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Mr. Hoon: The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. My only reservation about agreeing completely is that I have seen so much nonsense written about the subject in Computer Weekly. Some evidence may be acceptable, but the way in which that journal hysterically pursues the subject does not give me cause to accept anything that it says at face value. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not accepting an assertion by a representative of Computer Weekly at this stage.

It is important for the Government to have the best possible evidence. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members accept that. The modelling tool available at the time did not include FADEC. The engineers who conducted the original simulation factored in the known FADEC performance criteria. We have asked Boeing to undertake more advanced modelling by including the FADEC flight system. I want to be confident that we have the most accurate information about what happened in order to make the most informed judgment. It is difficult to understand how that approach can be criticised.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): Before the Secretary of State leaves the findings of the air marshals, he has twice referred to findings of negligence but, as I understand it, the test applied and found was one of gross negligence. That means a voluntary course of action taken deliberately at the time. I ask my right hon. Friend to apply himself to this question. If I am right, that test is indistinguishable, in truth, from the test of recklessness applied in criminal law. If that is so and the burden of proof applies in that sense, how, in view of the expert evidence, could they possibly have arrived at that conclusion?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. and learned Friend makes a point that I have made myself about the legal test applicable to the case. It is interesting to read the House of Lords Select Committee report, in which, notwithstanding the legal distinction of some of the participants, there appears to be confusion between recklessness and negligence. Without giving the House a legal lecture, which it does not need at this stage of the evening, I believe that the expression "gross negligence" is not particularly helpful, which is why the rules that apply to boards of inquiry have been changed since this case. That still leaves us with my

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earlier point: that in order to do justice to the case, it is necessary to apply the rules that faced the board of inquiry at the relevant time.

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a reasonable man. Does he accept the comment made by the Public Accounts Committee, which develops the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)—that

The Secretary of State nods. Does he agree?

Mr. Hoon: I certainly accept that it is necessary to examine carefully the legal basis on which the board of inquiry reached its conclusion. I have just criticised the concept of gross negligence as being difficult for most lawyers to understand and apply—a difficulty that the Select Committee encountered. I have asked for further legal opinion in order properly to satisfy myself that the right legal approach was adopted at the time. As I said, it is important that any analysis is consistent with the rules that the board of inquiry had to follow.

I have given way on every occasion that I can in this debate. The Government have every intention of producing a full response as soon as possible. We shall certainly do so within the six-month period allowed for replying to such reports, but that should not be understood as delay. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that this is an extraordinarily complex matter. It is right and proper that the report is fully and carefully assessed and that, where appropriate, further detailed technical work and investigations are undertaken. We naturally want to have the best possible advice, but that inevitably takes time. I apologise to right hon. and hon. Members for the fact that I cannot say more this evening. To that extent the debate is bound to disappoint those who initiated it.

Lady Hermon (North Down) rose

Mr. Hoon: I had only one more sentence but I shall certainly give way to the hon. Lady.

Lady Hermon: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way.

Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the conclusion of the report of the Select Committee on Defence in 1998? It noted that "great sensitivity" was required in investigating fatal accidents in the armed forces. Will he please explain how taking a further six months shows "great sensitivity" to those involved, especially the widows who are still left with doubt and with stigma attached to the reputation of the two flight lieutenants?

Mr. Hoon: In order to reach a properly considered result it is necessary to do the Select Committee, the House and all those who have an interest in that tragic incident the courtesy of carefully considering their arguments. That is what the Government intend to do; it is certainly what I have been trying to do ever since I assumed my current responsibilities. I am sorry if a wait of a few more months before the Government reach their conclusions appears insensitive in any way.

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I do not accept that for a moment, however. We want to examine the report with appropriate care, to consider the factual evidence on which the Committee relied, to find new evidence if any can be found and to subject to proper analysis the Committee's technical conclusions and the legal basis for its report. I acknowledge the comment of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden that this is not a party political issue, so I hope that the whole House agrees that it is only appropriate that the Government have the opportunity to reach those carefully considered conclusions.

8.22 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I begin by commending the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and his colleagues for allowing part of a day that was within their gift to be given over to discussion of this topic. I confess that I was not optimistic enough to believe that putting my name to the motion would mean that the Secretary of State would come to the Dispatch Box and concede that the motion should be passed unanimously. However, this opportunity affords us the chance to engage in the merits of an issue that causes great concern on both sides of this House and of the other place.

As has already been pointed out, this is not—nor should it be—a party political matter. The Select Committee, under the leadership of Lord Chalfont, was drawn from all parties on both sides of the House. The Secretary of State may have had some criticism of Lord Chalfont, but it is fair to say that the noble Lord has certainly, with a high degree of commitment, tried to ensure that these matters are properly considered in the House and in the other place.

I do not for a moment challenge the integrity of Ministers past or present or of the senior officers of the Royal Air Force who were engaged in the decision. I make no allegations whatever of bad faith. As it happens, I know Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day personally. However, I believe that an error of judgment has been made in this case, and I am left with the suspicion that, had proper legal advice been made available to the board of inquiry in the later stages of its consideration, it is highly unlikely that it would have reached the conclusion that now exercises so many of us. I hope that the reform of boards of inquiry to which the Secretary of State has referred will afford the opportunity for those charged with the difficult task of determining such matters to take legal advice of the highest quality.

As I believe that an error of judgment has been made, there has, in turn, occurred an injustice. That injustice should be put right. Parliament exists for the redress of grievances and the families of the two pilots certainly have a grievance. They are entitled to seek to persuade the House to put that right on their behalf. In saying that, I do not for an instant ignore the feelings and emotions of the relations of the other two deceased crewmen and of the 25 passengers. However, I venture to offer this thought: I doubt whether any of them would derive comfort from the notion that a miscarriage of justice had been committed and allowed to persist. On several occasions, I have received direct communication from the relations of passengers—although not in every case—saying that they supported, albeit not publicly, the efforts being made to try to deal with a matter that, in the minds of so many, has created an injustice.

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The Government's position—frequently repeated and rehearsed by Ministers at the Dispatch Box and on television, radio and elsewhere—is that if there is new evidence they would be prepared to open the inquiry, but if there is no new evidence, there is no justification for reopening the inquiry, so the original finding stands. If that position is to be maintained, it can be maintained only in the teeth of the findings, first, of the fatal accident inquiry and, secondly, of the report of the Lords Select Committee.

That position assumes that the original finding is unchallengeable because it was infallible. We thus have to look at the standard of proof that was required—yes, with the benefit of hindsight; but also with a rigorous intellectual approach.

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