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Mr. Hoon: I am enormously relieved that the right hon. Gentleman has not succumbed to the charm offensive emanating from the Conservative Front Bench, although I am sure that all Members will join me in rejecting the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) the other day, that the right hon. Gentleman is a Victor Meldrew figure. That was clearly an outrageous assertion that no one could possibly want to agree with, apart perhaps from the hon. Member for Buckingham, who no doubt thought better of it as soon as he had made it.

I have set out the Government's decisions. We are having a debate on the matter before Christmas, which I thought Opposition Members were keen to do, and that will give all Members the opportunity to set out their strong views.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Will the Leader of the House urgently investigate, or allow a debate on, the guidance and procedures for ministerial travel? The reason for that is that I have twice asked the Prime Minister when he last travelled on the London underground; like me, the Leader of the House will be aware that the matter is of great public interest. The 1997 code, item e, "Public Accountability", states:

on the use of transport. It continued:

It is most interesting that that was written by the Prime Minister, so when will he come to the House to answer my written and oral questions about when he last used the tube? That is a matter of great public interest.

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that it is a matter of great interest to the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister scrupulously observes the terms of the ministerial code and has always done so.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to come to the House to make a statement on the Government's policy on illegal drugs and the reclassification of cannabis? Does he agree with the Home Secretary that having 4 oz of cannabis resin or 18 oz of cannabis leaf is an appropriate threshold between personal use and supply?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is referring to guidance issued for judgments made by individual prosecutors in individual cases as to how particular types of offence should be prosecuted. That is always a matter for the discretion of prosecutors and police officers. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is not right that Ministers should make observations about that type of individual discretion. It is an essential part of our criminal justice process that such discretion lies in the hands of those who exercise it.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): As my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House asked earlier,
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and as I have repeatedly requested, may we have an urgent debate in Government time on trade justice and freer trade? Given that meeting the millennium development goals on reducing maternal mortality and child mortality will cost $6 billion a year and that the richest nations on earth subsidise their agriculture to the tune of $6 billion a week, does the Leader of the House agree that a debate in the House would allow colleagues to argue passionately—as I certainly would, if I caught your eye, Mr. Speaker—that reforming wholesale the socialist subsidy system in international trade is not only fiscally desirable but morally imperative?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman regularly raises those issues with considerable effect, and in a way with which, generally, Ministers agree. The Government have taken precisely the type of action he describes. We negotiate vigorously in all international organisations to promote freer trade and justice. Indeed, we have to do so partly because of the failure of the previous Conservative Government to engage in that very process.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware of the excitement engendered by the prospect of the 2012 Olympics and the stated aim of the British Olympic Association to move the UK from 10th to fourth in the medal table, so will he arrange an early debate on the funding of elite athletes? The BOA was expecting the announcement of an extra £25 million of funding in the Chancellor's pre-Budget report but that announcement was not forthcoming. Any delay will undoubtedly harm our chances at both the 2008 and the 2012 Olympics and the BOA described the decision as

Mr. Hoon: It is important that we continue to support our elite athletes. The Government have put much financial backing behind them and, as a result, there were significant improvements in our results at the recent Olympics. The matter is obviously something for
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my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I will ensure that it is drawn to her attention.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I have a constituent who is seriously ill and has to undergo chemotherapy. She is also a witness in a court case. On three occasions, she has been required to attend court, and her relatives have come down from the north of England, and on three occasions the Prison Service has not delivered the prisoner to court. Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on Her Majesty's Prison Service?

Mr. Hoon: I will not comment on the specific case, but from my experiences and those of my constituents over the years, I know that there is a problem from time to time in ensuring that not only prisoners, but witnesses and all people involved in court cases, are brought to court on the right date. Nothing is worse, especially for victims, than cases that do not go ahead as scheduled. The Government have devoted an enormous amount of effort and energy to improving the procedures so that we can ensure that the experience suffered by the hon. Gentleman's constituent is not repeated.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Has the Leader of the House had a chance to have a look at the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 and the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889? Will he confirm that both those Acts are still on the statute book and have not been superseded by other legislation? If it were shown that a senior Government Minister in the Lords had fallen foul of those pieces of legislation, would the Leader of the House support calls for his dismissal from public office?

