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Nobody should infer from what I have said that there is any criticism of the way in which the board of inquiry conducted its affairs or the time that it took. This was a very complex inquiry with a very small amount of evidence, and I think that it has done an absolutely excellent job with the evidence that was available in working out what most likely happened to
the Nimrod XV230. I do not think that there is any room for saying that if it had done it more quickly it would have done a better or more appropriate job. I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say about failures. He expresses in different words the failures identified by the BOI and that raise the questions required by the supplementary review.
I would like to deal with an issue raised by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that I did not addressthe in-service date for the replacement MRA4. That has been delayed by about seven years. The principal reason for the delay has been technical challenges in the design and production of the MRA4, and we have had to extend the period of service for which we plan to keep the present MR2 fleet in use. I have to say, however, that despite the age of this aircraft, it is still considered to be the premier maritime patrol aircraft in the world. In other air forces around the world, older aircraft are performing perfectly good jobs.
The age issue is relevant, as the board of inquiry identifies, but the most important question is whether the aircraft is fit to fly. Not only because of its very good safety record, but because of the application of the recommendations of the board of inquiry and the lessons learned from it, and the institution of further safety measures that have taken place as a result of our increasing knowledgeparticularly of this incidentI am absolutely clear that the aircraft is airworthy and is fit to fly.
John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and I concur with everything he said about the bravery of the RAF crew. There is nothing new in the use of ageing aircraft, or the considerable extension of the life of aircraft, but by definition, older aircraft are harder to maintain, and the propensity for accidents to occur becomes greater. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is in a position to do anything to bring forward the in-service date for the replacement of the Nimrod.
Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing a point that I have now made twice, but which bears repeating. The calendar age of an aircraft is not an indicator of its operational utility, its condition or its remaining service life. The Nimrod is maintained to strict standards and if we did not have confidence in the aircraft, we would not allow it to fly. Moreover, it is common practice in military and civil aviation for what are known as ageing aircraft audits to be carried out to ensure the structural integrity of the airframe of an aircraft. A Nimrod audit was conducted in 1993 and reviewed in 2003. That process takes place every 10 years, and as an additional safety measure, we are extending the scope of the audit to consider the age of the internal components of the aircraft, such as the fuel system, as well as its structure.
As for the replacement Nimrod MRA4, the in-service date is still 2010. I have explained the reasons for the delay in bringing it into service. Although that is disappointing, it has been necessary to ensure that the technical issues that arose were resolved prior to production of the aircraft, which began last year. I am
not in a position to suggest to the House with any confidence that that date could be brought forward, given that production of the new aircraft started only last year.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): We have heard of the lack of a fire-detection and suppression system. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the review will cover? Will it be limited to the Nimrod aircraft, or will it also cover things like explosive suppressant foam in this and other aircraft?
Does there not seem to be a difference in approach to the safety issues that face us? When danger is discovered on the railways, no expense is spared to put everything right as early as possible. Is there a difference in approach when it comes to dealing with the armed forces? I hope that there is not. Will the review cover lots of different types of aircraft, and what will be the criteria on which the Secretary of State accepts or rejects any call for a public inquiry?
Des Browne: The issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises in relation to fire detection and suppression will of course be part of the review. Given the probable cause of the accident, had the risk from the hot pipe in that void of the aircraft been correctly estimated, it is almost certain that a range of options to reduce the likelihood of a fire would have been considered. The options may have included redesign, to fit a fire suppression system in the dry bay, as it is known, but it is much more likely that action to prevent the risk by removing the potential ignition source would have been taken, and that is exactly what we have done since the loss of the XV230.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether such events are responded to appropriately when they occur. The decision to shut off that source of ignition was taken within a matter of days of the loss. There have been ongoing changes in relation to the safety of the aircraft in response to information as it emerges. We did not wait until the board of inquiry reported.
It is not my intention to conduct a wide-ranging review beyond the circumstances of this incident for a very good reason: I am conscious that part of the purpose of the review is to answer the questions that the families have, which are revealed by the board of inquiry. I am anxiousI have spoken to some of the families today, who also expressed this anxiety, which is perfectly understandablethat we should not have a process that delays the point at which they can achieve closure on the events, start to deal with their grieving and move on with their lives. I am very conscious of that. A further inquiry would of course be expected in the form of a coroners inquest into the incident. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I shall have to balance all those considerations.
