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Today is another sad day for the families and all those who lost their loved ones on that fateful day, 2 June 1994and especially for the families of the two pilots. I join the Secretary of State in reiterating our sympathy to all those who were bereaved. In criticising the right hon. Gentleman for his announcement today, I stress that the issue is one of natural justice, not one of party. Indeed, as the right hon. Gentleman noted, we have been pressing for the reversal of a mistaken decision taken under the previous Conservative Administrationa decision that the Secretary of State's predecessor, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, have said should be reversed.
May I also make it clear that we do not seek to challenge the honour or integrity of Ministers or senior RAF officers? However, we believe that they should be prepared to review their original decision in this matter, because the RAF rules in force at the time provided that the deceased aircrew should be found negligent only when there was "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". That is a very much higher standard of proof than "beyond all reasonable doubt" which is usually required in criminal trials in civilian courts. It means that every other possible explanation of the crash must be disproved, and in this case that cannot be done.
Later on, the statement refers to senior reviewing officers who were left with "no honest doubt". I do not know the legal antecedents of that term "no honest doubt", but it is not the same as "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". That is the basis of the case expressed by those who object to this verdict.
The inquiry conducted by the Committee in the other place, chaired by someone who is not only a distinguished lawyer but a former judge in the Scottish Appeal Court, concluded that the Ministry's original report was not sufficiently based on fact, but was based on assumptions that have subsequently been challenged. I put it to the Secretary of State that most of the Boeing evidence is conjecture, not fact, and that even Boeing cannot be said to be the most impartial witness. I do not question the company's integrity but as manufacturer of the aircraft it certainly has an interest in the outcome of the inquiry. Pilots also question the reliability of data, to which the Secretary of State referred, from the SuperTANS navigation system.
How can the Secretary of State continue to sustain this position, except in the most legalistic of terms? He dismisses others who have challenged the board of inquiry findings. However, may I point out that the report from the other place supports three other independent inquiries? The air accidents investigation branch did not conclude that the pilots had been negligent. The fatal accident inquiry concluded that it had not been established
The "balance of probabilities" is the weakest possible argument that a court would accept in a civil case. It is very much easier to accept a guilty verdict on the balance of probabilities than on absolutely no doubt whatsoever.
The Select Committee on Defence, while avoiding the question of blame for the accident, questioned the procedures that led to the controversies. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that the verdict of the RAF board of inquiry was "unsustainable" and recommended that it should be set aside.
Surely, after all that, the conclusions of the Select Committee in the other place cannot simply be ignored. For the Government to persist in their verdict is, in the minds of many, very difficult to accept.
The Secretary of State's mantra is that there is "no new evidence". However, the case made by both the PAC and the Select Committee in the other place is not that they have uncovered "new evidence" but that there was insufficient evidence at the time to reach the verdict of gross negligence beyond absolutely no doubt whatsoever.
Ultimately, this is not a legal argument, but an argument about natural justice. Does the Secretary of State understand that pilots still serving in the armed forces feel utterly betrayed by the Ministry of Defence on this issue? Can the right hon. Gentleman really put his hand on his heart and tell the House today that he believes that there is "absolutely no doubt whatsoever" that these pilots, who were mostly highly trained, who had unblemished records and who were carrying such a notably precious cargo of intelligence officers, together committed the most cardinal and basic errors in airmanship? In the civilian world, is this not virtually the equivalent of finding the pilots guilty of manslaughterdespite the fact that the fatal accident inquiry could not reach that verdict even on "the balance of probabilities"?
In all honesty, some doubt continues to exist in the minds of many of those who have studied all the issues very closely. In all humanity, the Secretary of State should reopen the RAF board of inquiry and review the verdict.
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his mostly dispassionate account of the response. I invite right hon. and hon. Members as they approach this issue to try to do the same. Perhaps once they have gone through my statement in more detail and looked at the fuller account that has been published and made available, they will see the care with which the Ministry of Defence has entirely dispassionately approached this issue.
The hon. Gentleman said that every other possible explanation must be disproved. I take issue with him only in that that should be "every other plausible explanation". We are not dealing with explanations that do not stand up. I hope that, when he looks more carefully at my statement and the material in the Library, he will see that each and every explanation has been gone through with a very considerable amount of rigour. Indeed, that was precisely why I specifically asked Boeing again to go through the material that it had made available to the board of inquiry, and to do so from scratch with appropriate care. That report is also available to hon. Members.
The point about honest doubt was simply a reference to the duty placed on the reviewing officers. I was not referring to the burden of proof at that stage. Again, if the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at my statement, he will see that to be so.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Boeing reportI accept that he may not have had the opportunity to do so in detail as yethe will see that these are not assumptions. These are very carefully worked-through facts arising from a detailed analysis of what took place during that flight.
On evidence and so on, what is important is that we consider the facts of the case and not simply how people may feel. I entirely recognise the obvious, understandable human sympathy. I have spent some considerable time since I was appointed to this office talking to helicopter pilots about the accident. Although there are certainly some who feel betrayed, I must tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that there are others who feel very differently about the matter. So I do not think that the anecdotal experience of helicopter pilots is particularly helpful in these circumstances.
As the hon. Gentleman saysI make no argument with himthe issue is whether there was sufficient evidence. I invite right hon. and hon. Members dispassionately to consider that evidence, which is available in the Library. I hope that they will notice as they analyse my statement today that I have excluded pieces of evidence about which there is some doubt simply in order to rely on the known facts rather than to try to form a hypothesis based on disputed ones. I have consciously and deliberately excluded and not mentioned today pieces of evidence that are largely favourable to the reviewing officers simply because there is some doubt about its reliability. On the basis of evidence and the known facts, I invite right hon. and hon. Members to accept what I have set out to the House today.