HC Deb 27 June 2000 vol 352 cc155-76WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

10 am

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I wish to speak on a matter of some importance, and I am somewhat dismayed to note that a Minister is not yet here to reply. I hope that a Minister will attend and listen to what is said, rather than simply reading a prepared text.

This is not a party political issue. It is a time not for recrimination, but for common sense and justice. The incident occurred on the watch of one Government and must be dealt with on that of another. That is why I, as an hon. Member without a party, have the privilege of making the case for action by the Ministry of Defence. [Interruption.] I am delighted to see that the Minister has now joined us.

On 2 June 1994, the RAF Chinook helicopter ZD576 crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, killing all 29 people on board, most of whom were Army and police intelligence officers based in Northern Ireland. Why they were travelling together in one aircraft, and thereby presenting a potential target for sabotage, is another issue. The crash was the worst peacetime accident in RAF history, and inquiries were begun immediately. The helicopter was not carrying a black box recorder, and the only evidence was in the thousands of pieces of wreckage lying on the hillside.

The Scottish fatal accident inquiry said that the cause of the crash could not be determined, and the RAF board of inquiry concluded that the most probable cause was the crew's selecting an inappropriate rate of climb for safe overflight of the mull. However, it also concluded that there were many potential causes of the accident, and was "unable to determine" a definite cause. Because they were dead, the two pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, were not represented at the inquiry, and nor were their families. That was how the rules stood in those days.

The report was couched in terms of probabilities, rather than the certainties or near certainties that are required to sustain a verdict of gross negligence. The rules in force at that time stated that only in cases in which there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever should deceased aircrew be found negligent. However, two air marshals, Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day—the senior officer responsible for Chinooks—had the authority to overrule the verdict of the board of inquiry, and accused the pilots of "gross negligence" in not obeying helicopter flying rules. Sir William, who has now retired, has not changed his mind. Two weeks ago, he wrote in The Sunday Times: we stand by every word we wrote.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I am grateful to the very honourable Gentleman and commend him for securing today's debate. However, I must apologise to him and other hon. Members—I am unable to attend the entire debate because I am chairing this morning's sitting of the Finance Bill Standing Committee, which begins at 10.30 am.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in overruling the board of inquiry, the reviewing officers ignited a torch that has burnt vividly, and which has been fuelled by disinformation and the changing and progressively evasive attitude of the Ministry of Defence? That attitude has resulted in 90 signatures on an early-day motion, 60 letters to Ministers, 500 articles published in prominent newspapers and magazines in less than two years, and 100 reports on television and radio. Does the hon. Gentleman also agree, and will he impress on the Minister, that the torch of inquiry that has been fuelled by the disinformation and evasive tactics of the Ministry of Defence can be extinguished only by truth and openness?

Mr. Bell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—he makes some sound points. Some people should be searching their consciences because, as I shall explain, this issue will not go away. It will remain until it is satisfactorily resolved.

The air marshals stood by what they wrote, but many people were disturbed by the ruling, and their doubts have increased as the years have passed. They include former and serving officers of the RAF, people with expertise in the flying characteristics of the Chinook, and, of course, the families of the two dead pilots—outstandingly well qualified young men, both cleared for special forces operations, who stood accused of killing 27 others. The verdict was close to manslaughter, or worse.

Ever since the verdict, the families, led by Michael Tapper, father of Jonathan Tapper, and John Cook, father of Rick Cook, have been campaigning to have it set aside. It dishonours their sons and is, in my view, unsafe. Concerns have been expressed by a growing number of parliamentarians and others, joined together in the newly-formed Mull of Kintyre group under the excellent chairmanship of Lord Chalfont. They include senior members of the House of Lords and of this House. I am delighted to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber today.

In the past year, 89 Members of Parliament signed an early-day motion, proposed by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), calling on the Government to reopen the board of inquiry. Only last week, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the inquiry, went to see the Secretary of State for Defence to express his concerns about the massive uncertainty surrounding the case. That was a highly unusual turn of events, and I hope that its meaning was not lost on the Secretary of State and other Defence Ministers, including the Minister who is here today.

So far, the demand for a reopening of the inquiry has been stonewalled by the Ministry, on the grounds that there is no new evidence. I hope that the Minister will not repeat that argument today, because it is unsustainable. A mass of new evidence has come to light that undermines the verdict against the pilots, including the evidence of two accidents in the United State involving the same type of Chinook. That evidence was not available to the RAF's board of inquiry, because the accidents had not then happened.

The first accident took place in 1996. A US army Chinook crashed in Kentucky, killing all five crew members. Accident investigators ruled out technical malfunction and blamed the crew. However, a subsequent investigation revealed that a technical malfunction had been overlooked. The families successfully sued Boeing for more than $4 million. At this point, I should say that we are talking not about litigation, but about natural justice. The case showed that investigators can make mistakes.

The second case, which occurred in 1997 near Corpus Christi in Texas, was equally disturbing, although it involved a crash that, mercifully, did not happen. A Chinook was being flown by four experienced crew in clear weather. At 1,100 ft, it suddenly and inexplicably flipped upside down. What happened next is best described by one of the pilots, Pat Nield, in his own words: The aircraft was tracked really smooth: it flew better than anything I'd ever flown out of Corpus. I was looking down at the map when I felt the nose pitch down, and I got a bit of a shudder. I looked up and saw that the airspeed had picked up…the nose pitched up and continued to yaw really strong. At this point I knew things were really bad. All of a sudden, the aircraft just snapped over, it felt like it went upside down. Maps were flying everywhere. I went ahead and got on the controls, but nothing would bite … I couldn't see inside the aircraft because everything was shaking too much. There was lots of noise, lots of vibration. At about 250 ft above the ground, the pilots managed to wrestle back control of the aircraft and brought it safely down. Despite eyewitness accounts and months of investigation, the cause of the incident was never found. I ask hon. Members: if the crew had not regained control and had been killed in the resulting crash, who would have defended them against the charge of pilot error, or of gross negligence, in the absence of proof of a technical malfunction? What is the mindset in such cases—"blame the dead"?