Mr. Hoon: I have not studied either of those pieces of legislation recently. Since I used to be paid for giving legal advice—[Interruption.] Rather better paid than I am today, it is true. I do not know whether those Acts of Parliament are in force in their entirety or in part, but I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I assure the House, that Government Ministers observe all relevant legislation at all times.
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Hercules Crash (Board of Inquiry)

12.21 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I am able to inform the House today of the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry into the tragic crash of the RAF Hercules XV179 in Iraq on 30 January 2005. May I say at the beginning that I very much regret that some of the details appeared in two newspapers this morning? Some information was accurate, some was inaccurate and some was speculative. I apologise to you for that, Mr. Speaker. The only consolation is that the families had already been met and briefed before the reports appeared this morning.

I first pay tribute to the 10 service personnel who tragically lost their lives aboard the Hercules while carrying out their duties: Flight Lieutenant David Stead, Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel, Flight Lieutenant Andrew Smith, Master Air Engineer Gary Nicholson, Flight Sergeant Mark Gibson, Chief Technician Richard Brown, Sergeant Robert O'Connor, Corporal David Williams, Lance Corporal Steven Jones and Squadron Leader Patrick Marshall. I am immensely proud of our armed forces and the work that they undertake on our behalf, as I am sure the whole House is. This was the biggest single loss of life in a single incident to enemy action in Iraq. Those 10 brave men lost their lives while working in support of the coalition operation in Iraq. We owe them, and all the other personnel who daily confront danger, our respect and gratitude.

We must not forget the families and friends of those men. I am sure that the House will join me in offering our sympathy and deepest condolences. The Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force and RAF Lyneham, especially, continue to provide those families and friends with support while they come to terms with the tragedy. I recognise that the board of inquiry report will be painful reading for them, but I hope that they will take some comfort in finding answers to the many questions that arise after such an incident. I felt it important that the families were given time to prepare for the inevitable media interest, so they were briefed by an RAF team yesterday on the conclusions of the board of inquiry. Notwithstanding the prerogative of the House to be informed about such an event, I hope that everyone understands and supports the steps that were taken to inform the families first. They will be able to rely on the support of their friends and colleagues in the Army and the RAF, both formally and informally, for as long as they need it. I also pay tribute to RAF Lyneham. Its close community was hit very hard indeed by the tragedy, yet it managed to maintain its magnificent support for our deployed forces, both at the time of the crash and subsequently.

Turning now to the report itself, I remind hon. Members that the purpose of a board of inquiry is to establish the circumstances of a crash and to learn lessons. It does not seek to apportion blame. The board of inquiry was convened the day after the event, on 31 January, and has considered a mass of evidence. The board established that, on 30 January 2005, an RAF Hercules C-130K took off from Baghdad at 13:24 Greenwich mean time en route to Balad, which is to the north of Baghdad, on a routine operational passenger and freight flight. Six minutes later, at
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13:30 GMT, a radio message was received from the crew stating that the aircraft was on fire. At 13:55, the Hercules was confirmed as missing—that was the time of its expected arrival at Balad. At 14:15, the crash site was found by a US helicopter formation.

On our behalf, US forces established a cordon around the crash scene and maintained it for as long as it was considered safe to do so. They did that at risk to themselves, and I am very grateful to them. The board of inquiry was convened and took on the task of recovering the bodies of the deceased and examining the aircraft wreckage for evidence. I commend the professionalism and dedication of all those involved in that difficult and harrowing work. The task had to be completed as swiftly as possible because of the ever-present threat of hostile attack. Much of the wreckage could not be retrieved in the time available before the cordon was lifted.