In answer to the point that the right hon. Gentleman raised about whether we are concerned that the failings in the analysis and in the safety case for the Nimrod may have been repeated in other aircraft, we have asked those who have responsibility for safety cases to review them all in the light of the findings of the BOI, to ensure that there are no such failings in safety cases for other aircraft.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I understand hon. Members concerns and interest in this statement, but I ask for a single question and a single response, so that more may put their questions.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of States expressions of sympathy for the bereaved families in their dreadful loss. He is aware that they are looking for openness and transparency, yet were not included in the board of inquiry process. Will he therefore consider providing reasonable legal costs for those families, so that they can be represented at the inquest into the deaths on an equal footing with the MOD?
Des Browne: Because of the nature of a board of inquiry, it would have been entirely inappropriate for the families to be engaged in the process in the way that my hon. Friend suggests they could have been. The purpose of the board of inquiry was to identify what had happened and what lessons could be learned from that, in relation to the causes of the accident. I will consider to the issue that she raised in relation to the coroners inquest. I am conscious that coroners are independent of Government and that the process of a coroners inquest is designed to proceed in a particular way. I do not want to make decisions that change the character of a coroners inquest for reasons to do with the circumstances of an individual case, but I will give the issue some consideration.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and for the Ministry of Defences efforts in briefing the families and parliamentarians today. I also welcome the review that he initiated in his statement. The inquiry confirmed that the crew did everything that they could in the circumstances to save the aircraft. They were brave professional aviators to the last. That is recognised at RAF Kinloss, and by the entire service and civilian community in Moray. We pay tribute to the crew today.
The inquiry has found that the age of the Nimrod aircraft was a possible contributory factor to the crash in Afghanistan. That is a serious cause for concern as it impacts on the rest of the fleet, which is nearly 40 years old. Only recently, another Nimrod aircraft suffered a serious fuel leak and it has proved impossible fully to understand why it happened. It is also a cause for concern that the inquiry confirmed the loss of experienced engineering personnel from RAF Kinloss. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence will do everything in its power to restore confidence in the Nimrod fleet, which performs such a vital military role?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I also pay tribute to him as the MP for the area in which RAF Kinloss is based for supporting those families and the community through a very difficult time and for the very responsible and professional way in which he has dealt with me over this very difficult issue. I have no hesitation in giving him the reassurance that he seeks. The safety of those who fly in these aircraft is our priority; it is not secondary to any other consideration. I have given careful thought to the issue of age and to all the other issues identified in the BOI as contributory factors. I
am assuredand I accept those assurancesby those who have the vast technical ability and experience to understand these matters, and having gone into them in detail myself, that this aircraft is safe to fly and airworthy. I would not allow it to fly if I did not believe that to be the case.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I welcome my right hon. Friends statement about the inquiry, in which he said that all those in a position to assist will be interviewed? Will he confirm that that includes all service personnel who have relevant information and, indeed, ex-personnel who flew Nimrods in similar circumstances in the past?
Des Browne: I understand my hon. Friends point. Part of the reason for making this announcement is that, around this terribly tragic incident and in the time it has quite properly taken the BOI to come to its conclusions, there has been a lot of speculation and partial leaks of bits of information into the public domain. I know that some of it has been extremely distressing for the families involved. I am seeking to provide an independent comprehensive process of assurance to the families and others that the questions they want answered can be answered. I believe that that process can answer those questions and I am sure that a number of people will want to contribute to it. It is not for me to describe in detail from the Dispatch Box absolutely everybody who should be allowed to contribute to the process. The reviewer and those who support him will have to make that decision, but I am absolutely certain that he will want to speak to the category of person that my hon. Friend identified.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): When we hear, as we did from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), explanations of the cost pressures on the number of personnel involved with maintenance and when we hear that decisions to fit fire-suppressant kits had not been followed through, it is very hard for Members to accept that cost has had no bearing on the maintenance of this aircraft. Will the Secretary of State explain what he meant when he said earlier:
The chain of command has accepted the majority of the boards recommendations and continue to pursue the outstanding recommendations?
The hon. Gentleman will have time to read the BOI report in due course. All I am doing in this statement is reporting on that report. The three possible sources of contributory factorsmaintenance, servicing and operational pressuresthat could have been created by cost pressures have been discounted by the BOI. I have already said and will not repeat where the failings lie. In my view, those failings are best pursued in terms of investigation through the review that I will set up. That review will go back a considerable distance because it will need to. It will, of course, be open to the reviewer to consider where decisions may have been made in relation to cost.
