HL Deb 22 July 2002 vol 638 cc11-24

3.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, with permission, I should like make a Statement on the crash of Chinook ZD576 on the Mull of Kintyre.

During a routine flight from Aldergrove to Inverness on 2nd 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 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 by aviation and engineering experts but also by at least 10 Ministers from across two governments: from the right honourable Sir Malcolm Rifkind to, most recently, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. Ten Ministers have considered the case. Each new Minister has 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, your Lordships set up a Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Jauncey, 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's report very carefully indeed. We have thoroughly examined the alternative explanations for the crash that were considered by the committee. 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 copies of our response, together with copies of the further work by Boeing, in the Library of this House as well as in the Library of the other place. A number of theories have been put forward to explain the cause of this accident. Each depends on a particular interpretation of the evidence. That is why at the outset I want to try to set out those facts as best I can that are not 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 this into account in planning their route, from Aldergrove to the Mull lighthouse, then on to Corran near Fort William, 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. This way-point was the position where they needed 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 metres of visibility. If during the flight they were unable to do so, then under the rules they would be required either to turn away from the poor conditions or to climb to a safe altitude of 1,000 feet above the height of any known obstacles. 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 hours. We know—from an exchange between the crew and air traffic control—that, at just after 17.46 hours, the aircraft was seven nautical miles from the Aldergrove radio beacon. A number of witnesses reported the aircraft flying low as it headed for the coast. These 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—point89 miles away, at Corran—into the computer. Given their training and experience, the pilots would not have performed this task if they had been experiencing any significant difficulty in handling the aircraft. The Select Committee 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. The lighthouse keeper estimated visibility to be 15 to 20 metres at most.

We know—from the power down recording in the Super TANS system—that the time of initial impact was 17.59 and 36 seconds; giving a total journey time of just under 18 minutes. From these facts we can calculate that the ground speed of the aircraft, from the air traffic control fix to impact, averaged 158 knots. This 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 GPS system and the navigation computer.

We know that the aircraft hit the ground at a height of 810 feet 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 degrees—in the final few seconds of flight. This is shown not only by the physical evidence at the crash site, in particular the alignment of the fuselage; it is also shown 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 and 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 a last desperate attempt to pull away. 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.

These then are the facts which have not been seriously challenged by anyone. What remains at issue is what happened in the last 20 or so seconds 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 Corran while remaining at low level. The Select Committee has accepted that the aircraft was performing satisfactorily up to and including the way-point change. The Committee suggests that, having performed the required deceleration successfully, some catastrophic failure occurred in the last 20 or more seconds of flight. This 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, then 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 prior to 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 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 cause the aircraft to accelerate to the known speed at impact? 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 have been 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, this condition would have had to have remained fixed throughout the significant period required to achieve the acceleration. To achieve these 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.

The Select Committee 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 the controls and would have been detected by the pilots. Moreover, the aircraft would still be controllable. It is not credible that this could have caused the accident. 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 Select Committee accepted that the FADEC system and the trials of the Chinook Mark 2 that 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 any one of them—plausible against what was a 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" involves an even higher standard of proof than that applicable in criminal cases. I am, of course, aware that four of the five members of the Select Committee are distinguished lawyers.

It 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 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 negligence was a causative factor in what happened, they would have failed in their duty if they had not found the pilots 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 safety altitude. The issue is whether at the time 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 therefore 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 should have recognised their perilous position. They should have taken prompt action by flying higher or turning away. The finding of negligence is therefore based on the fact that they failed to take such avoiding action.

This is a very sensitive and emotive case. I recognise that some people would like us to have reached a different conclusion from that of the reviewing officers. 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 probed the alternative hypotheses rigorously to see if there is any other plausible explanation that fits with the facts. And we have agonised over whether there was some way that 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 I have been asked to perform as a Minister.

None the less, 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. And, as I have consistently said before, should new evidence come to light the Secretary of State would be prepared to look at it again. Indeed, it was precisely the possibility of new evidence that led the Government 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.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, we on these Benches are grateful to the Minister for repeating the long and detailed Statement on the tragic crash of the Chinook Helicopter ZD 576, but we very much regret and are disappointed that Her Majesty's Government are unable to provide time for a detailed debate by your Lordships before the Summer Recess. Once again, we on these Benches extend our deepest sympathy to all the families who suffered such tragic loss of life.

I have no intention of covering the facts and detail of the case in this debate. As your Lordships have heard, there are many technical facts in the Statement which need to be analysed carefully. I believe that the right and proper place to do so is when we eventually discuss Her Majesty's Government's response in full debate. However, it may be timely to remind your Lordships that the House of Lords Select Committee which was set up was tasked to consider the justification of those reviewing the conclusions. I repeat that it was tasked to consider the justification of those reviewing the conclusions of the Royal Air Force Board of Inquiry that both pilots of the Chinook helicopter were negligent. The Select Committee was satisfied that on the evidence brought before it and against the standard of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" as required by the Royal Air Force Board of Inquiry rules, the air marshals were not justified in finding that negligence on the part of the pilots caused the crash.

