HC Deb 22 July 2002 vol 389 cc689-704 4.45 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the crash of Chinook ZD 576 on the Mull of Kintyre.

During a routine flight from Aldergrove to Inverness on 2 June 1994, all on board—the 25 passengers and four crew—were killed. What we must remember, above all, is that this was a tragedy. Twenty-nine families lost loved ones that day. The whole House will once again want to extend their sympathy to them. This was also a blow felt throughout the Royal Air Force and in the many other areas of the armed forces and the public service from which the passengers on board were drawn.

This has been the most extensively examined air crash in the history of British military aviation. Not only aviation and engineering experts but at least 10 Ministers from across two Governments—from the right hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind to, most recently, Lord Bach—have considered the case. Each new Minister has, like me, had the advantage of coming to this with an open mind. Every new Minister who has examined the facts of the case has come to the same conclusion.

The senior reviewing officers of the original RAF board of inquiry found the pilots grossly negligent. They concluded that the pilots had flown the aircraft at a consistently high speed at low level, and into poor weather that they had been warned to expect. These facts led the board of inquiry to believe that the only possible conclusion was that this accident was a result of a controlled flight into terrain.

Many have challenged this conclusion. As a result, in April last year a Select Committee was established in the other place to consider the justification for the findings by the senior reviewing officers. The Select Committee concluded that the reviewing officers were not justified in their findings that negligence on the part of the pilots "caused the crash".

The Government have now considered the Select Committee report extremely carefully. We have thoroughly examined the alternative explanations for the crash that were considered by the Committee in the other place. We have painstakingly reviewed the complex technical, legal and airmanship issues which the report raises. We have sought further clarification from Boeing on the points made about its original work conducted as part of the RAF board of inquiry in 1994.

In order to leave no question unanswered, we have also asked Boeing to undertake further work to review its original analysis, including a full FADEC simulation. Those familiar with this case will know that the FADEC system, by controlling the fuel supply, maintains approximately 100 per cent. rotor speed in all conditions and matches engine torque between the two engines on the aircraft. It has been argued that the failure of this system was a cause of the accident.

Our deliberations are now complete, and I am arranging to place in the Library, as well as in the Library of the other place, copies of our response, together with copies of the further work by Boeing. A number of theories have been put forward to explain the cause of the accident. Each theory depends on a particular interpretation of the evidence. That is why at the outset I want to try to set out as best I can those facts that are not actually in dispute. We know that, as before every routine flight, the pilots received meteorological information, in this case, warning them of poor weather conditions in the vicinity of the Mull. They took that into account in planning their route from Aldergrove to the Mull lighthouse; on to Corran, near Fort William; and then up the Great Glen to Fort George, near Inverness.

We know that the first way point entered on the aircraft's navigation computer was very close to the lighthouse on the western tip of the Mull. That way point was the position where the pilots intended to change or adjust their course to head towards Corran. Taking into account the weather conditions, they planned to fly their route at low level under visual flight rules, which means that they needed to maintain at least 1,000 m of visibility. If they were unable to do so during the flight, they would he required under the rules either to turn away from the poor conditions or to climb to a safe altitude of 1,000 ft above the height of any known obstacle. They would then have flown under instrument flight rules, which would require them to fly with sole reference to their cockpit instruments.

We know that the aircraft took off from RAF Aldergrove at 17.42. We know from an exchange between the crew and air traffic control that at just after 17.46 the aircraft was 7 nautical miles from the Aldergrove radio beacon. A number of witnesses reported the aircraft flying low as it headed for the coast. Those sightings are consistent with a high-speed, low-level transit towards the Mull along the planned track.

We know from the data in the SuperTANS navigation system on board every Chinook that the aircraft was 0.81 nautical miles from the lighthouse when the pilots took the steps necessary to enter the second way point—89 miles away at Conan—into the computer. Given their training and experience, the pilots would not have performed that task if they had been experiencing any significant difficulty in handling the aircraft. The Committee in the other place accepted that it was highly unlikely that the pilots would have entered the way-point change if they had thought they were not in control of their aircraft.