There were 33 recommendations, 21 of which have been accepted outright by the chain of command and the implementation of eight of which is being actively considered. Four have not been accepted. On recommendation 5a recommendation to determine the specific life of fuel sealsthe judgment was that a better precaution would be to take mitigating action through an improved inspection regime and a targeted seal replacement programme. Experience shows that the life of seals varies, and that simply replacing the seals at an arbitrary point may introduce more problems and have a detrimental effect on safety. One recommendation, on the utility of parachute escape on a Nimrod aircraft, is not being pursued as it is not considered feasible. Recommendation 20, to review the design of the No.1 fuel tank, is not being pursued because it has been addressed by the limiting of the amount of fuel in the tank. Recommendation 28, to increase the stock of BOI kits, is not being pursued because BOI kits are available from other sources.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the announcement of the review. Along with other members of the Defence Committee, I met Nimrod crews in Kandahar earlier in the year. They are doing a tremendous job in very difficult circumstances. I also welcome the announcement that the families will not have to fight for compensation through the civil courts, and that the Secretary of State wants to settle very early.
Rumours are circulating in the aviation press that both BAE Systems and QinetiQ informed the MOD about the fuel problem two years ago. When the review takes place, will those rumours be thoroughly investigated? If they are accurate, we need to know why no action was taken, and also why the individuals concerned made that decision.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The review is of course welcome, but will the Secretary of State address himself again to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) about fire suppression systems? In particular, will the inquiry be able to examine American practice in this context?
Des Browne: I believe that the terms of reference of the review will specifically require it to look beyond our shoresbeyond civil and military aircraft in the United Kingdom, and into the international fieldwhen considering what recommendations to make.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the new generation of Nimrod aircraft being built in Woodford, in my constituency, are technically and operationally far superior to the aircraft currently in use? Given the present operational difficulties and resulting bad publicity for the aircraft, has he a message for the 1,200 dedicated workers who are employed on the new MRA4 project?
Des Browne: The new MRA4 is exactly thata new aircraft, which has been mostly designed as new from first principles. It has modern design features and safety standards including complete refurbishment of the fuselage structure, bomb bay doors and tail assembly, along with other significant safety features. Moreover, 94 per cent. of the parts are new, compared with those of the MR2. I understand that the aircraft is now in production. Testing and commissioning processes will then be necessary. From the information I have receivedthis is why I signed a production contract last yearthose responsible for construction have faced significant technical challenges, but have overcome them and will be producing a world-class aircraft.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): We are all desperately sorry about the 14 servicemen who lost their lives in this incident. The Secretary of State has come to the House to apologise for specific failings which he has identified, and for which the Ministry of Defence must take responsibility. What are they?
Des Browne: They are the failings that are spelt out in the BOI report, which I listed in short in my statement. They can be found in more detail in the expanded statement that I have placed in the Library of the House, and which will be available to Members. They are specifically failings in relation to the failure of the safety case to identify the nature of the hazard of the collocation of the hot pipe and a possible fuel leak.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The Secretary of State has confirmed that the fire-suppressant system lies at the heart of the inquiry, but bearing in mind that there are more than 40 fire-related or smoke-related incidents every year on Nimrods, surely the Secretary of State owes it to the Houseand, indeed, the RAFto explain why not one, but two, reports highlighting the problems and dangers as a result of the absence of a fire-suppressant system were ignored. The Government should come clean and say why those important reports were ignored.
Des Browne: Let me say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, there have been fires on board Nimrodsthere is no question about thatbut this is the only incident of a fuel fire on board a Nimrod. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman ought not to leave the House with the impression that there are no fire-detection and suppression systems fitted to the Nimrod MR2, because there are: it contains a number of fire-detection and suppression systems, which are fitted as appropriate to areas of the aircraft where a potential fire hazard has been identified. Now that the BOI report has been completed, the Nimrod IPTintegrated project teamwill consider forms of hazard investigation as part of the Nimrod safety case. If there was indeed a failure to fit fire-suppressant systems to the bomb bayand I do not accept that that was a failurethat will be just the sort of issue that the review will need to look at. That is precisely the sort of question it must answer, and it would be inappropriate of me to anticipate the outcome of the review.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con):
The Secretary of State is aware that Europe is trying to have a military aviation authority. Will he explain why
Rolls-Royce, which has been pushing the Government to accept this standard for years, has been ignored? Will the Government sign up to the European military aviation authority, to bring military aircraft in line with civil aviation? If there is a problem, what is it? Will the Minister sign up to this as soon as possible?
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on the way in which he has made the statement today, and also on the fact that he has highlighted the bravery and professionalism of the crew. All parents of RAF personnel are concerned when their children go into fields of operation. We are very proud of their bravery, but we expect the Government to do everything they can to make the equipment as safe as possible. I note that the Secretary of State said in the statement that the age of some of the components might be related to the accident. Has he instigated a programme of speeding up the replacement of components?
Des Browne: In respect of those components that were identified as aged and that might have been contributory factors, we have instituted specific changes to the maintenance and inspection policy. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of support for a service that I know is close to his heart for the very obvious reason he explained.
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