In The Sunday Times last Sunday, John Nichol, a Gulf war hero and RAF navigator for 15 years, described a similar incident. A Tornado in which he was flying malfunctioned on take-off, but responded just seconds from disaster. He asked: If I had not been so fortunate on the day my aircraft did something it shouldn't, I wonder who would be defending my reputation now. That is the whole point. We have here a grave situation—which denies natural justice, and is of concern to all aircrew—in which pilots are presumed to be guilty unless proven innocent.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The hon. Gentleman is discussing technical concerns about the Chinook. Does he agree that his argument is enhanced by the work that has been carried out by many aeronautical experts, including my constituent, Captain Ralph Kohn, who is a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society?

Mr. Bell

I am indeed aware of that. I shall discuss expert testimony later.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

During the hon. Gentleman's powerful speech, he referred to other people's concerns. Contemporaries of the two pilots thought that they were very competent pilots, and share the concern on the grounds that, as they might put it, "There, but for the grace of God, go we."

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, but I should add that, shortly before the flight, one of the two pilots expressed concern about the condition of the aircraft in question.

The incident over Corpus Christi was an extreme case of what is called a UFCM—an uncommanded flying control movement—which occurs when, in effect, an aircraft takes on a life of its own and defies all the actions of its pilots. During the past seven months, with the crash of Chinook ZD576 in mind, I have set out on a patient paperchase and tabled many written questions to the Ministry of Defence about UFCMs. On 8 December 1999, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he would list the incidents of UFCMs that were reported by RAF pilots since 1994 and break them down by helicopter type. The list of such movements in Chinooks is revealing and the numbers are eloquent. There were six in 1994, five in 1995, six in 1996, five in 1997, seven in 1998 and six up to the relevant date in 1999. There is a steady pattern, which suggests something disturbing and mysterious. There have been 35 incidents in all, the cause of six of which was never found.

On 28 January 2000, I tabled a written question asking whether the air accidents investigation branch, which acted as the technical adviser to the RAF board of inquiry, had considered and…ruled out the possibility of an uncommanded flying control movement, that left no trace as having occurred prior to the fatal crash of RAF Chinook ZD576.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 28 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 384W.] The Minister for the Armed Forces said that he would answer my question in a letter that he would place in the Library. That letter said: The possibilities of pre-impact systems jam or detachment of control pallet inserts were not positively dismissible—The Board could not dismiss other possible causes of a control restriction…but the most probable flight path of the aircraft indicated that the controls were functioning at impact…and the Board of Inquiry concluded that the most probable cause of the accident was that the crew selected an inappropriate rate of climb. I draw the attention of hon. Members and the Minister to the language that is used by the board of inquiry. It is the language of probabilities. That language is not sufficient to sustain the verdict of gross negligence to which the air marshals put their names. I do not know them personally, and I have no doubt that they are honourable men, but why they departed from the safer area of probabilities to the less defensible ground of certainty or near certainty that is required for a conviction—make no mistake about it, a verdict of gross negligence involves a conviction —remains a mystery to me and to many others; hence the campaign, the unease among the families and hon. Members, the Mull of Kintyre group and this Adjournment debate.

I have seen an internal MOD memorandum advising that the best answer to my questions, and to other questions about the verdict of gross negligence, is the fact that, prior to the crash, no messages or signals indicating that there was an emergency on the Chinook were sent. My answer to that suggestion is that, as with the Kentucky and Corpus Christi incidents, no such messages would have been sent. The pilots would have been too busy fighting to regain control during the very few seconds that were available. It was literally a matter of life and death.

Most hon. Members, including myself, are laymen in these matters—we acknowledge that. However, the beginning of wisdom is to know how much one does not know. We pay heed to the experts, and our doubts were reinforced earlier this year in a report by three fellows of the Royal Aeronautical Society, who concluded that the verdict of pilot negligence in the case of the Mull of Kintyre crash was not sustainable in light of evidence that pointed to other problems that might have caused it. Air Marshals Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day resigned from the society, accusing it of bias and failure to publish relevant and balanced information. The case has shaken, and continues to shake, the aviation and aeronautical establishments and, I do not doubt, the Royal Air Force. The reputation of the air marshals is at stake and both men have served the state, but the pilots also served their country, with no less dedication, in the short time that fate allowed them.

I shall be brief. One of my other and, so far, unsuccessful campaigns is for shorter speeches and I want other hon. Members to have an opportunity to contribute. Before I finish, I have an interest to declare. With the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), whom I am delighted to see in his place, I am a patron of the Association of Air Force Wives. That admirable organisation, which operates regardless of rank, acts as a channel between the Royal Air Force and its families and helps the RAF to work better. It deals mainly with welfare matters but has a wider role in its involvement in the RAF's exercise of its duty of care. It is important not only to serving men and women, especially aircrew, but to RAF families. When bad things happen—as they do from time to time, because that is the way of the world—it ensures that matters are dealt with fairly, equitably, severely if necessary, but without prejudice. That applies especially in this case and as much to the dead as to the living—perhaps more to the dead, because they are not here to make the case for themselves. It is up to us to do that for them.

To those who argue that the Royal Air Force has better things to do with its time than to reopen an inquiry into a crash that happened six years ago, I would say that it has not, and that perhaps this case matters more than anything else. The way in which it is dealt with will tell all of us, especially serving aircrew, a great deal about the meaning of the duty of care in today's expeditionary Royal Air Force in the new millennium.

Repeated representations to the Ministry of Defence have been met with a blanket and unworthy refusal to reconsider. The argument is that the crash of ZD576 happened such a long time ago that the issue is time-expired and there is nothing more to be said about it. However, it is not time-expired and there is a great deal more to be said about it.

This is a matter of principle, honour and natural justice, which is never time-expired. It is not a commodity with a shelf life. It is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The board of inquiry should be reopened with a view to setting aside the verdict of gross negligence. I know that I speak for all members of the Mull of Kintyre group in insisting that the matter does not go away, because our swords will not sleep in our hands until it is properly dealt with.

10.17 am
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate, which I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) on securing. It concerns a matter so serious that it will return to haunt us again and again until it has been properly resolved.

I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that the appalling tragedy occurred in my constituency. On that fateful evening on 2 June 1994, a Chinook helicopter crashed into the Mull of Kintyre, killing all on board—25 passengers, Ulster's most senior intelligence personnel, and four crew. The pilots were highly experienced, having flown many hours in Chinook helicopters.