We know from all the eye witnesses on the Mull that the weather there was generally foggy and very bad—indeed, consistent with the meteorological advice. The lighthouse keeper estimated visibility to be 15 to 20 m at most.

We know from the power down recording in the SuperTANS system that the time of initial impact was 17.59 and 36 seconds, giving a total journey time of just under 18 minutes. From those facts we can calculate that the ground speed of the aircraft from the air traffic control fix to impact averaged 158 knots, which shows that the pilots had selected a high cruising speed for their crossing to the Mull.

We know that the ground speed at impact was at least 147 knots from the evidence on the aircraft's instruments at the crash site and corroborated by data extracted from the global positioning system and the navigation computer.

We know that the aircraft hit the ground at a height of 810 ft above sea level. All the evidence clearly points to the aircraft having flared—or "pulled up" in layman's terms—with its nose upward at an angle of 30 deg in the final few seconds of flight. That is shown not only by the physical evidence at the crash site—in particular, the alignment of the fuselage—but by the fact that the collective control, which controls power, was set at or near full travel at impact, with the cyclic control, which controls pitch or elevation, at 25 per cent. aft and 23 per cent. left of neutral, all indicating a demand for high power and nose-up attitude in what was probably a last desperate attempt to pull away. That evidence at the crash site also indicates that the aircraft was almost certainly responding properly to its controls, at least in the final seconds before impact.

Those then are the facts, which have not been seriously challenged by anyone. What remains at issue is what happened in the last 20 seconds or more of the flight, from the point at which the pilots entered the way point change into the navigation computer until moments before impact, when they pulled hard up in a clear attempt to avoid hitting the ground. Various theories have been put forward and we have considered each in turn. They are examined in detail in our fuller response which has been placed in both Libraries.

One hypothesis suggests that, because of the low cloud, the pilots had slowed down for the way point change, intending to turn left to hug the coast towards the way point at Con-an while remaining at low level. The Committee in the other place has accepted that the aircraft was performing satisfactorily up to and including the way point change. It suggests that, the aircraft having performed the required deceleration successfully, some catastrophic failure occurred in the last 20 or more seconds of flight. That failure caused the aircraft to accelerate out of control so that it flew at high speed into the Mull, with the pilots unable to control the aircraft, at least until the final few seconds.

Was it the crew's intention to slow down significantly for the way point change? Boeing's analysis shows that, given a normal rate of acceleration, it would not have been possible to achieve the speed conditions for the final flare if the ground speed was below 80 knots at the way point change. If the aircraft had slowed to around 80 knots at that point, an even higher average cruising ground speed from the air traffic control fix to the way point change would have been necessary and, crucially, the aircraft would have begun to decelerate about one mile before the way point change and, in the process, to reduce power considerably, adopting a nose-up attitude for a considerable period. Such a manoeuvre is not consistent with any of the evidence.

In addition, the further analysis from Boeing shows that, given a normal rate of acceleration, it would not have been possible to accelerate from below 80 knots and achieve the speed conditions necessary to be consistent with the final flare just before impact.

Even if the aircraft had performed the manoeuvres necessary to slow to 80 knots at the way point change, what plausible explanations could account for the pilots not being able to execute the turn and to cause the aircraft to accelerate to the known speed at impact? And what sort of incident could have cleared in time to allow the pilots to perform the final flare in the seconds just before impact?

It has been suggested that a control jam of some sort could have occurred. For that to have happened, the aircraft would first have had to be rotated nose down to an accelerating attitude, the power set to full and the controls "frozen" to such an extent that neither a heading change, nor a climb, nor a speed change was possible. Moreover, that condition would have had to have remained fixed throughout the significant period required to achieve the acceleration. To achieve those conditions either simultaneous multiple failures would have had to have occurred to the pitch of the aircraft and have frozen the controls, or the pilots would have had voluntarily to conduct at least some of the extraordinary control combinations needed themselves.

