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Mr. Arbuthnot: I agree; the hon. Lady makes a fair point. If the Secretary of State, Ministers and senior officers and officials in the MOD said, "Yes, we recognise that the verdict has to be reopened," there would be no criticism of the MOD at all; everybody would accept that it was doing the right thing for the right reasons. That would be an excellent step for it to take.

I shall now turn to the crux of the speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ruislip- Northwood last month, which was broadly in support of the contention that the pilots should not have been there at all. As it turned out, of course, indeed they should not have been, but the question is, why were they? My hon. Friend said that their lordships, in their Select Committee finding, were "wise after the event". Of course they were, and so must we be. My hon. Friend said that their lordships had

Of course they had not. Neither, as I understand it, has Air Marshal Sir William Wratten. I do not criticise him for that; he is a fast jet pilot, and of course fast jets operate in wholly different conditions from helicopters.

However, their lordships are in a position to judge whether the weather conditions were difficult or not. Having done an exhaustive analysis of all the evidence, their lordships came to the conclusion that it was impossible to know what weather conditions the pilots were experiencing as they approached the mull.

Mr. Wilkinson: My right hon. Friend is most generous. We do know what the weather was. There were 10 witnesses on the Mull of Kintyre and they all confirmed that the mull was in cloud and that the cloud obscured the lighthouse. There had been a forecast of a 30 per cent. probability of IMC—instrument meteorological conditions—with visibility of about 500 m and low cloud in the vicinity of the mull. The weather report of the naval pilot speaks of cloud stratus at 200 ft and visibility of a quarter of a mile at worst. There was exceptionally bad weather all around the mull.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Well, it seems odd, then, that Mr. Holbrook could have seen sun glinting on the

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helicopter. My hon. Friend's point about there being a number of witnesses on the mull is true. There were a number of witnesses on the mull, but all the witnesses were either on the mull itself or at sea level, so they were not able to determine what the pilots were able to see at their height. They were in different conditions.

I have not understood, and I do not think that the Select Committee in another place understood, why Mr. Holbrook was sailing among a number of different fishing vessels, yet no evidence was taken from the skippers on those vessels—in fact, none of the skippers of those other fishing vessels were even sought, let alone found or evidence taken from them.

There is no understanding of what the pilots saw because there is no evidence of what the pilots could see. There was no cockpit voice recorder; we do not know what they were saying to each other. There was no black box. There is no other evidence of what the pilots themselves could or could not see. The Select Committee reports Mr. Holbrook as having said that he

The air marshals, though, did not know that Mr. Holbrook thought that. The reason that they did not know was that they did not ask him. Their lordships said that they asked Mr. Holbrook only three questions, only one of which

To that, he replied no.

In other words, when my hon. and gallant Friend says, as he did last month, that the crew were flying in very marginal weather, we do not know whether that is true. Anyway, I remind him that the board of inquiry was obliged to take that view only if there was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". Mr. Holbrook, who was there, clearly goes further than to doubt it. He disagrees with the proposition.

I have two further points to make. First, the standard of proof required, of "absolutely no doubt whatsoever", is extraordinarily high. It is intentionally high because in cases where pilots are unable to defend themselves, the RAF rightly tries to look after its own personnel, who are, after all, flying an aircraft provided by the RAF.

Last month I took the liberty of saying where I felt that the air marshals had failed to apply the right test. I said that Air Marshal Sir John Day got it wrong when he said:

In using the word "likely" as he did, he was applying the wrong test. I believe that he genuinely did not understand that, and I believe that some of the Ministers who have since dealt with the matter have also genuinely not understood that.

For example, on 11 July 2000, the Minister for Transport, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), then the Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence, answered a written question from me about the health of the two pilots shortly before the crash. His answer was that

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But likelihood has got nothing to do with the issue. There has to be "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". So here we have another element of doubt—could the mental or physical state of one of the pilots, or possibly of both of them, have been a factor in the accident? We do not know, as with so much of the rest of the case.