At the time, I was in close contact not only with the local emergency services but with the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Jeremy Hanley, who promised a full inquiry. Not only was it necessary to try to establish the cause of the accident, but, in the immediate aftermath, the question was being asked why so many experts—the cream of Ulster intelligence—were crammed into one aircraft. We were subsequently told that that was not a departure from standard practice.

It was thought locally at the time that the helicopter might have been heading for Machrihanish RAF station because the normal flight path north to Inverness and Fort George would have been over the water following the west coast of Scotland. Why, therefore, did it not turn left as it would usually have done? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) has also subsequently pursued the matter in the interests of justice.

It is not for me to rehearse all the technical details, but many questions remain unanswered. Was there an equipment failure? Were the pilots unable to manoeuvre the machine? Why was it flying so low? The weather does not appear to have been a crucial factor. I and my constituents remain deeply troubled that, in the absence of eye-witnesses to the crash, accident data and cockpit voice recorders, and despite the conclusions of the RAF's internal inquiry, which did not attribute blame, and the sheriff at the fatal accident inquiry in Paisley, which cleared both pilots of blame, the final verdict was, extraordinarily, that both pilots had been negligent to a gross degree. We were stunned.

The heather is now beginning to grow again on the scorched hillside where the memorial cairn stands. However, the scars on that hillside will never completely disappear, and the pain of the families and friends of the pilots will remain until this shameful and sorry affair is corrected. The verdict is a serious miscarriage of justice. The bottom line is that there is no proof positive that the pilots were negligent. So many people—experts, lay people, and my constituents who mourned deeply with the relatives—believe that the verdict, the accusation, is unsafe and should be withdrawn forthwith. I hope that the Ministry of Defence and the Minister—a considerate, thinking person—will look at the matter again. If they do withdraw the verdict, they will be highly commended and congratulated on doing so.

10.22 am
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I shall let hon. Members into a not-too-well-guarded secret. When I spoke yesterday to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell)—1 learned from a previous intervention that he is a very honourable gentleman, and I would certainly subscribe to that—he said that he intended to speak for 17 minutes. Not only did he do that, he also took all interventions. He has said that he is running a campaign for shorter speeches, and within his 17 minutes plus interventions he has covered practically all the ground that the rest of us might wish to touch on.

I wish to make a single point. There is a fundamental difference between the position of those of us contributing to the debate and the unfortunate position in which my hon. Friend the Minister finds himself. We are disputing the Ministry's finding that there was gross negligence on the part of the pilots. To win, we need only establish doubt in one area, however small. The Government, given the position that they have adopted, to which I shall return in a moment, have to refute everything put forward. They cannot concede any of the doubts that people raise. They are, therefore, in the position in which the country found itself in the inter-war period, when poor old Stanley Baldwin said to the nation, "The bomber will get through". As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton said, this campaign will get through: doubt will be established to a degree that the judgment must be overturned.

The Ministry of Defence put forward three technical arguments in an attempt to shore up its position. It says that, if one examines the simulation model that the manufacturer constructed for all those who wished to observe it, one can conclude that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft itself. However, the simulation model assumed that the pilots were in control, and doubt has already been cast on that. It ignores what we know from the wreckage about the position of the rudder, it ignores what we know about the intercom being switched off, when it was assumed that it was switched on, and it ignores the huge surge that occurs in these engines some of the time. When the Ministry of Defence did its own simulation, it did not do it on a Chinook model, nor did it even use a twin-motor helicopter. Therefore, there is at least a question mark over the safety of the plane.

What about the software—the FADEC system? We now know, although the inquiry did not know at the time—it found differently from the Ministry of Defence judgment—that the Ministry of Defence was suing the software suppliers. Does that not suggest that only someone very foolish or with much to hide would continue to maintain the position held by the Ministry of Defence?

What about the tactical air navigation system? There is a dispute about whether it was switched on. Whether on or off, we know that it was not much good in detecting where the crash had taken place.

The Ministry of Defence depends on those three areas of technical information in rebutting the simplest of questions: is there not enough doubt to overthrow the Ministry's decision? Those three technical areas look pretty shaky to me, a layman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton referred to the problems with the Chinook reported since the crash, and to the difficulties that pilots have had in flying it. In one example the pilot thought that the aircraft had turned 180 deg. The one thing that my hon. Friend may have missed saying was that, when the pilots got that aircraft safely back to base, no one could account for that extraordinary manoeuvre. As he said, had it crashed, there would have been an all-too-easy answer to put forward in the public debate.

We come to the extraordinary role being played by Sir William Wratten in the public debate in selecting information that is good for his cause, while accusing us of doing exactly the same. That brings me back to the point that I wish to contribute to the debate. If we merely want to establish doubt, selecting information is what we are about. Only if one is in what I regard as the impossible position of saying that there is not reasonable doubt here can one not be caught in the game of selecting information to support one's case.

Of course, the Ministry is up against it with the crash, which was the worst in peacetime. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) said that the plane was carrying some of the crown jewels of our security services, so one can imagine the horror back at base when what had occurred was reported, but that still does not account for the Ministry of Defence's stance.

At the moment, our campaign is focused narrowly on having an injustice rectified. However, what the Ministry must realise is that the longer the campaign goes on, the more serious the questions raised about the Ministry itself will be. We must ask whether Ministers would be able to overturn the decision, even if they wanted to, given the stance taken by senior officials in the Department. My experiences as a Minister do not rank with the seriousness of the matter, but departmental culture and the civil service hierarchy can lead such officials to take positions that thwart the wishes of Ministers.

Soon after the election, I asked the Department of Social Security to carry out a survey of fraud relating to family credit, a benefit that we were about to lose to the Treasury. In the 14 weeks towards the end of my period in Government, during which I had responsibility for dealing with fraud, I insisted that the benefit inquiry be undertaken. Not so long ago, I learned in this Chamber that, as soon as I had ceased to be Minister, papers went out to the Minister who succeeded me, and the decision was overthrown. I do not think for one moment that the Minister who succeeded me knew that the decision that he had made overthrew mine, but the Department was determined that the review should not take place, and it has not taken place.