The Committee in the other place also explored the possibility that the thrust balance spring attachment bracket and other inserts detached before impact, as some of these flying control components were found to be detached at the crash site. But because the controls are hydraulically powered, such a fault would result in a change to the "feel" of those controls and would be detected by the pilots. Moreover, the aircraft would still be controllable. It is not credible that that could have caused the accident as it occurred. In any event, the report from the air accidents investigation branch indicated that the brackets were likely to have become detached during the post-accident break-up of the aircraft.

Despite suggestions from other commentators, the Committee in the other place accepted that the FADEC system and the trials of the Chinook Mark 2 which had been suspended at Boscombe Down had no bearing on this accident. In fact all the available evidence indicates that the engines were working normally up to the point of impact. The Committee was also satisfied that the E5 software fault, which has also been the subject of much media speculation, had no relevance to this accident.

We have examined in detail all the alternative hypotheses put to the Committee by witnesses. The question is, when taken in the context of the whole flight, are they, or is any one of them, plausible—plausible against the strict standard of proof needed at that time before a finding of negligence could be made against deceased aircrew?

As the Committee observes, the standard of proof of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" is even higher than that applicable in criminal cases. I am, of course, aware that four of the five members of the Committee in the other place are distinguished lawyers.

It also follows from this strict standard of proof that if there is another plausible explanation for what took place other than the one accepted by the board of inquiry, its conclusion cannot be allowed to stand. The reviewing officers in this case were required to be in no doubt whatsoever that the pilots' negligence was a cause—although not necessarily the sole cause—of the accident.

No investigation into a serious accident can ever hope to answer every question with absolute certainty. Negligence can itself be the cause of an accident, or it can be one of a number of factors. The reviewing officers were charged with considering all of the evidence as a whole; they were entitled to call on their own knowledge and experience of military flying, and to take proper recognition of the very high standard of airmanship that is required of RAF pilots.

It follows that if the senior reviewing officers were left with no "honest" doubt that the pilots were negligent, and that the negligence was a causative factor in what happened, they would have failed in their duty if they had not found the pilots to be negligent. It would have been wrong of the reviewing officers to avoid such a finding on the basis of a hypothesis for which there was no plausible evidence.

The senior reviewing officers' finding of negligence was not dependent upon whether the pilots could see the Mull at the time of the way point change. We can deduce that at some point the aircraft entered cloud—which the crew had been warned to expect—well below what was the safety altitude. The issue is whether at the time that they did so the aircraft was fully under the control of the pilots. There is no other plausible explanation for the accident: the only realistic explanation is that found by the reviewing officers of the board of inquiry.

As they approached land, the pilots would have been aware that their visibility was about to reduce significantly. Had they been flying with the minimum visibility allowed for visual flight rules, by the way point change they would have seen the landmass of the Mull and would have recognised their perilous position. They should have taken prompt action by flying higher or by turning away. The finding of negligence is therefore based on the fact that they failed to take such avoiding action.

This is a sensitive and emotive case. I recognise that some people would have liked to reach a different conclusion from that of the reviewing officers. Indeed, some former Ministers have since changed their minds about their original interpretation of the facts. However, we require senior military officers to make decisions on the facts at the time, applying their judgment as professional airmen against the high standard of airmanship to which the Royal Air Force adheres.

We have therefore reviewed the material put forward by the Committee with the very greatest care. We have considered the alternative hypotheses rigorously to see if there is any other plausible explanation that fits with the facts. We have agonised over whether there was some way in which we could exonerate the pilots posthumously, but on the basis of all the evidence, I am unable to do so.

Apportioning blame for such a terrible accident to men who lost their lives in it was not an easy task for those responsible. Reviewing the circumstances of the case has been one of the hardest duties that I have been asked to perform as a Minister. Nevertheless, where lives have been lost, we must be willing to examine the facts as carefully and dispassionately as possible, for the sake of all those involved. This we have done.

