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The hon. Gentleman also asked about the appropriate level of authority on release to service, and we have spent a lot of time over the last seven weeks trying to
talk about that. As the hon. Member for Woodspring said, in the military environment we need to make absolutely certain that authority lies in the right place. I do not want to remove that authority: the release to service will be vested in the appropriate level of the chain of command, but we will also make sure that no one lower than that will take operational risk. Therefore, if operational circumstances demand that a particular platform ought to be allowed to fly, that level of release will be needed before any such course of action can be taken. In addition, the MAA will have the authority to oversee and audit all the decisions that are taken.
The reason why Mr. Haddon-Cave wanted to make sure that these matters were led at the appropriate level was to ensure the kind of authority and independence that the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) is looking for. That is why we are saying that three-star officer level is appropriate.
That structure might change in time. We may well find that bringing other parts of MOD safety within such a construct is the right thing to do, in which case the authority would broaden to cover other areas. However, for the initial period while we are setting up the MAA, the focus needs to be on aviation safety, and the organisation needs to be led at the appropriate level.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the characteristically frank and candid manner in which he addressed the House, which is appreciated. Will he assure the House that an independent military aviation authority will have full access to any information that it requires to do a comprehensive job, and that it will be truly independent so that it can make any comments or criticism that it considers necessary in the interests of our service personnel, without pressure on it for financial or political considerations?
Mr. Ainsworth: That is precisely what we are trying to achieve. I hope that my hon. Friend understands-I have heard this, understandably, from the families who have lost their loved ones-that the independent military aviation authority should be outside the Ministry of Defence, with the Civil Aviation Authority playing its role. We cannot bring a civilian authority into the military environment, so what we are trying to do, and what Haddon-Cave recommended, because he saw that that was not the way forward and did not recommend it, is to mirror the level of authority in the CAA but with people who recognise the military environment. Of course, we must monitor their performance to ensure that they are doing their job appropriately over time and that they have the independence that my hon. Friend wants.
There are still changes that need to be made and we still have a way to go, but in the two and a half years that I have been in the Ministry of Defence, during which I have dealt with many boards of inquiry,
inquests and deaths of service personnel, I have already seen a change of culture. There are areas where it does not reach, but there is a desire to make sure that the right culture exists. We have made progress over time. The pressure to which the Department has been subjected from the level of scrutiny required by inquests and the new service inquiries has put that in a better place. It still is not right; it still needs to be driven. There is more, and the MAA will be a major tool in ensuring that that happens.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that, since this tough report was published, morale among those involved has taken a considerable knock. Does he agree that it is imperative that we acknowledge that, as well as the uniformed work force, there are thousands in the civilian work force throughout the country, including more than 2,000 in Boscombe Down in my constituency alone, who work for QinetiQ, whose reach goes from Boscombe Down to Benbecula, and who support our uniformed military personnel every day? Does he agree that we must ensure that they regain the trust and confidence of Her Majesty's forces? Will he tell us where the headquarters of the military aviation authority will be and where the 250 military personnel will come from?
Mr. Ainsworth: I accept that there is a point in what the hon. Gentleman says. When people and the Department are criticised to the degree that they were in the report, that is bound to worry even dedicated people who are trying to do their job. Equally, there is well founded evidence from up and down the ranks of our employees that they want to make sure that we learn all the lessons as well. They are not just feeling the crush and the pressure of the criticism. In many cases they are urging us to put systems in place that make sure that we are as effective as we can be. They know that they are part of the system and they take huge pride in the work that they do. We have not decided a location yet. Haddon-Cave wants to make sure that we have a separate location. It will take time to put the team together and allocate appropriate premises to them.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the MAA, rather like the CAA, have responsibility not only for airworthiness, but for safety on the ground and at air bases? Is it not time that we had an independent military air accident investigation board?
