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Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I am most grateful for the measured and informed way in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) initiated the debate. He was followed in similar terms by the right hon. and learned Member for North- East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). I wish to add to their remarks, not to repeat them. I agree with everything that they said.

For 18 years, I have had the honour to represent more than 11,000 employees of the Ministry of Defence, including those who work at Boscombe Down where the RAF has been present with scientific and industrial civil servants who are engaged on the business of evaluating the RAF's aircraft. I have therefore been prone to support the chain of command and Defence Ministers of whatever Government and to recognise that they need our support in peacetime as well as in time of conflict. However, just as I am about to conclude that they may have got it right after all in this case, something happens to make me realise that they have got it wrong.

For six years, with my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have been engaged deeply in this case. Initially, I did not know the families of the two brave pilots who died. I am honoured to have made their acquaintance over the years. However, I know the people who work at Boscombe Down, so I was astonished at the tone that the Ministry of Defence used in dismissing their work.

I received a minute headed "Draft DO From AOCINC" to the assistant Chief of the Air Staff dated 6 June 1994—four days after the crash of ZD 576. The complaint was that

In other words, Boscombe Down was not prepared to fly the aircraft. Odiham had to send a special crew and ordered them to fly an aircraft that Boscombe Down said should not be flown.

Lady Hermon: Did the air marshals and the board of investigation have that information from Boscombe Down?

Mr. Key: I have no way of knowing. I am sure that someone in the Ministry of Defence had the information, but I do not know whether it made its way to the Scottish inquiry or to the RAF board of inquiry.

The minute again refers to Boscombe Down and states:

That is an astonishing thing for any senior officer to say.

Under questioning by the Select Committee on Defence in its fourth report, "The Lessons of the Chinook Crash on

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the Mull of Kintyre" published on 13 May 1998, Colonel Hodgkiss, who was at the time the assistant director of Helicopter Projects 1 at the Ministry of Defence referred to Boscombe Down and said:

Quite so—that is what Boscombe Down did. It said that the aircraft should not fly. The RAF continued to fly it and ZD 576 crashed.

I have engaged in extensive correspondence with Ministers over the years. Allow me to quote a letter to me from the then Secretary of State for Defence, now Lord Robertson, dated 24 November 1997. He wrote:

on the evidence available—

Lord Robertson then set up a meeting, which my right hon. Friend the Member for North–East Hampshire also attended.

The atmosphere at that meeting was not especially happy, because it was clear that the Ministry of Defence had been tasked to brief us. Its representatives did not like questions—they were not used to questions—and it was clear to me even at that stage, in November 1997, that the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Air Force were not going to consider any judgments about the standards of proof. They would stick to their demand for new evidence and they, and they alone, would decide what constituted new evidence. They would deny all subsequent evidence, from 1997 onwards, presented by technical experts—even people they had employed as their own consultants. They would even seek to justify not disclosing litigation in the United States of America.

I was astonished to find in the report that I quoted previously that when the then Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), was questioned about whether the Scottish fatal accident inquiry knew of the United States case, he replied:

What an extraordinary way in which to carry out any inquiry.

About that time, I visited the Defence Procurement Agency down in Abbey Wood for a briefing on its new functions and systems. I met the team that was engaged full-time in defending the Ministry of Defence's position. In 1998, there was a dedicated team at Abbey Wood; it is probably still there, answering parliamentary questions.

Some very strange things were happening. In my years in Parliament, I have had all sorts of pressure put on me—as have we all—but never anything quite like what happened in December 1997. At that time, I attended a reception for defence contractors in a hotel in Park lane. I was approached by a highly distinguished Conservative peer who had served in the RAF during the second world war and had been a Minister in Conservative

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Governments. He had been asked by senior RAF officers to put me off the trail: he said that it would serve no purpose if I continued.

None the less, I had questions for answer. I asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he would place in the Library copies of the minute relating to the Textron White Paper and the White paper itself. I asked him about the fully automated digital engine control system and whether he would put in the Library copies of the 70 incident signals relating to FADEC. I later asked if he would put in the Library

which has already been mentioned. In answer to my request for the Textron White Paper, the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), told me:

The answers to my other questions cited exemptions 13, 2 and 1c. The Ministry of Defence did not wish to share the information.

Then something extraordinary happened. On 5 December, I wrote a contemporaneous note which states that on Tuesday 2 December, I went to Carol Stone's Christmas party at the Institution of Civil Engineers. There I met a former Secretary of State for Defence who told me that, a couple of weeks previously, a senior official in the Ministry of Defence had telephoned his former special adviser to say would she please ask the former Secretary of State for Defence to persuade me to drop my pursuit of the Mull of Kintyre Chinook crash. That, in my judgment, was an extraordinary thing for a Ministry of Defence official to do.

So it went on. We were denied information, letters were exchanged and I took up the matter with the Cabinet Secretary, who referred me back to the Secretary of State for Defence, who said that he was very sorry that I was not satisfied with the answers and that I would therefore have another briefing with officials, which I had; it was acrimonious and I will not relate it here.

In spite of being denied evidence, and in spite of the failure to answer questions, Mr. Martin Bell, who was then a Member of Parliament, wrote to the Prime Minister. On 18 July 2000, the Prime Minister said in his reply:

This distinguished lawyer, our Prime Minister, added in his own hand:

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It is not a question of new evidence but of judging existing evidence, what is meant by "absolutely no doubt whatsoever", and standards of proof. The RAF regulation required a much higher standard of proof than is required in criminal cases, including those involving murder. In criminal cases, the standard is "beyond reasonable doubt"; in civil cases, the standard is "the balance of probabilities". The latter standard was applied by the Scottish sheriff, who refused to attribute the incident to pilot error.

Ministers accept that there is "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" as to why the two pilots were unable to avoid crashing into the Mull of Kintyre. The RAF does not know, and cannot say, why things went wrong and the aircraft was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever anyone may say, no one will know the answer. Ministers also accept that there is "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that no mechanical or computer software fault occurred. To me, both propositions are incredible. I cannot believe them, and nor would any jury.

The issue is about honour, not money. As we have heard, the Ministry of Defence has changed the rules retrospectively—no one who dies will ever again be accused of gross negligence. The issue should be a matter of honour for this Government and this Prime Minister. He should do the decent thing and overturn that dishonourable verdict.

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