How does the Ministry of Defence justify disagreeing with three other investigations into this matter? 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 to its satisfaction, and on the balance of probabilities, that the cause of the accident was the decision by the crew. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that the verdict of the Royal Air Force Board of Inquiry was unsustainable and should be set aside.

I should like to ask the Minister a few questions. When will a full debate be held to discuss Her Majesty's Government's response to your Lordships' Select Committee report? Will the Minister confirm that the evidence relied upon by the committee in coming to its conclusion was not limited to the evidence that was freshly before it and was not available to the air marshals but that there was other evidence, which it identifies, which led it to the conclusion that it reached? Why does the Ministry of Defence now accept that "no honest doubt" is a sufficient reason to support a finding of gross negligence when the Royal Air Force Board of Inquiry rules require that there should be "no doubt whatsoever" to support a finding of gross negligence? I should be grateful if the Minister will answer those questions in his reply.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Roper

My Lords, from these Benches, we thank the Minister for making this Statement in this House in advance of his noble friend in another place. It was, of course, a response to a Select Committee of this House.

There will no doubt be considerable disappointment among those noble Lords who served on the Select Committee that the Government have been unable to accept the fully argued conclusions in their report earlier this year. We on these Benches wish to join the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, in expressing our considerable sympathy with all the families of those who lost their lives so tragically on this occasion. We can well understand the serious feelings which the fathers of the pilots still hold. That is why this matter is one of continuing concern on these Benches as elsewhere.

It is a detailed analysis and I understand that further material is to be made available to us in the Library. We are grateful to the Minister and the Secretary of State for having spent so much time and care in reviewing the material and attempting to provide the House with a detailed analysis of each of the alternative hypotheses. As the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, said, it is too early to analyse that response in detail today. In the Statement, the Minister drew attention to the committee's observation that the standard of proof was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". A little later he says that no investigation into a serious accident can ever hope to answer every question with absolute certainty. That seems to suggest that the task facing such a board is almost impossible and that in the future the whole procedure will need to be re-examined.

We believe that noble Lords will wish to return to this subject after they have had a chance to study in detail the reply and remarks made today. I am pleased to see the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms on the Bench opposite. I hope that he and the usual channels will be able to arrange a full debate in this House as soon as possible after we return in October. We can then express in detail the views of the House not only on the important report of your Lordships' Select Committee but also the reply today from the Minister.

3.34 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, and the noble Lord, Lord Roper, for their measured remarks today. I am grateful for what they said. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, that we are not repeating a Statement made in another place. Another place will follow us on this occasion—the noble Lord, Lord Roper, mentioned the reason—because a Select Committee of this House has reported. It is only right that a reply is made in this House, whether before or contemporaneously with a Statement in another place.

I understand that the usual channels will decide the date of a debate. That there will be a debate in the autumn has already been stated in this House in clear terms, and I confirm that today from the Dispatch Box. Perhaps I may point out that it is fairly unusual for a Statement to be made at the same time as a response from the Government to a Select Committee's report. The reason that we chose to do so is that we consider it a matter rightly of great import to this House, and a matter with which the House has been engaged for some time. Whatever noble Lords feel about the merits or demerits of what I have said, I hope that the House will accept that we are attempting to show the House some respect in making the Statement. Likewise, the Secretary of State is doing the same today in another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, raised the point about "no honest doubt". We have taken advice from outside government, as one would expect a government department to do in these instances. I make this point also in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Roper. The phrase "no doubt whatsoever" was a very high standard of proof. But it is, or was meant to be, achievable. We are satisfied that this standard was reached in this case as, after detailed examination, every other hypothesis was implausible and the only conclusion that the reviewing officers could reach, therefore, was a controlled flight into terrain.

As regards the details of the response and the extra evidence being made available, I agree with both noble Lords—it is, of course, a matter for noble Lords—that it is best to leave that until our important debate which will take place on another occasion.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I welcome the thrust of the Government's Statement in response to the Select Committee report. The Government have not been persuaded to do a U-turn on the consistent support which has been given for the board of inquiry findings by Ministers of both political parties in both Houses at the Dispatch Box.

Noble Lords may agree that there will be much important detail in the Government's response to the Select Committee and I believe that it will be inappropriate to make snap responses or judgments until the Government's views have been studied. I welcome the opportunity for a debate in October when there will have been time for such study and reflection.

