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3.48 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not follow him precisely, because although I always listen to him with deep affection, it is usually with deep disagreement as well. I did agree with some things that he said; I shall mention them later.

The Secretary of State had many interesting things to say about the future of the armed forces. We shall applaud some of what he says and we shall listen with critical

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interest to many of the other things, but now that I am no longer on the Front Bench, and this is by way of being a sort of maiden speech, I can speak freely, without committing my party, on a view that I have increasingly held in recent years. That view is as follows.

As the Secretary of State said, the end of the cold war encouraged us to take what was called the peace dividend. Essentially, that meant spending less on the armed forces because the threat had reduced. In fact, the threat had changed, but in a way that should have encouraged us to spend not less but more on the armed forces, because while the cold war continued, it allowed us to rely very heavily on the highly cost-effective deterrent of nuclear missiles. The end of the cold war made it increasingly unlikely that we or anyone could rely heavily on that. If a nuclear bomb goes off in London tomorrow, does anyone seriously imagine that we will immediately press the button? That would not happen without a great deal of thought and hesitation. After all, at whom would we aim the weapons? I am not suggesting that we should get rid of our nuclear weapons, but it is obvious that they no longer work as the all-purpose deterrent that they once were.

We need to rebuild our reliance on conventional forces. That means spending lots more money. We need to pay our armed forces lots more so that they can recruit and retain more personnel and buy better and more modern equipment, if only so that we can operate with the United States. The world is not safer as a consequence of the end of the cold war; it is less certain and more dangerous. The west is not reacting to that danger, with the noble exception of the US, in the right way. Instead, we are reacting in precisely the wrong way. Although the Secretary of State had many interesting things to say about the armed forces, none of what he said matters while we give the defence of our country and our values such a low priority in spending terms.

I want to devote the rest of my contribution to the treatment of our armed forces as exemplified by the 1994 Chinook crash. A dark cloud hangs over the credibility of the Ministry of Defence as a result of its handling of that crash, and that will affect recruitment, retention and morale. I remind the House that because the pilots died and were unable to defend themselves, RAF rules required that they could not be found negligent unless there was absolutely no doubt whatever.

In July 1995, I became Minister of State, and in a debate on the RAF on 6 February 1997 I defended the decision by the RAF board of inquiry that the pilots had been grossly negligent. I have since discovered, to my considerable shame, that I was wrong to have done so. I have apologised to the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), who campaigned on the issue, and I repeat that apology to the House. A more important consideration, however, is that the Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the crash, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has also seen the new evidence and has called for the verdict to be set aside.

The 1996 fatal accident inquiry in Scotland, working on the basis of a standard of proof much easier to satisfy—the balance of probabilities—was unable to come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident. In November 2000, the Public Accounts Committee investigated the incident and concluded:

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Last week, after an exhaustive inquiry into the evidence, a Select Committee in another place concluded unanimously:

So that highly distinguished Committee, including four experienced lawyers—one of them a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary—and an engineer, have decided not just that there is a doubt, but that it is impossible to determine even the likely cause of the accident. One could not ask for a more definitive analysis of the incident than theirs.

Mr. Wilkinson: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Arbuthnot: I know that my hon. Friend strongly disagrees with me, but I give way to him with great pleasure.

Mr. Wilkinson: The flying experience of the two air marshals was considerable and was gathered over many years. In the course of their careers, they would have had much experience of bad weather and other difficult circumstances. Members of the Committee in the other place were mainly lawyers and spent their formative lives and careers in different circumstances. I put my money on the air marshals' judgment.

Mr. Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend is right, but the station commanders at RAF Aldergrove and RAF Odiham also had many years of flying experience. They were part of the initial investigating board and did not find that the pilots were negligent when judged against the standard of proof required.

What is it that makes the Ministry of Defence, alone in the world, cling stubbornly to its discredited findings? It cannot be that it thinks that changing its mind will make it look bad because it knows perfectly well that the longer it clings to the verdict, the more unfair it looks. I hate it when that Ministry of all Ministries looks foolish. I obviously do not mind the Government looking less than perfect, but I am attached to the Ministry of Defence and it carries the reputation of this country with it.

So what is it that makes the Ministry of Defence stick to the verdict? I will run briefly through its arguments. First, it says that there is nothing new in the other reports. Clearly it is wrong about that. What is "new" for these purposes is what we know now that the board of inquiry did not know then, and on that basis there is much new information. The board of inquiry apparently did not know that there were problems with the full authority digital engine control system—FADEC—and that the Ministry was successfully taking Textron-Lycoming, the manufacturers in the USA, to arbitration. The board apparently did not know that the Boeing simulation that it relied on to tell it what had happened did not model FADEC. According to Tony Cable of the air accidents investigation branch, the Boeing simulation would have had "really quite different characteristics." It apparently did not know that the leading technical aircrew specialist on Chinooks, Squadron Leader Burke, had had recurring

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experience of engine problems with the Chinook, but he had been ordered—we do not know why—not to take any further part in the investigation, so he did not tell the board of inquiry about it.

All of that is new, but the Ministry of Defence has taken on itself the task of defining what is new, which it takes to exclude everything that I have just mentioned and everything that might make it change its mind. It is beginning to look stubborn and foolish. In any event, the Ministry of Defence's insistence on new evidence is wrong in principle. It is wrong to insist on new evidence or new considerations if that leaves in place a verdict that is manifestly not supported by the old evidence.

So why is the Ministry sticking to the verdict? Its next argument, strongly made over the past few years, is that the pilots should not have been where they were: they were flying too fast and too low for the weather conditions and the terrain. It is the Ministry's view that even if there were problems with the engine or FADEC, had the pilots turned earlier or slowed down or climbed they would have been able to deal with those problems and would not have hit the Mull of Kintyre.

All of that, of course, assumes that the pilots were in control of the aircraft and able to turn, slow down, or climb. The air marshals assert that they were. The Ministry's standard letter says:

However, there is no evidence that they could have done that.

The report of the Select Committee in another place tears that theory to pieces. It states:

The air marshals had no evidence about the course or speed of the aircraft at any time before the impact, nor of the time of the way-point change or the height of the aircraft at which the change was made.

In other words, we are awash with things we do not know, even now, and the board of inquiry did not know those things, but made the mistake of thinking it did. So in a case where there has to be absolutely no doubt whatever, there is masses of doubt. Even in the early stages, there was so much doubt that the investigating board and the station commanders at RAF Aldergrove and RAF Odiham did not find the pilots negligent.

The doubt is not confined to those matters raised in front of the Select Committee in another place. We do not know, for example, whether either of the pilots was ill. We do not know whether they had a disagreement between themselves about the course to take. There was no cockpit voice recorder and no black box. The fact that there is no evidence of illness or disagreement does not mean that it did not happen. The mistake that the air marshals made is that, because they thought they knew what had probably happened—although we now know that they did not—they translated that into absolutely no doubt whatever.

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