I know that this response to the Select Committee's report will be unwelcome to some. As I have consistently stated before, should new evidence come to light, I would certainly be prepared to look at that evidence again. Indeed, it was precisely the possibility of new evidence that led me to commission the further work from Boeing.

I hope that this statement and the supporting detailed analysis which is being published today will assist the House in understanding the reasons why we have not been able to support the conclusions of the latest report into this tragic accident.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement and of the material which he is placing in the Library. I think that the House understands how difficult this case has been for Ministers to deal with, and we are grateful for the care that the right hon. Gentleman has obviously taken. However, we, like many others, continue to be drawn inescapably to the conclusion that this is not a safe verdict.

Today is another sad day for the families and all those who lost their loved ones on that fateful day, 2 June 1994—and especially for the families of the two pilots. I join the Secretary of State in reiterating our sympathy to all those who were bereaved. In criticising the right hon. Gentleman for his announcement today, I stress that the issue is one of natural justice, not one of party. Indeed, as the right hon. Gentleman noted, we have been pressing for the reversal of a mistaken decision taken under the previous Conservative Administration—a decision that the Secretary of State's predecessor, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, have said should be reversed.

May I also make it clear that we do not seek to challenge the honour or integrity of Ministers or senior RAF officers? However, we believe that they should be prepared to review their original decision in this matter, because the RAF rules in force at the time provided that the deceased aircrew should be found negligent only when there was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". That is a very much higher standard of proof than "beyond all reasonable doubt" which is usually required in criminal trials in civilian courts. It means that every other possible explanation of the crash must be disproved, and in this case that cannot be done.

May I refer briefly to the Secretary of State's own statement today? At one point, he said: This evidence at the crash site also indicates that the aircraft was almost certainly responding properly to its controls, at least in the final seconds before impact". I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that "almost certainly" is not "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". He then went on to say These, then, are the facts". I put it to him that these are not the facts.

Later on, the statement refers to senior reviewing officers who were left with "no honest doubt". I do not know the legal antecedents of that term "no honest doubt", but it is not the same as "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". That is the basis of the case expressed by those who object to this verdict.

The inquiry conducted by the Committee in the other place, chaired by someone who is not only a distinguished lawyer but a former judge in the Scottish Appeal Court, concluded that the Ministry's original report was not sufficiently based on fact, but was based on assumptions that have subsequently been challenged. I put it to the Secretary of State that most of the Boeing evidence is conjecture, not fact, and that even Boeing cannot be said to be the most impartial witness. I do not question the company's integrity but as manufacturer of the aircraft it certainly has an interest in the outcome of the inquiry. Pilots also question the reliability of data, to which the Secretary of State referred, from the SuperTANS navigation system.

How can the Secretary of State continue to sustain this position, except in the most legalistic of terms? He dismisses others who have challenged the board of inquiry findings. However, may I point out that the report from the other place supports three other independent inquiries? The air accidents investigation branch did not conclude that the pilots had been negligent. The fatal accident inquiry concluded that it had not been established on the balance of probabilities that the cause of the accident was due to the decisions taken by the crew.

The "balance of probabilities" is the weakest possible argument that a court would accept in a civil case. It is very much easier to accept a guilty verdict on the balance of probabilities than on absolutely no doubt whatsoever.

The Select Committee on Defence, while avoiding the question of blame for the accident, questioned the procedures that led to the controversies. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that the verdict of the RAF board of inquiry was "unsustainable" and recommended that it should be set aside.

Surely, after all that, the conclusions of the Select Committee in the other place cannot simply be ignored. For the Government to persist in their verdict is, in the minds of many, very difficult to accept.

The Secretary of State's mantra is that there is "no new evidence". However, the case made by both the PAC and the Select Committee in the other place is not that they have uncovered "new evidence" but that there was insufficient evidence at the time to reach the verdict of gross negligence beyond absolutely no doubt whatsoever.

