HC Deb 14 July 2004 vol 423 cc1516-24

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

7.2 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

I represent a constituency in which the RAF is greatly valued and respected. Indeed, we have been trying to persuade Ministers that they are making a serious and expensive mistake in planning to move most of RAF Boulmer's activities down to Lincolnshire. It is also an area in which a great deal of low-flying training takes place, and although most of my constituents accept that we have to take our share of the disturbance caused by low-flying fast jets, it gives rise to a fair amount of concern and correspondence. I would like the burden to be more fairly distributed and, if possible, reduced.

Low-flying area 12, which covers Northumberland, is one of the most intensive areas in the country for low-flying. It surrounds Newcastle airport, which is an increasingly busy and successful airport for both scheduled and charter flights. That is a potentially a lethal mix. A bulletin from the air accidents investigation branch in May on the dangers that have arisen makes chilling reading, and refers to the potential for large-scale loss of life if new procedures are not put in place to eliminate near misses and collisions over the north-east of Britain.

I shall revert to the AAIB bulletin later. I am seeking, through the debate, to get absolutely clear answers and assurances that the safety recommendations made in it have been fully implemented. First, I want to consider the recent history of accidents and near misses and the measures taken, unsuccessfully, to try to prevent further incidents. I shall refer to only some of the incidents that have occurred.

In December 1998, a low-flying RAF Harrier came within 100 ft of a civilian helicopter over Northumberland. In July 1999, a Harrier crashed in my constituency while avoiding collision with another military aircraft on an unconnected navigation exercise flight. In October 1999, an RAF Tornado crashed in Northumberland with the loss of two crew. Minutes earlier, it had been in an air proximity incident with a Boeing 737 flying out of Newcastle airport. In March 2000, there was a near miss involving an RAF Tornado and a passenger aircraft near Alnwick. The passenger aircraft was a Shorts 360 with 11 passengers inbound to Newcastle from Aberdeen. Newcastle air traffic controllers had warned the civil aircraft of the danger posed by unidentified, fast-moving military traffic. However, they had no means of warning the RAF pilots, who communicate on separate radio frequencies. On the advice of the controllers, the civil aircraft had changed course to avoid possible conflict with the Tornado, but a subsequent change of course by the military aircraft brought them back into conflict.

Following that incident, I tabled a parliamentary question, which led the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), to reply that the CAA is working closely with airspace users and Newcastle Airport, as a matter of urgency, on a whole range of initiatives aimed at preventing such conflicts in the future."—[Official Report, 25 April 2001; Vol. 367, c. 274W.] Those measures did not, however, prevent a further potential conflict involving a Boeing 737 and a military jet in February 2001, or an incident in July 2001 in which a military jet came within 500 ft of a passenger plane heading into Newcastle from Oslo.

In April 2002, I tabled further questions and received a reply from the junior Defence Minister referring to further measures. These included the fitting of secondary transponders to military aircraft on exercise and arrangements for major exercises, including a temporary buffer zone and the presence of a military liaison officer in Newcastle air traffic control. Those arrangements were put in place only during major exercises. The Ministry of Defence and the Civil Aviation Authority were, however, satisfied that there was no need to change the airspace arrangements around Newcastle. Within days of that parliamentary answer, a Dash aircraft leaving Newcastle for Norway with 16 passengers on board was the subject of a practice interception by two Sea Harriers. They did not realise their mistake until they came within visual range and passed within 3,450 ft, with only 100 ft of height separation.