Compared with what we are discussing today, that is an unimportant matter, but the Government should feel uneasy. We are coming to the end of the beginning of our campaign to have this decision overturned. The longer our campaign continues, the more serious it will become. It will move from a simple matter of rectifying a gross injustice to the more fundamental question of how Departments of State can operate against elected Ministers. If we do not win on the crucial point of natural justice soon, the campaign will fan out to the bigger issue. In that scenario, there will be some big losers.

10.32 am
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I support the moves made by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) to raise this issue. I was in the Ministry of Defence, as special adviser to the Secretary of State, when the crash happened. Since the general election in 1997, I have been on the Defence Committee and have supported my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) in the efforts that they and the hon. Member for Tatton have made to have the issue reopened.

The more I have examined the issue, the clearer it has become that the judgment of the Royal Air Force's board of inquiry and of the two senior officers concerned turns on the issue of doubt. At the fatal accident inquiry, the sheriff found that he could not, on the balance of probabilities, find the pilots guilty of negligence. The criminal standard of proof—beyond reasonable doubt—was not used, so in effect that represents a criminal conviction hanging over the pilots' reputation, as the hon. Member for Tatton said. The RAF's regulations stipulate that there should be "no doubt whatsoever" if dead pilots are to be found guilty of gross negligence. The evidence simply does not stack up. The verdict cannot reasonably be sustained.

How did we get into such a position? As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, we need produce only one interpretation of events that is realistic, or even possible, for that verdict to fall. A most experienced Chinook pilot, Squadron Leader Bob Burke, who has taken a prolonged interest in the matter, has described a scenario that would fit the description of the drama that may have occurred on the aircraft as it approached the Mull of Kintyre, and the reason why it did not turn to follow the sea route to Inverness, as expected. He said that seats in the Chinooks are dampened to work against the vibrations of the aircraft; if there is an on-board emergency, the dampening reinforces the bouncing motion, which makes control of the aircraft much more difficult. The hon. Member for Tatton said that the same thing had happened in an accident in the United States.

Reference was made to the Ministry of Defence briefing note, which stated that one reason for rebutting the views of those of us who have doubts about the accident was that no emergency signals were given. I understand that the IFF—identification friend or foe—setting was within one digit of the code used to signal an emergency on the aircraft; that is a small piece of evidence to rebut the Ministry of Defence position.

I want to examine the influences on Air Marshal Day and Air Marshal Wratten that led to their taking what now seems an extraordinary decision to overturn the verdict of the wing commander who conducted the board of inquiry and fly in the face of the evidence before them—in effect, to gainsay the sheriff who conducted the fatal accident inquiry. The first influence is the appalling embarrassment of the Royal Air Force being involved in an accident that killed the prime movers in internal security in Northern Ireland, which was a disaster for those operations. The second influence is the informal reputation of the special focus flight of the Royal Air Force—pilots who fly at the "full envelope" of their experience and ability. My experience is informal and entirely subjective, but their reputation when I was in the Army was that they were the best pilots. We would get them to do more for us than other pilots flying helicopters in the services because of their unique ability.

Perhaps it was thought that a lesson had to be learnt, that the culture in the SF flight had to be curbed, and it would be done on the back of the verdict. That may have been in the back of the air marshals' mind, but it would have been an unfair lesson if the verdict had been used for that purpose.

There is also the problem that if the pilots were not responsible, the focus would be on the management of the Chinook fleet. The Royal Air Force management was taking proper command decisions about the operational employment of the Chinook fleet at the time. There was the enormous difficulty of sending aircraft to Boeing to be upgraded from Chinook 1 to Chinook 2. There were all sorts of problems involved in bringing Chinook 2 into the fleet. There was thus an operational shortage of Chinook aircraft available for service on operations in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. I believe that the fleet was being flown with an acceptance of risk that those responsible would not have accepted in other circumstances. The decisions taken were entirely proper operational decisions.

There has to be a balance of risk in such circumstances, and if the helicopter is not working at its optimum but is still needed on operations in Bosnia, a decision has to be taken whether to use it. In my judgment, the proper decision was taken. If a small amount of risk has been accepted and an accident happens, one is faced with a problem. It takes a brave person to turn round and say, "Well, we knew we were managing this risk, but we accepted it, knowing that there were difficulties with how the Chinook 2 fleet was being brought into operation in the Royal Air Force."

I make those few points, which are based on my experience, simply to suggest why the air marshals may have arrived at their decision. One must accept the point that Air Marshal Wratten made in another inquiry. As I understand it, he refused to accept the verdict of gross negligence by a pilot in a single-seater aircraft, because he might have had an epileptic fit before he flew his aircraft into the side of a cliff. That is the standard of proof that he requires in such judgments. However, he says in this case that he was unable to find any explanation except gross negligence. That simply does not stack up. In this case, a verdict of "no doubt whatsoever" cannot be established.

The Ministry of Defence is understandably anxious to support the RAF chain of command. Of course Ministers do not want to let down air marshals who have put themselves in an exposed position. Perhaps it is to Ministers' credit that their initial reaction is to try to find ways of supporting the chain of command and discipline within the Royal Air Force. However, the verdict of "no doubt whatsoever" is simply not sustainable in this case, and it is time to reconsider it.

10.41 am
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) on securing this debate. I am sorry that I missed his remarks because I was delayed. However, I have a rough idea of what has been said, as a number of hon. Members have been pursuing the issue for some time. When I first raised it in February 1997, in a debate on the RAF, I took the trouble of warning the relevant Minister that I planned to do so and I expected a reasonably full reply. To say that I was rather annoyed when I did not receive such a reply on the night of the debate is an understatement.

Those days are gone. Now we receive replies whenever we want them, and no end of briefings. In recent years, the Ministry of Defence has not been slow to make its case.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

This is an unusual intervention. As the Minister who gave the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) that reply in 1997, I want to take this opportunity to apologise to him. I was wrong to give an inadequate reply and in the stance that I took as a Minister. A gross injustice has been committed and it must be put right.

Mr. O'Neill

I am grateful for that intervention. It takes a great deal of political courage to make such a statement, and I appreciate it. I was not making cheap capital out of the issue, although I was rather annoyed at the time. I imagine that it is not easy for people to move from government to opposition. They must reflect on decisions to which they were party that they subsequently felt were wrong. It is significant that so many former Ministers think differently on this issue now that they have left office.