Ultimately, this is not a legal argument, but an argument about natural justice. Does the Secretary of State understand that pilots still serving in the armed forces feel utterly betrayed by the Ministry of Defence on this issue? Can the right hon. Gentleman really put his hand on his heart and tell the House today that he believes that there is "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that these pilots, who were mostly highly trained, who had unblemished records and who were carrying such a notably precious cargo of intelligence officers, together committed the most cardinal and basic errors in airmanship? In the civilian world, is this not virtually the equivalent of finding the pilots guilty of manslaughter—despite the fact that the fatal accident inquiry could not reach that verdict even on "the balance of probabilities"?

In all honesty, some doubt continues to exist in the minds of many of those who have studied all the issues very closely. In all humanity, the Secretary of State should reopen the RAF board of inquiry and review the verdict.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his mostly dispassionate account of the response. I invite right hon. and hon. Members as they approach this issue to try to do the same. Perhaps once they have gone through my statement in more detail and looked at the fuller account that has been published and made available, they will see the care with which the Ministry of Defence has entirely dispassionately approached this issue.

I hope that my reasoning conforms to the hon. Gentleman's analysis. I have sought to demonstrate that there is no doubt whatsoever. I have done that by very carefully relying on the facts about which there is no substantial dispute. I set them out for the benefit of the House. Perhaps with more time, right hon. and hon. Members will have the opportunity of considering those facts—and they are facts—extremely carefully.

The hon. Gentleman said that every other possible explanation must be disproved. I take issue with him only in that that should be "every other plausible explanation". We are not dealing with explanations that do not stand up. I hope that, when he looks more carefully at my statement and the material in the Library, he will see that each and every explanation has been gone through with a very considerable amount of rigour. Indeed, that was precisely why I specifically asked Boeing again to go through the material that it had made available to the board of inquiry, and to do so from scratch with appropriate care. That report is also available to hon. Members.

The point about honest doubt was simply a reference to the duty placed on the reviewing officers. I was not referring to the burden of proof at that stage. Again, if the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at my statement, he will see that to be so.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Boeing report—I accept that he may not have had the opportunity to do so in detail as yet—he will see that these are not assumptions. These are very carefully worked-through facts arising from a detailed analysis of what took place during that flight.

On evidence and so on, what is important is that we consider the facts of the case and not simply how people may feel. I entirely recognise the obvious, understandable human sympathy. I have spent some considerable time since I was appointed to this office talking to helicopter pilots about the accident. Although there are certainly some who feel betrayed, I must tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that there are others who feel very differently about the matter. So I do not think that the anecdotal experience of helicopter pilots is particularly helpful in these circumstances.

As the hon. Gentleman says—I make no argument with him—the issue is whether there was sufficient evidence. I invite right hon. and hon. Members dispassionately to consider that evidence, which is available in the Library. I hope that they will notice as they analyse my statement today that I have excluded pieces of evidence about which there is some doubt simply in order to rely on the known facts rather than to try to form a hypothesis based on disputed ones. I have consciously and deliberately excluded and not mentioned today pieces of evidence that are largely favourable to the reviewing officers simply because there is some doubt about its reliability. On the basis of evidence and the known facts, I invite right hon. and hon. Members to accept what I have set out to the House today.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State's preliminary remarks about the terrible consequences of the tragic accident for many people? He urged us all to be dispassionate, and so we should be, but I regret that I cannot conceal my disappointment at the nature of his statement to the House of Commons. Nothing that he has said today has shaken my belief that the board of inquiry, in good faith, made an error of judgment and failed to apply the necessary high standard of proof. Its failure led to an injustice that the House ought to put right.

I find it difficult to understand why the Secretary of State should attach so little weight to the views of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the then Secretary of State for Defence, who says that he would not have accepted the findings of the board of inquiry had he known then what he knows now. Can the right hon. Gentleman recall a similar instance in which a former Secretary of State has publicly sought to reverse a difficult decision that he took during his tenure as Secretary of State? I most certainly cannot—it is a unique feature of this matter.

