the way in which he has approached this statement. If we were looking at these matters in terms of a balance of probabilities, he would certainly have a point. But, as the Public Accounts Committee found, that is not what we are looking at. The Committeean all-party Committeeconsidered the legal and technical evidence as thoroughly as it could, and used very strong language to express the view that the Ministry of Defence, in continuing to support the two senior officers, was guilty of "unwarrantable arrogance". That was a very strong statement from the Public Accounts Committee, and it came to that conclusion because of the dispute about the words "absolutely no doubt whatsoever".
I want to put a question to the Secretary of State, and he must answer it if he is to convince the House of Commons. Looking at what the House of Lords report said, is the Secretary of State telling the House of Commons that he has
Mr. Hoon: I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's observations about the term "unwarrantable arrogance". That represented one of the most disappointing aspects of the Public Accounts Committee's report, not least because the Committee failed, for example, to call the reviewing officers to give their own evidence. It struck me as somewhat inconsistent of the Committee to reach that very strong conclusion without having called all those who could give relevant evidence as to what had taken place.
On the hon. Gentleman's second question, I am entirely satisfied that at this stage there is no plausible explanation other than that the pilots themselves were responsible for negligently flying the aircraft into the Mull.