HL Deb 18 July 2000 vol 615 cc772-4

3 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any doubts about the cause of the accident involving helicopter ZD576 on the Mull of Kintyre on 2nd June 1994.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the investigation into this tragic accident was very thorough. It involved the independent Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the aircraft components manufacturers, as well as MoD specialists. All possible causes were examined, but no evidence of technical malfunctioning was found. The RAF board of inquiry did establish that the Chinook was travelling too fast and too low and, crucially, outside both visual and instrument flight rules. However, I assure the noble Lord, that Her Majesty's Government are ready to consider any new evidence; but, without such new evidence, it is very difficult to justify reopening the inquiry.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I was going to thank the Minister for her Answer, but my Question has not been answered. The facts that the noble Baroness just gave to the House are well known. The question is whether there is any doubt. Is the Minister aware—indeed, will she accept—that the regulations of the Royal Air Force that were in force at the time of the accident required that, in order to find dead pilots guilty of gross negligence—I quote from the regulations—there must be "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" about the cause of the accident? That is why I tabled this Question. I should be grateful to receive an Answer.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, knows, I am aware of the regulations; indeed, we have discussed them in your Lordships' House before. Moreover, I hope that the noble Lord will not mind me telling the House that both he and I have also discussed the matter privately. I must point out to the noble Lord that, under the regulations, it is the reviewing officers who must be in no doubt. Ministers, properly, are not a part of that process. Those who investigated the accident at the most senior level examined literally hundreds of pages of evidence. They had the expertise to make the judgment and were in no doubt about their conclusion.

If the noble Lord presses me personally, he knows—I have already said it, so I will say it again—that I find his Question philosophically impossible to answer. However, I can tell him that I believe that I have been honestly briefed. Sadly, I also believe that the conclusions of the board of inquiry were right.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, before being released into service, this aircraft was fully checked out and properly tested?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can confirm that the aircraft was serviceable. The noble Lord may be thinking of an incident that occurred some years before in relation to the FADEC system, which has been the cause of some concern not only in your Lordships' House but also elsewhere. I must say that the FADEC software, which was the subject of litigation, was software in a test aircraft that was a preproduction version. It was comprehensively re-designed prior to the introduction of the Mark 2 Chinook into service in 1994. I hope that that covers the noble Lord's point.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does it give the Minister any cause for concern that the Secretary of State at the time, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, now thinks that there ought to be another look at this accident and at the findings of the inquiry?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that I have had enormous concerns over this matter. Indeed, I do not believe that anyone with a conscience, knowing what is at stake for the families of the two pilots involved, would have anything other than concern. But Sir Malcolm expressed his concern some two-and-half years ago when he said that he and Ministers in his administration might not have been fully briefed about certain aspects of the crash. The MoD's Permanent Secretary wrote to him at that time and invited him to come back into the department, if he wished, to refresh his memory. I understand that Sir Malcolm did not repeat those concerns when he met the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary last month.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I do not doubt that those who have consistently sought to have the findings of negligence set aside in this most tragic of accidents do so for the most honourable of reasons. But, is it not the case that the board faced a choice between two presumptions? Either the crew were able to follow one of the safe options as they approached the cloud-covered Mull, but failed to do so and were negligent; or the crew could not maintain safe flight because they faced an unidentifiable emergency so serious that they could not discharge their primary responsibility for the safety of their passengers and the helicopter but which left no trace of having happened? Can the noble Baroness confirm that there is no new evidence that could affect the key conclusion of the board that the crew did have control of the aircraft up to the point of impact?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for putting the position so clearly and, if I may say so, from a position of unique authority on these issues. I can tell the House that I have not seen any new evidence that would prompt us to revisit the conclusions of the board of inquiry. However, that is not to say that no such new evidence exists. I fully accept that. That is why I cannot answer the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in the unambiguous terms that he is pressing me to do.

However, I can tell the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that I am able to repeat an offer that was made only last week by MoD officials to the father of one of the pilots involved. If there are serious doubts still remaining, the evidence should be collected together as one body of evidence—if it is new evidence that those who are concerned believe they have—and presented to the MoD. As the Prime Minister has said, the MoD will analyse such evidence thoroughly with, I hope, a degree of compassion, given what I know is the real concern of the families involved, and will provide as full a response as possible.