How can the Secretary of State justify ignoring the conclusions of the sheriff, Sir Stephen Young, conscientious to a fault, who presided over the fatal accident inquiry for 16 days, supervised two days of legal submission, and wrote a judgment in excess of 120 pages, but could not accept the Ministry of Defence's explanation of the way in which the accident occurred? How can the Secretary of State fail to accept the conclusions of a Select Committee of the House of Lords chaired by Lord Jauncey, one of Scotland's most eminent judges in recent times? He concluded that the standard of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" was simply not present and did not justify the conclusions of the board of inquiry? Do not those independent, impartial and painstaking conclusions fatally undermine the finding of negligence against those pilots?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who has looked at the issue over a long period of time. I do not in any way take lightly his serious comments, but I hope that he will look at the further report from Boeing and my statement to the House today in considerable detail, as I believe that they will satisfy a number of his concerns.

I invited Sir Malcolm Rifkind to my office when it was clear that the matter would be raised again, and we had a thorough and detailed conversation. I accept that Sir Malcolm is not here to give his side of the story, but his essential point was that were he to look at the case again today he would reach a different view from that which he took at the time. While that is a perfectly proper position, it is not a sufficient reason for disturbing a carefully thought-through finding from the board of inquiry. As I indicated at the outset in my statement, at least 10 Ministers from two different Governments have looked independently and separately at the issue, serving their country and the House of Commons as best they could at the time, and each independently came to the conclusion that the findings of the board of inquiry were justified.

The weighing of evidence, however, from different sources, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and others are undoubtedly seeking, is not necessarily the right approach. The right way is to look objectively at known facts that can be established beyond any reasonable doubt, and to apply the circumstances of the case to those known facts. I simply make it clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Committee in the other place accepted that at the way point change the aircraft was functioning normally. It is also clear that in the last few seconds the aircraft responded to a command from the pilots because it gained ground and hit the Mull in a particular way. It did not hit the Mull head on. It hit the Mull having responded to what was clearly an effort to pull up in time to avoid an impending crash.

In those circumstances, any plausible explanation of what went wrong must satisfy the pretty stiff test of what could have happened in those last 20 seconds that arguably cleared itself by the time the pilots were in a position to take what they tried to take—avoiding action. I should be grateful if right hon. and hon. Members would concentrate on that 20-second period, because it is the crucial period, as members of the Select Committee accepted. They accepted that the aircraft was functioning properly at the way point change.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and accept that it is not an easy duty for him to perform. I respect his attempt to be dispassionate, and his success in that, but it is difficult for me to be dispassionate. Under the previous Government, I was a member of the Defence Committee that decided not to hold an inquiry. I now regret that and I congratulate the House of Lords on holding its inquiry.

When people in our armed forces put their lives in harm's way to defend our country and our democracy, it is fair for them to assume that they have, at the very least, rights equal to those of every other citizen whom they seek to defend—in other words, that the onus of proof is not on the deceased, but on those who say that they were to blame. The onus of proof today, I say with respect to my right hon. Friend, is on him. I have not heard anything in his statement or read anything so far that supports the decision of the Secretary of State to come to the House and support a board of inquiry that consisted of two air marshals against a previous RAF inquiry that found that there were no human failures at all.

Mr. Hoon

If my hon. Friend studies my statement, he will see quite clearly that I accept—and I set it out for the benefit of the House—that it is a question of being able to show that there is no other plausible explanation. I conceded to the House, and I concede again, that if there is another plausible explanation, the test set by the board of inquiry under the relevant rules will not have been satisfied. There is no other plausible explanation.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

This simply will not do, will it? The Secretary of State accepts that he has to rule out all other plausible hypotheses, and in doing so he has to accept that, unless he can disprove something else that is plausible, it is not enough to say that there is no evidence that something did not happen; he has to disprove it. So will the Secretary of State please explain to the House why he personally has absolutely no doubt whatsoever that, for example, neither of the pilots was taken ill during the last two minutes of the flight?