Less than three months later, a civil transport plane heading into Newcastle came within 100 ft of an RAF Jaguar. The Avro crew heard a jet engine noise and the flight officer in the right-hand seat saw the Jaguar "in a flash", passing underneath while in a steep climb. The investigating board described this as one of the most serious Airproxes it had seen. RAF Strike Command said that "a robust directive" had been sent to all fast-jet pilots to ensure that a similar occurrence could not happen again, and that a draft amendment to military flying regulations had been raised.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story. Two incidents in June 2003 involved aircraft flying from Teesside to Amsterdam and Aberdeen. On 1 October 2003, there was an alleged infringement of Newcastle controlled airspace by a military aircraft west of Newcastle, which necessitated avoiding action by an Airbus 319. In February this year, there was a very serious incident involving a helicopter and a Tornado in class G airspace in the Aberdeen area. The crew of the helicopter suddenly became aware of a roaring noise and severe turbulence. The commander grabbed the controls and looked across the cockpit to the left in time to see the co-pilot's windscreen and quarter light filled with what he believed to be the rear section of a Tornado aircraft in a steeply banked turn at a range of 50 ft.

In May 2004, the air accidents investigation branch, in bulletin 5/2004, drew together these most recent incidents with others, and reached some very worrying conclusions. I shall quote from this analysis, which refers to the potential risks involved when CAT aircraft"— that is, civil aircraft— and military aircraft operate concurrently in the same unregulated airspace, especially when the controller has no communication or control over the manoeuvres of the military traffic and when providing a minimal radar service, ie, a RIS. In the general area where this incident occurred, there is a high level of military activity and limited lower altitude … controlled airspace for CAT aircraft operating between the regional airports in the north-east of the UK and northern Europe. Whilst there are military regulations in place designed to avoid Airprox events"— such as the one in April 2002— this incident highlights the difficulty of always ensuring compliance with such regulations. The obvious possible solutions are to require military traffic to operate under a radar service, to deny CAT aircraft access to areas of known military activity or to increase the regulated airspace. Either of the first two options, while providing a high level of safety, would be restrictive to both types of operation. An increase in the provision of regulated airspace from regional airports in the north-east of England would seem to offer the optimum solution for the safety of CAT aircraft, but this would be at the expense of the available airspace in one of the few large scale training areas in which military aircraft operate in the UK.

We know that that last concern has led to the MOD resisting the expansion of controlled airspace or protected zones in the past.

The AAIB went on to say, referring to north-east Britain, including both Northumberland and the Aberdeen area: CAT/military Airproxes continue to occur in this area despite the procedures, monitoring and airspace changes that have been put in place in an attempt to prevent such incidents. The fact that collisions did not result from the circumstances of two extremely serious events of July 2002 and February 2004, with what would have been an inevitable loss of life, was extremely fortuitous. I come now to the specific recommendations, and I want to hear the Ministry of Defence's response to each of them. First, safety recommendation 2002–55 states: The Civil Aviation authority should re-examine the airspace categorisation, procedures and services currently available to Civil Air Transport aircraft which operate through unregulated airspace associated with regional airports in the north-east of the UK, with the aim of ensuring that a level of protection is afforded to such aircraft from military aircraft such that airprox events are avoided. The impact of any potential changes to the available unregulated airspace used by military aircraft should be minimised as far as possible". What has been the result of that re-examination, and what has the MOD done to provide that protection?

Secondly, safety recommendation 2003–53 states: The Ministry of Defence should review the operation of military aircraft in the unregulated airspace around the north-east of the UK, including the conduct of practice interceptions of targets, to ensure that procedures in use and the equipment fitted to military aircraft assure adequate separation of military aircraft from Civil Air Transport aircraft which operates concurrently through unregulated airspace in the region. What changes have been made to procedures? Are all military aircraft fitted with the necessary equipment if they operate in those areas?

Thirdly, safety recommendation 2004–21 states: The concurrent use of unregulated airspace by both CAT and military aircraft in the north-east of the UK, should be reviewed jointly at the highest level by the CAA and MoD with the aim of eliminating Airproxes and potential collisions, with likely large scale loss of life"— those are the words of the AAIB— between Civil Air Transport and military aircraft. What has been the result of that review, and what changes have been made in MOD practice as a consequence?

Those are the key questions to which I want to hear answers tonight. Those were the recommendations of a highly responsible and expert body, which reflect detailed analysis of a long series of alarming incidents and of the failure of previous measures to prevent further incidents. They are expressed in unusually strong and dramatic language for a report of this sort.

