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Mr. Heald: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I did not join in the congratulations and tributes paid to the staff of the House earlier today. On behalf of all right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, I now join in those tributes. What the staff have done today has been magnificent.

Sir Robert Smith: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I associate the Liberal Democrats with those congratulations, and pay tribute, in particular, to the innovative way in which the staff adapted the House and the facilities of the House to cope with the unusual circumstances in which they found themselves.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): Further to that point of order Mr. Speaker. On behalf of the whole House, I make exactly the same points. I particularly thank the catering staff, who have had to respond at very late notice and have done absolutely magnificently on behalf of us all in the process, and have had little sleep in so doing.

5.7 pm

Sitting suspended.

7.20 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Speaker: I have to inform the House that a message has been brought from the Lords as follows. The Lords do not insist on their amendment to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill to which the Commons has disagreed and do agree with the Commons in their amendment in lieu thereof. They do not insist on an amendment in lieu of certain other Lords amendments to which the Commons have disagreed and do agree to
10 Mar 2005 : Column 1880
the amendments proposed by the Commons in lieu thereof. They agree with the amendments proposed by the Commons to the words so restored to the Bill.


Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.


Accommodation Centre (Bicester)

7.21 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It gives me pleasure to present a petition relating to the Bicester accommodation centre for asylum seekers. It is signed by the leader and deputy leader of Bicester town council and the chairmen of Arncott, Blackthorn and Piddington parish councils, who are all affected by the proposal.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

7.23 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to your earlier statement praising the staff for their hard work last night, in particular the Refreshment Department staff
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who went without sleep for 24 hours, they and the House might be interested to learn that the records in the Library show that this is the third longest sitting of the House since 1877.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

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Heather Bell

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

7.24 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It has been a long wait. As we have just heard, this has been the third longest sitting since records began and although to the rest of the world it is Friday evening, to us it is still Thursday. However, for me the 30-hour wait has been worth it, because the subject of the debate is important to my constituency.

The debate is about the sad death of my constituent, Heather Bell, a rider who was thrown from her horse after it had bolted from a low-flying RAF Chinook. That resulted in a number of recommendations to help reduce the chances of such accidents occurring in future: first came the recommendations of the coroner, and then the petition from my constituents.

I recognise that the Minister has taken a step in the right direction—I give him credit where credit is due—in response to the coroner's call for

and has set up a hotline. However, the information provided by the low-flying hotline is valid only at the time of calling. The caller must either


That means taking a chance on death or serious injury to horse and rider. In the wake of the several deaths already caused by the problem—I should emphasise that the matter does not just concern my constituency and the tragedy that occurred there; there have been serious injuries elsewhere—that is scarcely reassuring.

The hotline adviser told someone from my office who called to inquire about the service that

a low-flying aircraft

Given that the information is therefore limited not only to one specific day but to one very brief time slot and subject to change within a half hour or less, it appears that the value of the hotline is not much above the cosmetic.

The same adviser took pains to stress that all times were "just advisory", and that the best time to ring was "just before" going out. When asked what flights would be taking place between 4 pm and 5.30 pm in the central Market Rasen area in Lincolnshire, the adviser stated that there would be "one large rotary" during that period. The area covered stretches across Boston, Scarborough and Wakefield—some hundreds of square miles. The information is therefore completely useless to anybody who wants an idea of whether a Chinook is to thunder down on them as they are riding a horse, perhaps causing it to bolt. Low-flying area 11 covers Humberside, North Lincolnshire, north-east Nottinghamshire and north-east Yorkshire—4,618 square miles.
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The adviser could give no information whatever about the following day, and, as the MOD's press release announcing its launch last month pointed out, it is a "helicopter hotline" only. It tells people nothing about fast jets as they thunder across the countryside. If someone is planning to ride anywhere near a base or a helicopter training school,

such locations

Furthermore, the hotline operates only between 8 am and 5 pm. When I rang the hotline, I was told that it was too late and to "ring back tomorrow". Could the availability of the hotline be extended, particularly as at times a busy person might not be able to get through?

As the Minister is aware, I have called for the Ministry of Defence to notify the public on a website of a strip of perhaps 10 square miles either way where training is proposed and when, but that has not been done. Yet, as I have said before, there is no convincing reason—in security or technology terms—why it should not be done. The coroner accepted, as of course I do, that

However, he went on to say that he suspected that that

I am sure that the Minister accepts that that is entirely reasonable.

I do not question in any way the need for the RAF to conduct low-flying training; it is protecting national security. Nobody in Lincolnshire is a fanatic about the matter; we all recognise that Chinooks have to go out. We just want warning of where they will be on the training flights, which I would have thought are planned in advance. Co-ordinates must be laid out and the pilot must be given them. It is surely possible for the public to be told.

It is true that the current MOD website gives a skeleton timetable and calendar for low flying in the three most intensive low-flying areas of the country—central Wales, north Scotland and the Scottish borders—but that is no good either to my constituents or, for the first few days of this month, to people living in those three areas, as on 4 March the website was still showing the calendar for February, despite the claim that it had been updated on 1 March. If the information was merely about leisure activities or various public services, that would be regrettable, but it is about saving people's lives and there have already been deaths. Regrettably, there seems to be no great sense of urgency about that at the Ministry of Defence. Neither does it give one great confidence that any online service giving information about low flying in my constituency would be as helpful as one would hope.