Mr. Hoon

Because, again, as I told the House a few moments ago, having looked carefully at the facts as agreed—so far, none of the facts has been challenged by anyone in the House, although I recognise that everyone must have the opportunity of reading the reports in detail—the issue is what happened in those last 20 seconds or so. The Committee in the other place accepted that, at the way point change, the aircraft was working properly. The evidence is that in the last few seconds, there was a flare—the aircraft was pulled up suddenly in order to avoid what was clearly going to be a crash.

There is no evidence whatsoever of any possible reason why, in between, the pilots were not fully in control of the aircraft. In any event, the point that the right hon. Gentleman overlooks is that the reviewing officers found negligence even before the way point change, given the distances involved, the cloud cover of the Mull, and the altitude at which the aircraft was then flying. The issue is not what happened in the last 20 seconds, although I recognise that if there were any possible explanation, it would enormously help the effort that the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have made to disprove the findings of the board of inquiry. However, I have heard nothing to suggest that that is the case.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I refer to the question that I asked on 19 March at column 244 of Hansard and repeat it: what explanation has been given by the Ministry of Defence as to why it did not tell Malcolm Rifkind that legal proceedings were taking place against Boeing?

Mr. Hoon

I am not in a position to answer that question precisely, as that was obviously a matter for previous Ministers. My hon. Friend will be aware of the rules affecting papers supplied to previous Ministers. In any event, the question of legal proceedings arose out of the testing procedures relating to FADEC. [Interruption.] If my hon. Friend will listen to the answer, I can tell him that the Committee in the other place made it clear that the FADEC issue was not, in its judgment, relevant to anything arising from the causation of the crash.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I commend the Secretary of State for having the courage to come to the House and make a statement about an accident which has understandably caused deep emotion? Is it not the case, however, that in analysing military accidents, or any flying accident, we must be guided only by the truth as the circumstances disclose it? Is it not true that the more one looks into the causes of this accident, the clearer it becomes that the original judgment of the reviewing officers, Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day, was correct? Is it not, prima facie, negligent to fly a serviceable aircraft in instrument meterological conditions in the proximity of high ground? In those circumstances, the finding was entirely correct. I applaud the Secretary of State on this occasion, and, as probably the only person in the House who spent his formative years in military cockpits, I think that most professional people will agree with the judgment that he has given to the House today.

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.

My right hon. Friend said that there had been a painstaking review of the complex technical, legal and airmanship issues raised by the report, and that he had placed the Boeing evidence in the Library. I therefore believe that legal advice will also have been available to him. Will he place that in the Library as well, as it is that aspect that causes many of us the gravest doubt? As he said, in order to secure a judgment of gross negligence, there must be absolutely no doubt whatsoever. This is such a narrow area that it is important that we see what seems to have been the major stumbling block for Jauncey and others. Many of us think that 10 Ministers coming to the same conclusion on the basis of the same advice from the same group of officials is not a source of consolation.

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 am sorry that my hon. Friend chooses to phrase his comments about Ministers in that way; perhaps he will reconsider.

Mr. O'Neill

It is true.

Mr. Hoon

I assure him—I suspect that other Ministers can confirm this—that 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 personally—and other Ministers serving in the Department—have 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 advice—which in any event, as he knows, is not something that any Department publishes—would 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 reports—the fatal accident inquiry, the House of Lords Select Committee report and the Public Accounts Committee report—overruled 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 slur of gross negligence, as well as the inference that, had they lived, the pilots would have been guilty of manslaughter? All that those parents are asking for is to have their sons' names cleared, so what advice can he give to enable them to do that?

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 cause—although not necessarily the sole cause—of the accident." Does not that shift the grounds of the standard of proof from what we had all thought them to be—that 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 report—which is now available to right hon. and hon. Members—specifically 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. Hoon

That is absolutely right. After asking that question, however, the hon. Gentleman must ask himself whether it would be right, once the rules have been changed, for us retrospectively to apply a different standard to events that occurred in the past. He is asking only half the question.