Finally, the time has come for a wider review of low-flying training, the need for it, the amount that is required, the areas over which it is carried out, and the ways in which it is monitored. It is increasingly common for those who complain to me about the extent of low flying over Northumberland to include people who have recently retired from the RAF and other armed services. When they write to me, they often ask whether there is as great a need for low flying by fast jets as there used to be, and they draw attention to the fact that it is a skill that has not been used much, if at all, in recent conflicts.

Surely it is time that the case for this large-scale training investment was tested. If the case remains sufficiently strong, a review should consider how its impact on the areas where it is most intensively carried out can be lessened. If such a review is initiated, as I believe that it should be, it may lead to reductions, which will reduce the risk of dangerous interaction with civilian aircraft. That risk exists now, however, and the measures demanded by the AAIB in its bulletin of May this year need to be acted on urgently. They cannot wait for a wider review of low flying, even if the Government agree to one.

The travelling public, the people of the areas over which collisions can take place, such as Northumberland, and the civilian and military aircrew on whose skills we depend, are all entitled to have those questions answered.

7.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on becoming a grandfather for the first time. I hope that mother, baby and grandparents are doing well. I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for providing the opportunity for a debate that I consider very important and pertinent.

I can assure the House that in military aviation matters, safety is paramount. I therefore welcome the opportunity to address the points raised, and I hope I can add some balance to the rather alarming picture that the right hon. Gentleman painted. I welcome his support for the Royal Air Force, of which he has been a consistent supporter in the House, but I am afraid he will have to wait a little longer to hear of any decisions that might affect RAF Boulmer.

Our obligation to those on the ground, as well as to our aircrew, ensures that we remain very aware of the risks of military flying, and flight safety remains the Ministry's highest priority. We strive to reduce any risks to the absolute minimum, and there are stringent regulations to safeguard both the general public and our own aircrew.

I acknowledge recent concerns that have been expressed about flight safety over the north-east, largely arising from the air accidents investigation branch report that was published in May, and to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The report conflated a number of incidents that have occurred during the last three years or so. The Ministry of Defence actively participates in the United Kingdom Airprox Board, and carefully considers all its recommendations. However, we must recognise that the area has seen significant growth in commercial aviation using Northumbrian airspace, both gaining access to Newcastle and other regional airports and in transit between the north and the south of the country. That has inevitably increased airspace congestion, and problems are likely to be exacerbated by the increasing use of uncontrolled airspace by commercial aviation. The diverse nature of operations within uncontrolled airspace means that the concept of eliminating all airproxes, while a laudable aim, is unrealistic in practice.

The Ministry of Defence meets the Civil Aviation Authority regularly, at senior levels, to discuss the use of uncontrolled airspace, with particular emphasis on areas in the north-east of the United Kingdom. The major focus of every meeting is the maintenance or enhancement of safety standards, and ensuring that airspace is available for use by both military and civilian operators, with procedures to enable everyone to use the airspace safely.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what measures the Ministry of Defence was taking in response to a number of safety recommendations that he cited. Let me give some examples. In response to safety recommendation 2002–55, measures were introduced in March last year to increase the controlled airspace between Manchester and Newcastle airports. Further adjustments to the controlled airspace around Newcastle were also made, which has given additional protection to civil aviation. More enhancements are anticipated as a result, and we believe that that will ultimately increase the safety of commercial aircraft in the Newcastle area.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned safety recommendation 2004–21. The Civil Aviation Authority has initiated a review of overall airspace arrangements in the north-east. I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence will be fully involved in the work, and that the first meeting will be held next month. This will build on the work already accomplished in concert with our partners.

The Ministry of Defence reviewed procedures immediately after the issue of the safety recommendation, which it partly accepts. I can say that the operation of military aircraft in uncontrolled airspace is kept under constant review in conjunction with the Civil Aviation Authority; but the right hon. Gentleman will recall that the UK Airprox Board assessed the incident to which he referred as one in which no risk of collision existed".