I shall not cover the technical details again, because we have already had the "too fast, too low, in bad weather" debate. Those issues have been addressed. The question of "no doubt whatsoever" must be the starting point.

There was some disquiet on the part of the Tapper family about what a fatal accident inquiry involved, whether a Scottish sheriff was like an English high sheriff and so on. I first became interested in the issue because of Mr. Tapper's concerns. I was able to allay the family's fears and I think that there was a sigh of relief when the FAI result came out. When they discovered the somersault that was done in the MOD following the board of inquiry, there was not just disquiet but anger. However, perhaps we have occasionally focused unduly on the plight of the two pilots and not thought enough about the two other service personnel who lost their lives, to say nothing of the 25 other people who were lost.

This morning, it was said that the incident was the biggest peacetime accident in RAF history. I do not agree that the accident took place in peacetime. We were in the middle of a war, and some of the most valuable assets involved in that war died as a result of the accident. At the time, most of us assumed that terrorist sabotage was involved. Thankfully, no such attack was shown to have taken place. It is significant that our debate takes place the day after the ground-breaking evidence about the armaments cache of the IRA was provided to the investigation team. Yesterday's evidence justifies the belief that that war may have ended. We no longer live in circumstances that could be regarded as war.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said that when the RAF's resources were placed under strain, judgments had to be made and equipment had to be employed even though the RAF was not 100 per cent. certain about its safety, if the risks were calculable and the chance of fatalities was assumed to be minimal. As I understand it, those harsh judgments must be made in times of such stress. That supplies a context for some of the decisions and the reactions of some of the personnel involved.

I do not question the probity of the individuals who took the decisions, but I associate myself with the criticisms of opinions presented as facts. Such criticisms have been made repeatedly in the columns of respectable journals such as Computer Weekly, which went to great lengths to examine the software debate.

I have always been uneasy about the decision. I am not in a position to say whether those men were innocent, and I cannot say that there is no doubt whatever. However, I think that we should reopen the issue and start an independent inquiry that is acceptable to all concerned.

For a long time, some felt that we should not rake over the coals again, because an inquiry would unduly distress the families of the 25 security personnel, disquiet those of the two other service personnel, and at best reach a verdict that was merely satisfactory to the families of Mr. Cook and Mr. Tapper. Those days are past. We are now hearing from several families who want to find out once and for all why their loved ones died and whether anyone was responsible.

The Government must take a step of the character that the Opposition Chief Whip showed this morning. I support the Government, and some of my closest and oldest friends have been responsible for laying out their case. I have had passionate and occasionally distressing arguments with some Ministers, but not with my good friend the Under-Secretary. My fierce arguments about the issue with previous incumbents have given me no pleasure.

The security argument that if this incident had been shown to be the fault of the RAF, it would have been a propaganda coup for the IRA, or the forces of terrorism in Northern Ireland, no longer applies. There was also an argument that, if it had been shown to be caused by narrow procurement considerations—the availability of kit, the expenditure on defence— people could have made great political capital out of that. Those issues are no longer relevant.

We must return to the fundamental point that a great deal more evidence has emerged since the decision was handed down by the air marshals. I am sure that the Minister will attempt to discredit some, if not all, of that evidence. Time will probably prevent him from dealing with it all. However, it is fair to say that the evidence must be looked at dispassionately. Too many people in the Ministry of Defence have a vested interest in continuing to rubbish the evidence without adequate examination. Such examination can be afforded only by a full, open, credible inquiry. The form of inquiry that was held behind closed doors at the MOD is now a thing of the past. The families concerned would now have access to legal representation and there would be a proper weighing of the evidence by people other than those who take the final decision. That was not available at the time of the inquiry, and it should be available now.

I urge the Government to consider carefully the possibility of setting up an inquiry that would enjoy the confidence of the families of all concerned, of service personnel and, indeed, of the air marshals, whose credibility would be put on the line. The wealth of evidence that has emerged since the original decision demands reconsideration, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look sympathetically at this issue.

10.52 am
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) on securing it. This important subject has raised a great deal of concern among Members of Parliament as well as outside the House.

The concern relates to whether this is a case of the top brass in the armed services trying to divert blame from themselves, for their faults, on to those who, sadly, are no longer in a position to defend themselves. There are considerable worries that that might be behind the failure to reopen the inquiry.

My interest in the case first arose from a Public Accounts Committee hearing following a National Audit Office report on the way in which new military software and hardware was brought into use following its development. A large part of that hearing related to the Chinook accident. People outside this Chamber might think that they have identified the cause of this tragic accident as pilot error, but no one in this debate has suggested that the cause has yet been properly identified. I say that because I do not believe that it has been identified in any direction. I am not going to suggest that the cause has been identified as a technical malfunction. Everyone has accepted that it is at least possible that the cause was pilot error. However, the point is that there is no proof either way. A high degree of doubt still exists as to the real cause, and I want to concentrate on one significant aspect of that doubt.

The FADEC system—fully automated digital electronic control system—was introduced as a new engine control system in Chinook. The way in which that system was tested is of interest for today's debate. The system was to be tested by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency based at Boscombe Down, which gave a contract to EDS-Scicon to look at the software. EDS-Scicon decided to use a system of testing known as static code analysis. Having tried to test the code by that method for some time, once those in the EDS-Scicon team had got through about 18 per cent. of the code they gave up. At one point they said that they were so concerned about the safety implications of their findings that they would stop testing and raise their concerns immediately with Hawker Siddeley, even though they had got only a short way through it. Later on they said that there was an unquantifiable risk associated with the unverifiable nature of FADEC software. They concluded that the rewriting of that software was—I use the word advisedly—"essential". When one is told that the tests on one's software have shown that its rewriting is essential, one can accept that suggestion, go through a rewrite and try to improve it; or one can do what the MOD did, which was to say that the testing method was unacceptable and use an alternative method.

Having seen that the static code analysis threw up a huge number of problems, the MOD decided instead to go in for dynamic testing of the code. It put the code through 70,000 hours of dynamic testing and, when that failed to throw up any problems, said that that proved that FADEC was a safe system for introduction. Since then, I understand that it has gone through over 100,000 hours of operational use, and the MOD is still saying that it has shown up no problems.