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 Committee—an all-party Committee—considered 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 absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the pilots intended to overfly the cloud-covered Mull"? Is he also telling the House of Commons that, in his view and in the absence of a black box, there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that some mechanical failure had not caused a loss of control of the aircraft"? Is that what the Secretary of State is telling the House of Commons?

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.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

May I say to the Secretary of State and to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that I am glad that this is not a party matter? The Secretary of State has shown evidence that he has approached this with an open mind, that there is no other plausible explanation with any proof attached to it, and that those on both sides of the House who are asking for any implausible explanation to be ruled out by evidence are going far beyond the natural consequences of the decisions that, sadly, the pilots took when they flew that aeroplane in the direction that they did, at the height that they did and at the speed that they did.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I would simply invite right hon. and hon. Members to look carefully at the facts, and to deal with each of them as they are set out in the report that we have made available to Members of the House.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will the Secretary of State take it from me that a large number of us are genuinely sorry—in my case, on behalf of my constituents at Boscombe Down—that a statement has been made this afternoon that changes absolutely nothing? Will he tell me whether he has at any stage discussed this statement and the outcome of his deliberations with the Prime Minister?

Mr. Hoon

The usual discussions have taken place across Government for many years. I come to the House presenting a settled Government view.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Given that a number of independent, qualified and distinguished individuals who have investigated have declined to blame the pilots, and given that it is really rather undesirable for the Ministry of Defence to have the final say, would it not be best to appoint a senior judicial figure to review all the existing evidence and make a report?

Mr. Hoon

That is certainly a possible option, and I would not rule it out. I think, however, that the senior judicial figure would be much better served if new evidence could be added to the existing evidence, because he or she would then have something to deal with.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The right hon. Gentleman's statement was littered with uses of the word "plausible", referring to alternative explanations for the crash. Surely the problem is that what the Secretary of State, the senior reviewing officer and the board of inquiry are inviting us to believe is itself implausible. It is implausible that two pilots who had expressed doubts about the quality of their aircraft should then fly, at such a height and speed, into cloud and into the Mull, with a cargo of such value. There was no data recorder and no voice cockpit recorder, and one of the digital engine control units was destroyed in the crash. Does the Secretary of State accept that he cannot ask us to uphold a wholly implausible view without "absolutely no doubt whatsoever", and that he has not the evidence to sustain that?

Mr. Hoon

Sadly for the hon. Gentleman, the only explanation that fits all the known and agreed facts is the conclusion reached by the board of inquiry: that the pilots flew the aircraft at high speed, low, in contravention of the "visual flight rules", into the Mull. Unfortunately, that is the only explanation that fits the known facts. I wish it were otherwise, but that is the position.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

If the pilots had lived, albeit having done something negligent, would they not have been able to speak in their own defence? Was it not therefore deeply unsatisfactory that under the rules before this incident, deceased pilots could be blamed when they could not speak in their own defence? Is it not a fact that the reason for the belated recognition that that is unsatisfactory is this very case; and is it not a fact that a verdict of this kind could never be reached again as a result of dissatisfaction about what has happened in this very case?

Why does the Secretary of State not reconsider his answer to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), and say that it would be possible to revisit the circumstances and decide that the application of the rules to this case at that time constituted a basic injustice? Surely the revoking of the rules represents a belated acknowledgement that they were unjust when applied to the deceased pilots.

Mr. Hoon

I certainly agree that the two pilots would have been the best witnesses. Part of the tragedy is the fact that they are not available to give us their evidence. Nevertheless, neither the hon. Gentleman nor any other Member should try to avoid the fact that the best evidence is not available on numerous occasions. On such occasions, we must still try to make judgments on the basis of what evidence is available. That, sadly, applies to this case.

The change in the system does not undermine the fact that the reviewing officers and the board of inquiry considered the case in the light of the test and the rules that applied at the time. If the hon. Gentleman applies his perfectly logical reasoning to the situation, he will realise that if that were not the case any single decision made at any tribunal or court in our history could be challenged simply because subsequent generations took a different view of what test should have applied at the time. That would simply not be satisfactory.