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Just yesterday I and a cross-party group of MPs met the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), to discuss the future of the Nimrod project. There are still 1,000-plus skilled workers at Woodford in my constituency building the new generation of Nimrod aircraft. What message does the Secretary of State have today for those loyal and dedicated workers who stand to lose their jobs when the current Nimrod project is completed?
Mr. Ainsworth: The decisions that I announced yesterday and those that the Minister was talking to the hon. Gentleman's group about were not connected to the Haddon-Cave review, as I tried to make clear yesterday. They related to prioritisation issues and budgetary measures within the MOD. Mr. Haddon-Cave was very clear. We asked that if, at any point in the course of his investigation, he found reason to question the airworthiness of planes currently flying, he should come to us immediately. He did not do that. He says that in his report, and he says that the Nimrod is now the most scrutinised military aircraft flying anywhere in the world. We still need the capabilities of many of the Nimrod variations. [Interruption.] We still need other variations of the Nimrod and we will need to look carefully at how we use that aircraft in the future. We will do so during a strategic defence review.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I very much welcome the Haddon-Cave report and I commend the Secretary of State's response to its findings, but will he confirm that he has had independent, third party representations from people who are concerned about one or two of the report's more subjective findings on individuals in the command chain, where conclusions appear to have been drawn without substantial evidence? I do not wish to tempt him to comment on any investigations in progress, but can he say anything about that part of the report and will he undertake to give those individuals a fair hearing at some stage during the investigation?
Mr. Ainsworth: I have had representations, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I hope that he understands that, for the reason that I mentioned in my statement, I do not want to say anything about any of the individuals. Two are still current employees who are undergoing investigation. It would be wrong for me to go into that matter.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and prior sight of it. Today we pay tribute to the 14 service personnel who died aboard Nimrod XV230 and to their families. We hope that no more loved ones will have to go through the same sort of tragedy.
We will look closely at the MOD's detailed response. It is important to recognise the personnel at RAF Kinloss who have worked extremely hard to maintain the safety of the ageing Nimrod fleet, as well as the wider community in Moray who give such great support. There are many lessons to be learned from the Haddon-Cave report, as well as from the treatment of the families, which left a lot to be desired. I welcome the creation of the military aviation authority, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the report criticised
"a shift in culture and priorities in the MOD towards 'business' and financial targets, at the expense of functional values such as safety and airworthiness".
Given this week's military cuts and the continuing defence privatisation agenda, how could the MOD even begin to claim that it will get to grips with the deep-seated failed culture that led to the loss of Nimrod XV230?
Mr. Ainsworth: I pay tribute not only to those whose lives were lost on that XV230, but to the rest of the crews and servicemen who keep and have kept such planes flying for a long time. I pay tribute also to the families, whom I have met on more than one occasion. Yes, of course there is anguish and grief, but there has been a determination on their part-a laudable determination-to drive us to learn the lessons so that the loss of their loved ones is not in vain and we get to a better place in our systems and safety capability. They are to be applauded for that.
On the criticisms that were made, there is no doubt that in this area aviation safety suffered. None of us can say-I do not believe that any proper reading of Haddon-Cave says-that we should not be driving for efficiency. Everybody wants an efficient service, and everybody wants to make sure that we are at the cutting edge in our methods as well as in the equipment that we fly. But safety cannot be compromised in that regard.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I thank the Secretary of State for bringing these sensitive and difficult issues to the House for scrutiny, for his tributes and for his honest and caring approach, which the whole House recognises. However, will he confirm, given that he has not yet done so, that the resources required to set up the MAA will not be drawn from front-line services, and that they will be new resources?
Mr. Ainsworth: Many of the responsibilities already exist within various parts of the Ministry of Defence, but they really need to be brought together, given authority and leadership and, therefore, put in a position to make sure that the lessons we need badly to learn are learned. The resources will be ours, but many of them already exist in various other places, and we need to bring them together in the way that Mr. Haddon-Cave has suggested.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): We all acknowledge that no review or reaction to such will be able to bring back the 14 service personnel whose lives were lost. Nor can we remove the pain that their families have suffered. However, will the Secretary of State assure the House that no aircraft will be allowed to fly, and no other equipment will be used, that endangers our servicemen and women whether they be in theatre or preparing for theatre.