Those figures may sound large—testing a computer programme for several thousand hours without showing up any errors—but we have recently all become aware of a problem in the air traffic control system, which apparently showed up a fault in the software for the first time after 20 years. Those of us who have been involved in writing or analysing computer programmes know only too well that sometimes it takes a long time for a bug to show up and that sometimes circumstances occur so infrequently that a failure in the programme takes a long time to come to light. Therefore, the suggestion that the dynamic testing of this system over some 200,000 hours is sufficient to prove beyond all doubt that the system is safe in all circumstances seems a ludicrous exaggeration. The MOD should certainly take that into account in considering this sad accident.

The MOD's argument is that there has been no other FADEC-related failure and that, therefore, it must be a safe system. However, just before its meeting, the Public Accounts Committee was privileged to receive a letter from three members of the Select Committee on Defence, in which they made the following points. They say that after the Chinook Mk 2 was brought into operational service in November 1993 pilots experienced serious FADEC-related problems. Engines would cut out or suddenly run out of control. Sometimes these problems left no trace. The members of the Defence Committee quoted from an internal MOD memo, dated 11 January 1995, in which Captain Brougham of the Procurement Executive stated that the Chinook Mk 2 suffered from a series of problems…many of which were traced eventually back to software design and systems integration problems. Indeed, according to the letter from the members of Committee, the board of inquiry concluded: Nevertheless, an unforeseen technical malfunction, which would not necessarily have left any physical evidence, remained a possibility and could not be ruled out. I do not suggest that any of that proves that FADEC was the cause of the accident. Sadly, we will probably never know whether that was so. Equally, however, we cannot say that FADEC was not the cause of the accident.

The issue is not simply a technical one concerning computer software, but one of fairness and justice. What happened is a travesty of justice, and the matter must not be left where it is. That would be grossly unfair—not only to the two pilots concerned, but, almost more importantly, to their families. The inquiry must be reopened.

11.1 am

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

We are not here today to question the honour or integrity of air marshals, nor are we discussing money or compensation. This is about natural justice, future morale in the Royal Air Force and a particular failure of Government. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) on securing this important debate.

I was surprised by Air Marshal Sir William Wratten's article in The Sunday Times of 18 June. He stated: we stand by every word we wrote in reaching the judgment we did. He then demolished his own case by saying: there is inevitably a degree of speculation as to the precise details of the events prior to impact.

He also said: Why they elected to ignore the safe options open to them and pursue the one imposing the ultimate danger, we shall never know. But that is all that we are saying. The RAF's own rules state that there must be "no doubt whatsoever"—a higher standard of proof than that required for murder.

Sir William also wrote: The evidence taken by the board of inquiry with witnesses under oath, cannot now be replaced by hypotheses. Yet that is precisely what he and Air Marshal Day did when they overturned the verdict of the board of inquiry and substituted their own judgment. The air marshals have never explained why they did that—not even at the countless briefings that were given to some of us, and which they clearly found so laborious.

That is one of the many reasons why the board of inquiry should be reopened. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie). He has to hold the line maintained by his predecessors and others—including the previous Secretary of State, Lord Robertson, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), the hon. Members for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), Lord Gilbert and Baroness Symons. The members of the Mull of Kintyre group represent a greater continuity of interest and experience in this matter than current Ministers or most of the officials concerned. We intend to stay put for some time yet.

The Chinook crash verdict has all the hallmarks of a miscarriage of justice. Opposition Members believe that it should be overturned, or, if that is not technically and legally possible, that a new inquiry should be established. In the end, the Prime Minister will have to square up to this matter. Whatever Defence Ministers say, either an independent inquiry should be held now, or the verdict should be overturned. Otherwise, the issue will rumble on with claim and counter-claim, which will undermine RAF morale for years to come.

Like the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), I too, as a Minister, have come up against the departmental culture and the civil servants who are the guardians of policy. Ministers come and go, but civil servants go on for ever. That is a great strength of the British system of government, but it can also be a great weakness. That weakness has been recognised by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was Secretary of State at the time, by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) who today gave a brave speech, and by Lord Trefgarne, who was also a Minister in the MOD. I, too have an interest in this matter—the reputation of Boscombe Down, where aircraft testing and evaluation are carried out, has been impugned.

Every time more evidence is produced, the MOD says either that it is not new or that it is irrelevant. The official line is to adopt a stonewalling position, but that is untenable. Sir Malcolm Rifkind said on "Channel 4 News" on 13 October 1999 that it was an error of judgment not to tell the fatal accident inquiry about the EDS-Scicon report, the 3 June Boscombe Down memorandum, which grounded the Chinook fleet, or the Textron case. I entirely agree. As recently as 19 June, on the "Today" programme, Sir William Wratten said: We can never know precisely what happened. Exactly so.

There are still some 38 Chinooks flying. No one suggests that they are unsafe aircraft, but it concerns me that the majority of them are still to be fitted with cockpit voice recorders or accident data recorders, which were promised for the fleet some years ago and mentioned in the Defence Committee's report. On 18 November 1997, I asked the Minister for the Armed Forces how the programme was going. I was told: The equipment will be fitted to the first 6 aircraft by December 1998, and embodied on the rest of the fleet by late Spring 2000.—[Official Report, 18 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 153.] On 19 May 1999, I asked where we had got to in this regard, and the Minister for the Armed Forces referred me to a letter from Sir Robert Walmsley, which stated: We now plan on having the first six helicopters fitted by late November this year. The plan to fit the remainder of the Chinook fleet by the end of 2000, remains as previously advised.—[Official Report, 19 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 345.] On 1 February, Baroness Park of Monmouth asked in the other place how things were getting along. She was told by Baroness Symons: Cockpit Voice and Flight Data Recorders have now been fitted to four of the RAF Chinook Mark 2/2a Fleet … This reflects the six-week period required to fit and test each aircraft.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 June 2000; Vol. 614, c. 51W.] Most of the RAF's Chinooks have not been fitted with that equipment. What is the latest position?

Much has been made of the Defence Committee's report on the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre, which was published on 13 May 1998. It has subsequently become clear that the Committee was misled—unintentionally, I am sure—on at least five, if not six, major points. Nevertheless, events have moved on and new evidence has appeared. That is important—we should not simply let the matter run, and people should not continue to believe that what the Defence Committee was told was beyond doubt. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for drawing attention to the fact that members of the Defence Committee are fully aware of that.