The Minister mentioned the importance of the airmanship aspect of this tragedy. Can he say why he feels that this is such a critical factor in the professional judgment of the board of inquiry and its findings? Does he agree that the attacks in the media and elsewhere outside Parliament on the integrity and professional judgment of the two air marshals are now without foundation and should not be continued?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble and gallant Lord's remarks. I agree with him that the details announced can best be discussed during the debate.

The necessary level of airmanship was important to the rules as they then were. I cite the guide to the consideration of human failings which was attached to the regulations. It states that the duty to take care varies according to the operation being performed and the duty to take a very high degree of care is rightly imposed upon a pilot flying an aircraft or responsible for its maintenance or control. In such circumstances what might be trivial in other fields may, when associated with aircraft operations, amount to negligence. That amounts to severe criticism, but it was the standard that was set.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, said, it is a matter of great regret that this Statement has been made and the response received, leaving no time for a full debate in your Lordships' House. The Minister has promised a debate in the autumn when we shall go into further details of this whole affair.

The Statement is no surprise as it seems to underline the prevalent doctrine of infallibility in the Ministry of Defence. But the conclusion is astonishing. The ministry states that it has studied the report of the House of Lords Select Committee and cannot accept its opinion. That seems to indicate that the Secretary of State for Defence prefers the opinion of two air marshals which, despite what has been said, differed from the original board of inquiry. The Secretary of State prefers to accept their opinion on a verdict of manslaughter. I am not surprised that the noble Lord appears to wince at the word "manslaughter". If someone is found guilty of gross negligence, which leads to the death of 27 people, including himself, manslaughter is a fairly mild word to use. But that is what those young, dead pilots have been found guilty of.

It is odd that that opinion should be preferred over the judgment of a House of Lords Select Committee consisting mainly of legally qualified Peers, presided over by a distinguished former Lord of Appeal, which had all the evidence before it that the air marshals had. The Minister has said nothing new in his Statement today. All that evidence was before the House of Lords Select Committee too. The Ministry of Defence constantly asks for new evidence before it reconsiders its opinion. But, I repeat, the Ministry of Defence has said nothing new since the House of Lords Select Committee reached its conclusion.

This judgment flies in the face of the fatal accident inquiry, which was also held before a distinguished judge in Scotland, the conclusion of the Public Accounts Committee in the other place and the views of the flight operations group of the Royal Aeronautical Society. It also flies in the face of the facts of the matter. To a large extent, many of the statements made to the air marshals were found by the Select Committee to be assumptions, not facts.

What is behind this conclusion? Why is the Ministry of Defence not prepared to accept the view of legally and aeronautically qualified people outside the Ministry of Defence? It prefers instead to rely on the judgment of two senior air force officers who, in their review of the board of inquiry, ignored findings which showed no evidence of human failing on the part of anyone involved in the matter. We shall now have to wait until the autumn to ask and receive answers to many questions that will go much further than the cause of the accident. Many such questions need to be asked about why this conclusion has been reached.

I shall not pose any of those questions now, and I do not expect answers today. There is, however, one question that I should like to put to the Minister. I hope that the House can be given an answer today; it deserves one. Are the Secretary of State and the noble Lord the Minister satisfied beyond any possible doubt whatever that there was gross negligence in this case? I ask not for air staff briefings or official advice, but for the views of the Ministers concerned. Ministers are responsible to Parliament, although that sometimes seems to be forgotten. Are they clear in their minds that there is no possible doubt whatever about the gross negligence of those two young men? We await the debate in the autumn with interest.

If we cannot be assured that the Ministers concerned are themselves satisfied beyond all possible doubt about the finding of gross negligence, I shall be suggesting to your Lordships' House and a wider public that perhaps it would be correct to ignore the response of the Ministry of Defence and that the findings of the House of Lords Select Committee should be regarded as exoneration of the two pilots. In effect, that would be a refusal to accept the view of the Ministry of Defence and the verdict of the two air marshals.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, before my noble friend replies, perhaps I should remind your Lordships that we have only 20 minutes in total to discuss these matters.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I shall come straight to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. Of course we have received advice and are persuaded on these matters. Therefore, the answer to his question is yes. I mentioned specifically in my Statement that that applies to all Ministers who have come to the Ministry of Defence since those tragic events took place. I can give the answer readily today. It is yes.

The response took so long to be published because the Select Committee's report deserved careful study. It rightly took a number of months to be prepared. It was a very detailed report. We felt that the number of opinions that it expressed required further work, especially with regard to the original flight modelling conducted by Boeing, of which there was some criticism in the body of the report. Inevitably such work takes time, but it was important that the best possible advice was obtained to inform our response to the House. Of course it would have been preferable to publish it sooner and debate the issues before the Summer Recess, but we published it as soon as we could and are—unusually—making Statements about it in both Houses.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I join the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, in welcoming the detailed Statement made by the Minister. It is an issue of enormous pain for the families of the pilots and all the families of the victims of the crash. I really do not know why the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, is making remarks from a sedentary position.