And now I come on to my final point, which is this. On 1 June 1995 there was another crash. A Harrier GR7, flight number ZG 475, crashed into the sea and, sadly, the pilot was killed. In the RAF board of inquiry report that followed, there was no finding of negligence, and that was obviously the right conclusion. One important paragraph from that report reads as follows:

If an RAF board of inquiry could make such a finding—a correct finding—in relation to a single pilot in an aeroplane which contained an accident data recorder or black box, how could a board of inquiry possibly make a different finding in relation to an aeroplane which had numerous technical problems, which did not have a black box and which could have been under the control of either one of the two pilots at the time? How can it possibly rule out all question of illness? How can it possibly rule out even questions of disagreement between the two pilots? Obviously it cannot.

This verdict flies in the face of all reason and it flies in the face of all justice. If these pilots can be cleared by a Select Committee in another place, we should do the same.

9.2 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I can be mercifully brief tonight. I wish to make only one point. That is not because I disagree with the comments of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate; they have made their points in a most effective and superb style. I merely wish to take the House back to one comment that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) made in his speech, and that was that this House should not question the integrity of the air chief marshals. It is proper that we should not question their integrity and that the House should be careful before commenting on people who are not Members of the House who cannot be here to defend themselves.

But given the way in which the debate continues to rumble on and for the evidence to be gathered as it is, I do believe that we have to put by the side of integrity, which none of us are doubting, an equally important quality, and that is judgment. It is not the judgment of anybody that we are talking about. When we are talking about Sir John Day, we are talking about somebody who is at the very centre of the defence of this country.

While, of course, I can understand the Government wanting to take time and to choose the moment when they will respond to a Select Committee report of the other

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place, I believe that we have reached the point now where we are not questioning the effect of allowing this decision to stand on the morale of the services, but on the judgment of the electorate in the wider field. If people at the very centre of the defence of this country maintain a judgment in spite of all the evidence that is being put forward, that raises some terrifying question marks. I therefore hope that when the Government come to respond, it is not a question whether we should defend people who have been asked to make the decision and who still have a role in public life; it is a much bigger issue than that.

I bring us back to the central idea that has dominated this debate. We are not in a court, weighing up evidence or coming to a conclusion on that evidence. The tribunal, to use the phrase that others have used, had to have "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" about the evidence before it. When I hear the Government asking for even more simulations from the manufacturers, I worry that we might be in danger of not seeing the wood for the simulated models. There is now a body of evidence that does not prove that the pilots were innocent but that does suggest doubt. That is the issue on which the Government must concentrate their mind. It is not right to look for new evidence; the evidence must be weighed. After weighing it, on every point, the Government must be certain that they can dismiss it to maintain the judgment. The slightest glint of doubt in the Secretary of State's mind must bring him to a conclusion that the judgment is unsound and unsatisfactory and must be put aside.

Of course, in debates such as this, it is easy for us to forget the pilots, their memory and their families, and the numbers of people who were killed on that day and their families, who, clearly, will never get over this horrendous event. However, we are not debating our feelings towards them, as crucial as that is in another sphere. We are debating whether the Government, despite all the evidence that has been put forward, can maintain that there is "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that the decision made by the tribunal is correct. I do not believe that anybody who is rational can maintain that.

Therefore, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the longer this goes on, the greater the worry not merely that the air chief marshals' judgment—not their integrity—might be wrong but that, perhaps for the wrong motives, the Ministry of Defence will come to a wrong judgment again. It is bad enough if one comes to a wrong judgment in taking away somebody's income support. One can often make good that mistake on a later occasion. However, we are talking about a small core of people on whose judgment the security of our country rests. We are in deeply worrying territory in which the Government still cannot make up their mind and come to a judgment, on the weight of the evidence, as to whether the tribunal inquiry verdict should be set aside.

Although the Government are of course right to take time, to work within the six months, and to choose the moment at which they wish to make their decision, the debate has rumbled on at length, here and elsewhere in the country. More and more people are not just talking about the integrity of the air chief marshals; they are beginning to talk about the judgment and the wisdom of the people who have the security of this realm as their first priority.

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9.10 pm

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