The many technical arguments that have been used, not least in the press, are at least as important as the moral arguments. They point to doubt in this context. In the case of the Chinook that crashed, there was no flight data recorder, no cockpit voice recorder, no radar trace, no emergency call and no information from the wreckage that showed for certain how the aircraft was performing on its flight path on the approach to the mull. However, the decision was taken to blame the pilots and thereby to exonerate the equipment. From little more than two pieces of information—a waypoint changed in respect of an unknown position and a height reading, also taken in respect of an unknown position— and in the absence of clear contradictory information, the MOD said that the aircraft was under control and travelling in a straight line directly towards the mull. Officials have made much of computer simulations, but they provided clues about the last three or four seconds only, and assumed that the aircraft was under control until that point.

The main issue is whether the pilots flew into the mull compulsorily or voluntarily, and no one can answer that on the basis of the wreckage. What is known is that the helicopter's FADEC engine control software had a history of problems, and some of the most serious design flaws were not drawn to the attention of accident investigators. In conducting its formal inquiry, the air accidents investigation branch relied on the assistance of FADEC's manufacturers, and was unaware that the Ministry of Defence was suing the manufacturers at the time of the crash for failing to show a duty of care in the design, development and testing of FADEC.

Those and many other concerns have not been addressed satisfactorily, and we are alarmed by the many incorrect statements that were made at various times.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Mr. Brian Trubshaw, the Concorde experimental pilot, who is a constituent of mine, wrote to me on 12 October 1999. The letter, a copy of which I sent to the Ministry of Defence, refers to the Chinook crash in the United States in 1996. It states: Subsequent investigation found electrical failure and the pilots were cleared of blame. Boeing settled for $4 million. The Minister— that is the Minister for the Armed Forces— also makes no reference to Boeing's admittance that all Chinooks flying between 1992 and 1996 were subject to power problems due to salt water seepage, ZD576 flew over a lot of salt water. It is clear that technical doubts exist about this particular Chinook.

Mr. Key

Of course, my hon. Friend is right and I am grateful to him, because he has saved me the need to go into further technical detail. Surely we have established beyond reasonable question that doubt, at least, surrounds the matter.

Why does this issue continue to matter to serving RAF personnel and their families? If you are in any doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you need only read the personal testimonies of service men in the RAF, and I shall quote from one or two. The first states: After serving in the RAF myself for 12 years, I can't believe that the Government, MoD and RAF have ruined the reputations of a flight crew and their families in this manner. It makes me angry to think that the time I spent in the service of my country was for nothing…current service personnel and their families serving the country are apparently doing their "bit" for nothing. Another e-mail states: As a former Flight Lt who served at RAF Aldergrove at the time of the crash, I most certainly support your campaign to have the pilots names cleared…the techniques of half-truths employed by the MoD in this case came as no surprise. This issue really does matter. According to one submission to the military pilots' internet site, it may have been pilot error, it may have been something else. Until we know for sure what happened we can not blame the crew. A sad decision that reflects badly on both the Minister— of the day— and those who advise him. RAF Odiham's Chinook Wokka website is very good, but if one turns to the Links page, one discovers that the official RAF Odiham site has been deleted. Why has it been deleted?

What is the way forward? In the other place, Lord Jacobs asked the Government a number of questions. He asked whether the deceased pilots could be found guilty of gross negligence if the inquiry were reopened under current rules, and if not, why not. The Minister of State, Baroness Symons, replied: The terms under which the inquiry may be re-opened, in the event that new evidence came to light which justified that course, would need to be considered at that time.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 June 2000; Vol. 614, c. 29W.] It seems that the Ministry of Defence is not closing the door on this inquiry.

There is one other clue to the way forward. William Tench, who was chief inspector of the Civil Aviation Authority in 1986, was commissioned in the late 1980s by Lord Trefgarne to review the procedures pertaining to service boards of inquiry. His report was never published, but it was critical of the process and stated: involvement of some Station Commanders, Air Officer Commanding's Staff Officers and even the Commander-in-Chief, is an unwelcome intrusion upon what should be the complete independence of the Board of Inquiry. The relevance to ZD576 is that both air marshals concerned were involved in the introduction of the Mk 2 into service and some believe that their independence was compromised from the start.

I hope that the Minister will now agree to publish the Tench report. It would be possible to reopen the inquiry. The Secretary of State recently wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and stated: The power to convene, or re-open a Board of Inquiry may be exercised by any two members of the Air Force Board of Defence Council—of which I am a member. The other 10 members include Air Marshal Day and the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Warley.

I believe that the answer lies in Ministers' hands. There is no technical reason why they cannot reopen the inquiry and, in the interests of the dead pilots and of the future morale of Royal Air Force personnel and their families, those Ministers should now do so.

11.15 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

May I apologise to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) for my inadvertent discourtesy in arriving late, and for the absence abroad on departmental business of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who would otherwise have responded to the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and others who have contributed to it. As we pass the sixth anniversary of the tragic crash on the Mull of Kintyre, the matter continues to attract attention. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's sincerity and the measured and thoughtful way in which he made his points.

Much has been said and written about the accident over the years, often reflecting the unswerving determination of the fathers of the two dead pilots to clear their sons' names. None of us can feel anything but sympathy for them and their families. Equally, we remember the families of the other 27 people who died in that crash on 2 June 1994.

The hon. Member for Tatton and others raised a number of issues and I shall do my best to respond to them. I hope that he will forgive me if I say that none of them is new. Sadly, some of the reporting in the media about this accident has not reflected the profession's high standard of regard for proof and accuracy to which he subscribed with such distinction over the years. I want to take the opportunity to correct some of the inaccuracies.

The circumstances of the crash, as established by the Royal Air Force board of inquiry are as follows. On 2 June 1994, Chinook ZD576 departed from RAF Aldergrove on a flight to Fort George, Inverness. The aircraft had a crew of four and carried 25 military and civilian passengers who were to attend a conference in Inverness. It took off at 17.42 and at approximately 18.00 it crashed on the Mull of Kintyre. All on board were killed.