I remember the shock on hearing of the crash when I was abroad and not being able to find out from the initial media reports how many friends I might have had on board the Chinook. I have followed in great detail what has transpired since then in relation to the crash. For all of the bereaved, the wounds have been opened again and again.

I have a couple of questions for my noble friend—that is all that one can do when responding to a Statement. Does my noble friend agree that the absolutely indisputable facts are that the Chinook was in a wrong and dangerous position, which in the event resulted in the crash; that the MoD has looked at all possible explanations why the Chinook was in the position; and that, all other possibilities having been eliminated, responsibility has to lie with the pilots?

I understand very well the desire for a debate in this House; of course there will be one. I put it to noble Lords that perhaps the time is approaching when a line should be drawn and the wounds of bereavement allowed to start to heal.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her comments and I shall try to answer her questions. Yes, it is right that the finding of the air marshals is based on the fact that the Chinook, which was obviously still under pilot control, found itself in a highly dangerous position. In a nutshell, that is precisely the case.

Lord Ackner

My Lords—

Lord Tebbit

My Lords—

Lord Hooson

My Lords, as a member of the Select Committee—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we should hear first from the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and then from the noble Lord, Lord Hooson.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, what was the hypothesis that persuaded the Minister that two highly experienced pilots, judged suitable to fly this most important group of people, should suddenly take leave of their senses and commit an error of airmanship so basic that if a student pilot were to attempt to do it, his instructor would stop him and probably fail him on the spot?

Secondly, did the Minister read the recent newspaper reports that the Ministry of Defence is inclined to argue that the failures of the SA-80 rifle are because the Marines who are trained to use it could not do so properly?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I do not intend to attempt to answer the second question, which has absolutely nothing to do with today's very serious Statement. However, the noble Lord's first question is entirely proper. The answer is that even the most distinguished airmen—these were fine pilots—can make serious errors. They do not always, thank goodness, end up in the kind of tragedy that we are discussing today, eight years later.

I shall explain briefly how I came to the view that I expressed earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. When the pilots were some 700 or 800 yards away from the way-point change, they were about one kilometre away from the coast. If they were below cloud, could see one kilometre ahead and were flying legally (they were under visual flight rules), it was negligent—here I rely to some extent on the script of the Select Committee's hearings, which I have read carefully, as I know the noble Lord will have done—that they did not start such a turn when they first made visual contact with the cliff. However, they flew on for another eight or nine seconds before the way-point change. That is the first alternative. The only other alternative is that at some point earlier than one kilometre away from the cliff, they went into cloud, either voluntarily or involuntarily. In those conditions, they should without doubt have taken immediate action to outclimb the Mull of Kintyre by carrying out an emergency low-level abort and, once established in that climb, turning away to the left. They did neither. I remind the noble Lord that it is clear that at the time of the way-point change, the aircraft was fully serviceable.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, as a member of the Select Committee, I have only one question for the Minister. As I understood him, he said that the Government have taken outside advice. Was the advice legal or technical? Before we have a debate in this House on the subject, will he identify from whom that advice came?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that the advice was from outside government and that it was both technical—from Boeing—and legal. I shall have to consider carefully whether to tell the noble Lord at this stage who supplied that legal advice. He and the House can take it from me that it was from an extremely distinguished Queen's Counsel.

I take this opportunity—I have not done so previously—to thank the noble Lord and all the others who played their part in the committee for the incredibly long hours and the huge amount of work that they put in on this very vexed subject. Although the Select Committee will be unhappy—if not worse—at our conclusions, the Government are genuinely grateful for what they did.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I find—

Lord Ackner

My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, very briefly, it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I forbear making any comment on the report. I confine myself to simple questions. First, the Minister accepts, I understand, that the air marshals had only very limited authority to find the airmen guilty. That was because the relevant words are "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". My central questions are these. Nowhere in their judgments did the air marshals recognise that vital limitation on the lawful exercise of that power. If the Minister does not agree, perhaps he will identify where it is so stated. Finally, nowhere in their judgment did the air marshals expressly or implicitly claim that they had "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that the deceased airmen—or one of them—Were guilty of negligence. If the Minister does not agree, will he please identify what was the relevant statement in this regard?

Lord Bach

My Lords, of course the standard was very high indeed, but it was, as I said earlier, achievable. Indeed, it had been achieved on previous occasions. I am afraid that I do not have immediately available before me the answers to the questions of the noble and learned Lord, and I shall not waste the House's time looking them up. I promise to write to him in very short order.

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