Mr. Ainsworth: That should not happen-it should not be happening now. There are lots and lots of dedicated people in the RAF, the Army and the Navy and in our civilian staff at the Ministry of Defence whose responsibility it is-and they take it very seriously-to see exactly that that does not happen. However, the complexity and the lack of accountability-the things that were identified in the report-could undermine the best of individuals who are trying to do the job that we give them to do. So bringing out this matter, giving clear lines of accountability and establishing the authority ought to put our own people in a place where they can work more effectively for the safety of the people for whom we have responsibility.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to my point of order on 12 November 2008 to Speaker Martin, my subsequent point of order on 12 November this year to your good self, Sir, and my general comments and remarks over the eight and a half years that I have been a Member regarding the flying of the Union flag-the flag of our country-from the flagpoles on the parliamentary estate, will you now give a progress report and explain what is going to happen in the future on this matter?
Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for his point of order and, indeed, for giving me advance notice of it, and I am very happy to provide the progress report that he seeks. He should be aware and the House is now informed that the Chair of the Administration Committee wrote to me on 25 November to inform me that
"the Administration Committee considered a paper from the Parliamentary Director of Estates on flag flying on the Parliamentary Estate."
"flags should be flown on all three flagpoles on the Estate every day of the year, taking account of the usual ceremonial occasions."
"This would bring Parliament into line with other Whitehall departments. In the case of the Victoria Tower, agreement would be necessary with the House of Lords."
I wrote back to the hon. Gentleman on 30 November, agreeing to his recommendations, including those relating to shape, dimensions and a change to "three by five", which I know will be of close interest to the House.
I hope that the hon. Member for Romford feels a proper sense of triumph at what he has achieved in this matter, which he has, as he indicated, pursued over a lengthy period with, if I may say, a tenacity reminiscent of a Staffordshire bull terrier.
Dr. Brian Iddon, supported by Rob Marris, Mr. Neil Gerrard, John Austin, Chris McCafferty, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. David Curry, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Phil Willis, Bob Russell and Paul Holmes, presented a Bill to protect persons whose tenancies are not binding on mortgagees and to require mortgagees to give notice of the proposed execution of possession orders.
Mr. David Chaytor, supported by Mr. David S. Borrow, Mr. David Crausby, Mr. David Drew, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. Paul Truswell, Mark Fisher, Mr. Michael Clapham, Helen Southworth, Mrs. Betty Williams, Fiona Mactaggart and Joan Walley, presented a Bill to make further provision about the functions, powers and constitution of local authority overview and scrutiny committees; and for connected purposes.
Andrew Gwynne, supported by Ms Sally Keeble, Anne Snelgrove, Mr. David Drew, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Mr. Andy Reed, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Peter Lilley, Peter Bottomley, Anne Main, Andrew Stunell and Tom Brake, presented a Bill to make provision for or in connection with the relief of debts of certain developing countries.
Albert Owen, supported by Andrew George, Nick Ainger, Mr. David Drew, Mark Durkan, Daniel Kawczynski, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Peter Bottomley, Mark Williams, Alun Michael, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle and Dr. Hywel Francis, presented a Bill to make provision for the appointment, functions and powers of a Grocery Market Ombudsman; and for connected purposes.
Julie Morgan, supported by Mrs. Siân C. James, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mrs. Betty Williams, Frank Dobson, Jessica Morden, Rosie Cooper, Dr. Evan Harris, Sandra Gidley, Mr. John Baron, Miss Julie Kirkbride and Dr. Richard Taylor, presented a Bill to make provision about the use or supply of tanning devices that use artificial ultra-violet radiation; and for connected purposes.
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