Before departing RAF Aldergrove, the pilots obtained an accurate weather forecast for their flight. They elected to carry out the flight under visual rather than instrument flight rules. Under visual rules, aircrew must remain clear of cloud and are required to keep the surface in sight. The weather forecast was suitable for a flight under those rules, but it warned of poor conditions affecting the Mull of Kintyre, as is often the case, and a bad weather contingency plan would have been required. The highest point of the Mull of Kintyre is 1,463 ft above sea level. Instrument flight rules stipulate that an aircraft must be least 1,000 ft above the height of the highest obstacle along the intended track if the crew is not in visual contact with the ground. Transit across the Irish sea was uneventful and conducted in clear conditions, but, as forecast, there was very low cloud and poor visibility around the mull.

A witness reported that, at a distance of about two nautical miles from the mull, or about 40 seconds from impact, the aircraft was flying at a height estimated to be between 200 and 400 ft. The witness estimated that visibility was about a mile and noted that the mull was covered in cloud and fog. Other witness statements from those who were on the mull at the time, including that of the lighthouse keeper, also refer to the fog and poor visibility.

The first waypoint or landmark that the pilots entered on the on-board navigational computer was the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse. At 0.95 nautical miles, or about 20 seconds before impact, the crew released the computer from its fix on the Mull of Kintyre and set it to indicate the bearing and distance to the next waypoint at Corran, 87 miles to the north. At that point, the pilots knew how close to the mull they were, and, given the deteriorating weather and the strict visibility requirements of visual flight rules, they should have already chosen an alternative course. As they had not done so, they could—and, under the rules, should—have either turned away from the mull immediately or slowed down and climbed to a safe altitude.

At 15 to 18 seconds before impact, the aircraft was at a height of only 468 ft, as recorded on its tactical air navigation system. The pilots would have seen the same information on the radio altimeter, but even so, the aircraft was climbing only gently at that point. At four and a half seconds before impact, the crew performed an emergency manoeuvre and climbed about 150 ft in those final seconds. The aircraft crashed at a height of 812 ft, at a ground speed of 151 knots, or 174 mph.

The evidence given by the eyewitness about the situation 40 seconds before the crash, and the evidence that the crew reset the navigational computer about 20 seconds before the crash are telling indicators of the fact that, at the time, the pilots were not grappling with an in-flight emergency, yet they flew on, contrary to instrument and visual flight rules. The evidence is that they were already too close to the cloud-covered mass of the mull and were travelling too low and too fast. Had the aircraft been flying over the sea, as it should have been under visual flight rules, none of the relevant factors or scenarios would have had an influence strong enough to prevent such an experienced crew from maintaining safe flight.

Those are the findings of the Royal Air Force's board of inquiry, duly convened and constituted under statute for the purpose of investigating such accidents. The board of inquiry had available to it a wealth of expertise and experience in all the relevant disciplines, including helicopter and aircraft operations. In addition, there was the considerable technical expertise of the air accidents investigation branch. Other authorities, such as the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, and the manufacturers of the aircraft—of its engines, equipment and avionics—made evidence available to the inquiry. The board's findings, together with a mass of technical and supporting information, have been made public.

Two years ago, the Defence Committee produced a helpful report on the lessons to be learnt from the Chinook crash. The Committee considered the suggestion that the crash pointed to the existence of fundamental flaws in the design of the Chinook Mk 2 and its components, but found no compelling evidence to support it. The Public Accounts Committee, whose report we await, recently inquired into the Ministry of Defence's processes for the acceptance of equipment into service and took the Chinook Mk 2 as a case study.

I shall turn to the points raised today. I shall answer them as fully as possible, and I shall write to hon. Members on any matters on which I do not have the necessary technical information. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) raised a point about the Tench report. The report's recommendations were not acted on when it was issued in 1987. We cannot rewrite history. The board of inquiry was conducted under the procedures that existed in 1994, which also applied to other inquiries at that time. I am aware of requests for the release of copies of the report, but hon. Members will be aware of the convention that existing Ministers cannot be made aware of advice given to previous Ministers, nor of those Ministers' views on the report. That convention may exasperate us, but it has always been applied, irrespective of the Administration.

Officials are carefully considering whether the report can be released. I appreciate that it has been outstanding for a few months and I hope that the Department will provide an answer in the near future.

Much reference was made to uncommanded flying control movements and other technical problems with the Chinook. The AAIB investigated in detail all relevant technical aspects of the crash and carried out a thorough assessment of control system components, but found no sign of pre-impact failure or malfunction. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who went into detail on the matter, missed the point. He and others suggested that in less than 20 seconds after the waypoint change that preceded impact, there was a major emergency that cleared itself and yet left no trace. As Air Chief Marshal Wratten said, negligence on the part of the pilots preceded the waypoint change; had the aircraft been flying as it should have been over the sea under visual flight rules, or at safety altitude under instrument flight rules, any temporary problem of the sort described could easily have been dealt with.

I shall write to the hon. Member for Newbury on the technical points relating to the FADEC process and the checking of the software sensor, because it is not an appropriate matter for a debate when time is limited. He may, of course, distribute copies of my letter to other members of the Committee. The suit mentioned by the hon. Member for Salisbury concerned a case of negligence by the manufacturers during a ground test of one of the helicopters—it was not about the FADEC system itself. The IFF setting was considered by the AAIB but thought to be of no significance in the crash.

The hon. Member for Salisbury suggested that the Ministry of Defence was dismissive of information provided and did not give it proper consideration. I refute that: all arguments and theories were examined compassionately and in depth. Ministers and officials went to unprecedented lengths to explain the rationale behind the board's findings and will continue to do so whenever points are raised with us.

What I have said will seem unsatisfactory to those who believe passionately that the Ministry of Defence is wrong in this case. I came to my job after a lifetime in an occupation in which I was taught to question severely any information that I was given—I was taught always to be sceptical and to look for alternative answers. I adopted that attitude in considering the information before me recently. Somewhat reluctantly, as a natural sceptic, I concluded that the findings of Air Marshals Wratten and Day and the board of inquiry were correct, and that there was negligence on the flight prior to the vehicle entering cloud which, sadly, was responsible for the death of 29 people.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. The Minister described this as a Committee and said that the hon. Member for Newbury could pass a letter around. This is not a Committee, it is a Chamber of the House and if the hon. Gentleman wants the information to go to all Members he should put it in the Library.

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