Mr. Beith

Can the Minister clarify why the Ministry of Defence only "partly" accepts that important safety recommendation?

Mr. Caplin

We are still examining the issues with the CAA, which is why I used the word "partly". I undertake to keep the right hon. Gentleman up to date with progress made on the safety recommendations following this evening's debate.

I can assure the House that all aspects of flight safety are kept under continuous review, and that there are many ongoing initiatives. For example, we have made the use of a transponder mandatory at low level for all our aircraft; that will make them visible to the collision warning systems that are fitted to airliners and to many helicopters. The use of transponders will also improve the ability of air traffic control radars to see our aircraft, and a programme to make our aircraft more visually conspicuous to others is virtually complete. All RAF aircraft operating at low level are now fitted with highintensity strobe lights, and all Hawk aircraft are fitted with forward-facing, high-power lamp assemblies. The high visibility black and yellow paint scheme used on our training aircraft has proved extremely effective, and we are conducting trials to improve further the visibility of helicopters through the use of coloured rotor blades.

We continue to pursue technical solutions to improving safety at low level. Although the technology used in the collision warning systems fitted to commercial airliners has not proved suitable for use in highly manoeuvrable fast jets, we are investing in a programme to develop and fit a collision warning system to the Tornado. Where commercial collision warning systems have proved suitable, as with the Hercules C130J, they have been fitted. We have also carried out a very successful trial of a commercial system with the Tucano training aircraft.

More generally, through the ShAirspace initiative the MOD and the United Kingdom Flight Safety Committee have developed a regional forum for discussion between the military aviation community and civilian operators such as airports, airlines and flying schools. These forums have been highly successful, giving aviation users an opportunity to exchange ideas and views, as participants of the forum held in Durham last October will doubtless agree. They will continue; indeed, my officials will arrange for the next forum to be held shortly.

The MOD of course maintains excellent relations with the management of Newcastle airport, who, along with the CAA, meet MOD officials formally every six months. The right hon. Gentleman will be interested to learn that today, a military liaison officer briefed the airport's air traffic controllers about the details of a military exercise that occurred earlier today. It has become standard practice for the MOD to provide a liaison officer for any large air exercise that occurs in the north-east.

We also seek to engage with local authorities that raise concerns about low-flying military aircraft. A joint presentation by the airport and the MOD to an inter-authority low flying working group last year was very successful, and it forms a basis for future co-operation. A further inter-authority working group event is being organised for the autumn, and the MOD is committed to supporting this initiative.

Our armed forces are highly valued and respected around the world for their professionalism and skill. We as a nation continue to expect them to be ready to defend our interests, and those of our allies, anywhere in an unstable, unpredictable world, and often at short notice. They have distinguished themselves time and again, and they are able to do so because they are highly trained. The House will doubtless agree that such levels of proficiency are not reached overnight: they are the culmination of years of training, and military aircrew, like all other elements of the armed forces, need to train.

One aspect of aircrew training is the ability to fly aircraft at low level, which is acknowledged as being a demanding but essential skill. I accept that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, such flying is not always required for military operations, but military commanders must be confident that if they need to deploy aircraft at low level, they can do so.

Low flying remains a vital element in our armoury of tactics. Flying low and at speed, aircrew use the contours of the earth to screen themselves from sophisticated radar systems, fighter aircraft, missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. But low flying is a skill that may also be used extensively in humanitarian relief operations and by helicopters undertaking search and rescue tasks. Whatever the task, aircrew must train to be able to carry it out.

I have said that low flying is a specialised skill: it is also a perishable skill and requires regular practice. It cannot be learned in an emergency, so rigorous training in a realistic environment is essential. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that maximum use is now made of simulators, but they can only complement the reality of low flying—although we do, of course, continue to monitor carefully modern advances in simulator technology to assess the scope for their future use.