The MOD website is not easy to navigate, and people need to know that the information is available before they can find it. When it is at last discovered, buried in a paragraph, it is pretty vague; time slots of up to eight hours are given for several days in a row in northern Scotland and central Wales. Even washing machine repair men can usually say whether they will be coming in the morning or the afternoon, and that drives us all
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crazy. I urge the Minister in the strongest terms to ensure not only that the current website is made much more user-friendly, but that the current state of affairs will not be the model for any other online information.

None the less, the question must be asked: why could not the MOD apply even the same skeleton plan, with all its deficiencies, to the area concerning my constituents? Currently, all that they can find out about their broad area from the MOD's website is the total number of hours flown in "North Lincolnshire". That covers hundreds of square miles, and it included bordering areas the previous year. That might be useful to statisticians or students, but I do not see how it will save any lives.

Gainsborough might not be in the top three areas for military low flying, but that did not prevent 23 complaints from being logged in Market Rasen before Heather Bell's death. In fact, according to figures released to the Lincolnshire Echo last month under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the MOD received 332 complaints about low-flying aircraft across Lincolnshire in the three years between 2002 and 2004. As the Echo commented,

The same report of 8 February recorded the fact that there had been another 45 complaints from residents in the Market Rasen area, including those in the villages of Glentham and Walesby, since the accident on 10 June 2003.

Let me quote a few lines from the report:

Even worse, the report continues:

The number of complaints is increasing. In 2002, there were 95 complaints; in 2003, there were 114; and in 2004 there were 123. Of the total 332 complaints, 262 were about low-flying fixed or non-rotary aircraft, mainly jets, while 56 concerned helicopters—and the MOD was "unavailable for comment".

Let us see what the Ministry does, apart from log events, when a person complains. According to the editor of the Market Rasen Mail—I presented a petition in response to his newspaper's campaign, which is why I have secured this debate—the complainant receives a visit from the RAF police, and the burden of proof is on the complainant, who has to answer technical questions about exact height and speed. Clearly, that does not encourage justified complaints any more than the current quality of the MOD website and hotline encourages use of those services.

So what is to be done? In the three high-intensity areas, there are regional community relations officers, who, according to the website,

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Can we not extend the area covered by community relations officers? Can we not have them in other parts of the country?

On the coroner's recommendations, I reiterate all the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who raised this matter in an Adjournment debate last week, about reducing the area for low flying. I do not insist or ask that we go back to the pre-1979 situation. I know the arguments about that and I have received a letter from the Minister dated 31 March, but surely there must be a way of avoiding smaller towns and villages. There are arguments about increased use of simulators, which I would have thought was possible, and about improved technology vis-à-vis tracking devices, which I know Air Commodore Garwood called a "very, very good idea" at the inquest. I echo my hon. Friend's support for the coroner's recommendations on avoidance notices, specifically in the Market Rasen area. I would have thought that it was perfectly possible for the RAF to avoid flying over stables, which are fixed buildings, so those involved know where they are.

The coroner said that his task at the inquest

He therefore recommended that in future such recorders remain operational. He commented that as health and usage monitoring systems—HUMS—which constantly monitor the condition of aircraft, like a constantly updated MOT, can record data for up to eight hours, they should be left on. That must be possible, as is the norm with civilian aircraft. The coroner suggested that more information should be coming out of the cockpit, and that is what we want. It could be useful in assisting the RAF police with investigations and to relieve complainants of the burden of attempting to supply the answers to technical questions about height and speed, which they cannot simply answer.

The coroner's sixth recommendation was that, following the practice applied to fast jets, helicopters involved in low-flying training could be fitted with video equipment so that the whole sortie was recorded on videotape. I agree with his comment that

It would also provide more useful and, importantly, "immediately available" evidence. There would then be no need for "flight reconstruction". Does the Minister believe that that would be a worthwhile investment?

The coroner's seventh recommendation in the event of future similar fatalities—or, one might add, accidents—was that

He specified that

that the impounding of the helicopter should be considered "at a high level",
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that no further sorties should be undertaken following such an incident, that the downloading of information should be given the highest priority, should be done by

and should take place in the presence of a RAF police officer. The downloaded data should be stored in


I ask the Minister to note the coroner's comment that Sergeant Newton of the RAF police, who investigated the case,

and that

Another suggestion from the coroner was that inquiries should be made to ascertain whether it would be technically possible for the loadmaster, who sits at the left rear of the aircraft, to

Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the coroner's statement that these recommendations

The Minister is aware of the petition launched by the Market Rasen Mail, which I fully support. It endorses the coroner's call for a return to a restricted zone for low-flying training and greater use of simulators. It calls for the lower limit to be raised above 50 ft and for devices to alert people to aircraft in the area, and recommends a recorded message briefing of daily flight plans.

With the navigation system used in helicopters and sophisticated altometers, it should be possible to know where a helicopter is and at what height at a particular time, so that complaints can be monitored. I hope the Minister will accept that there is no more time left for words of comfort. He must translate those words into action, so that my constituents may feel that some good has come from the tragic death of Heather Bell. He must take action. The MOD has a reputation for being slow-moving in this and other matters—witness the debate over the veterans of the Arctic convoy this week. This is an opportunity for the Minister, in his final weeks in the MOD, to make a name for himself and once and for all resolve the issue of low-flying aircraft and helicopters.

7.38 pm

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