Despite the loss of physical evidence, the lack of credible witnesses close to the crash site and the absence of an accident data recorder, the board of inquiry has nevertheless conducted a thorough and comprehensive investigation. The board examined all possible causes, eliminated those not supported by the available evidence and then thoroughly analysed the remainder until the most likely cause was identified. Throughout the process, the board was assisted by other agencies, including a senior air accident investigator from the air    accidents investigation branch—the AAIB—of the    Department for Transport. The experienced investigator independently investigated the crash in parallel with the board and his findings fully support those of the board. Furthermore, the AAIB investigator has stated that he was impressed by the approach adopted by the RAF team given the exceptionally difficult circumstances of the investigation.

On 7 March, my predecessor—now the Leader of the House—made a written statement to the House about the inquiry's interim findings. The interim statement ruled out a number of possible causes for the crash. After exhaustive analysis, the board of inquiry has concluded that the aircraft crashed because it became uncontrollable after hostile ground-to-air fire caused the outboard right-hand wing to explode and separate from the aircraft. The crash was not survivable. The board identified three contributory factors: flying at low level in daylight made the aircraft vulnerable to some types of ground-to-air fire; the lack of a fuel tank inerting system in the wing fuel tank meant that it was possible for an explosive fuel-air mixture to develop; and the flow of intelligence information regarding ground-to-air fire was not as robust as it might have been.

I remind the House that the purpose of the inquiry in identifying those factors is to learn for the future, rather than to apportion any blame. The board made a number of recommendations that we will study closely. We have, indeed, acted on many of them already. During the course of the inquiry, as the findings were emerging, the commander-in-chief of RAF Strike Command instigated a number of steps. C-130 tactics have been reviewed and low-level flying in daylight is now avoided wherever possible. However, it has not been prohibited as it can sometimes be the safest way of achieving an operational objective. We need to allow operational commanders in theatre the flexibility to choose the safest effective tactics to achieve their mission. The fitting of a
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fuel tank inerting system is being investigated as a matter of urgency and we have made changes to our ground-to-air fire reporting and dissemination system.

Now that the board of inquiry has concluded, the full contents of the report will be thoroughly considered and acted on as appropriate. While we have to accept that any deployment of UK troops involves a degree of risk—sometimes considerable risk—the security of British servicemen and women deployed to Iraq and elsewhere remains our highest priority. We owe it to our personnel to do everything we can to ensure their safety.

This is a very comprehensive report. A military aircraft accident summary will be placed in the Library of the House and on the internet site of the Ministry of Defence. In addition, a redacted version of the main body of the board of inquiry report will be available on our internet site. As the House will appreciate, the safety of our people is a principal consideration and we have rightly removed from the report any information that might endanger the security or capability of UK and coalition personnel or that might be of use to an enemy. That is the purpose of the redaction. For example, we have, for operational reasons, removed the detail of the exact weapon type used against the Hercules. To divulge that information might give the insurgents what they need to replicate the attack. It would be unhelpful to our forces and our coalition partners for the media to speculate on the weapon deployed. That is not a theoretical risk; it is very real. We have, however, tried to be as open as possible under all the circumstances.

Our forces have made a significant contribution to the creation of the right conditions for wider peace and stability in Iraq. They have done, and continue to do, an excellent job in difficult conditions. Our deepest sympathies go out to those who have lost loved ones or who have been injured in operations. I can only speak in the highest terms of the qualities of all personnel who serve, and have served, there—qualities that I know from my own visits and discussions with them.

In conclusion, therefore, the board of inquiry into the crash of Hercules XV179 is now complete. I repeat my gratitude to the president of the board and his team for their painstaking work. I am sure that the House will join me once again in expressing deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the victims of this tragic incident. We must never forget, nor will we ever forget or underestimate the courage and professionalism of our service personnel in carrying out the tasks required of them.

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