The United Kingdom low-flying system comprises the open airspace of the whole of the UK and the surrounding over-sea areas from the surface up to 2,000 ft above ground level. Helicopters are generally permitted to operate to 100 ft, but may be authorised to operate to ground level for certain tasks and 250 ft is the lower limit for fixed-wing aircraft undertaking routine low-flying training—although they may fly much lower during operations. Training above 500 ft is of little value because, as height increases, the training value for this vital skill degrades rapidly.

In addition to the routine low-level flying, a very small amount of fixed-wing low flying down to 100 ft is permitted in three specially designated tactical training areas situated in the borders, northern Scotland and central Wales. The borders tactical training area, low flying area 20 Tango. includes part of the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. The amount of that activity, called operational low flying, is limited to that which is absolutely necessary and is spread across three special areas proportionate to their size. It represents less than 2 per cent. of all low-flying training.

Mr. Beith

I should like to point out briefly that one of our worries is that the main incidents have not been in the special areas, the 50 ft areas or, indeed, during the major military exercises when special measures are laid on. It is in the general run of low flying that the problems have arisen.

Mr. Caplin

I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but he made a number of comments about the overall pattern of low flying and I am trying to put the whole thing into context in response to what he said.

The undulating terrain of the north-east of England, largely an area referred to as low flying area 12, which also includes part of the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, offers valuable training, as it contains some of the most challenging terrain for aircrew. In addition, a number of training facilities are situated within and close to Northumberland. Aircraft from the many airbases situated on the east side of the country—or, indeed, some NATO allies—fly over the north-east or transit through to low-flying areas in Scotland. That is necessary because of the built-up areas and controlled airspace in the midlands, Yorkshire and other parts of the north-east over which they cannot fly. They must also avoid conflicting with other military activity at Leeming, Linton-on-Ouse, Dishforth and Topcliffe.

We understand that military low-flying training can be intrusive to people on the ground, perhaps particularly in those rural, less densely populated areas that experience more low flying than their urban neighbours. We implement various measures to minimise disturbance as far as practicable. Accordingly, the amount of low flying that does take place is limited to that which is strictly necessary for aircrew to achieve and maintain operational effectiveness. Let me reassure the House that we continually assess our requirement for such training.

In support of our aim to achieve a better balance between the need to train in the air and respect the sensitivities of those on the ground, most fast-jet low flying takes place during the daylight hours of weekdays. Public holidays are avoided, as are weekends as far as possible, although some activity may be permitted, mainly in support of reserve forces that are unavailable for training during the week. Night low flying is required to be completed as soon as possible in the evenings and it is rare for jet aircraft to be permitted to operate after 11 pm.

I am determined that we will continue to be aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of the public. Any issue that is raised with me, or direct with my officials, is taken very seriously indeed. Individual RAF stations are at pains to explain their activities to their local communities, and they have community relations officers on their staff available to talk to members of the public. In addition, three regional community relations officers serve the communities remote from air stations in Wales, southern Scotland, and Cumbria and Tynedale. They are the focal point for military low flying issues in their respective areas, and members of the public in those areas may direct any matter, inquiry or complaint to them.

Next week, I intend to make a written statement to the House presenting the figures to be published in the annual statement on the pattern of military low flying. I hope that the details will go some way to assuaging the anxieties of the right hon. Gentleman, in that the amount of low flying generally continues to decrease. I will ensure that he gets a copy of the statement.

The Ministry of Defence is not complacent when it comes to safety. It is of paramount importance to us. I hope that I have reassured the right hon. Gentleman that we have measures in place to reduce risk, and that we are actively engaging with others to implement further measures.

The maintenance of the skill of low flying is an essential military requirement. We manage low flying training so as to ensure the safety of those in the air and on the ground, and to take account of the sensitivities of those living in rural areas. We will never attain the ideal of distributing all low flying training across the UK on a totally equitable basis, but we aim to learn by events and to take account of lessons learned in our planning for the future.

In conclusion, I hope that today's debate reassures the right hon. Gentleman, his constituents and the House about the action that we are taking on this very important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eight o'clock.