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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I welcome the chance to raise the subject of horse riders and low-flying aircraft. It is a subject that is vigorously pursued not only by me but by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who has secured an Adjournment debate on it next week. Naturally, I also warmly welcome the Minister and look forward to his response.
Mrs. Carol Lewis is from Gawcott in my constituency. She trains competition horseswarmbloods in her casefor dressage. Currently, she has three such horses. They are youngaged three or slightly overand all are highly strung. The younger the horse, the more nervous or flighty it is inclined to be. Mrs. Lewis has planning permission for commercial breeding and the schooling of horses. Her involvement with horses is therefore not merely a pleasurable pastime but a business enterprise.
The problem is that RAF helicopters fly very lowtypically 50 ft above the grounddirectly over Mrs. Lewis's property, and over her. The helicopters are not merely low-flying: they are loud and fast. It takes little imagination to envisage the impact of those aircraft on the horses, not to mention the effect on Mrs. Lewis.
The reaction of the horses to the aircraft is hazardous. They buck, rear, leap and bolt. If one of those horses rears, it could topple back on to Carol Lewis, possibly killing her. She could also be thrown off her horse. The activity of the aircraft puts her life in danger if she is riding, and jeopardises the welfare of her animals. Costin the form of vets' bills and the reduced value of the horseis also an issue if a horse injures itself. There may also be longer-term damage to the horse's temperament: for example, it could become more anxious and less able to compete. There could also be damage to the relationship between horse and rider, which is essential if she is effectively to train the horses. For example, one of her mares was so terrified by an incident that it now instinctively springs into panic mode at the sight or sound of a distant helicopter.
Since November 2003, Mrs. Lewis has lodged formal complaints on no fewer than 11 occasions about Hawk, Hercules, Puma and Tornado flights from RAF Benson, RAF Leeming, RAF Lyneham and RAF Marham. Make no mistake, her anxiety is not the result of paranoia: it is grounded in the grim facts, which are on the record.
There have, to date, been three deaths. In 1996, Alexandra Nixon died. In June 2003, Heather Bell was killed when riding along a bridleway when her horse was spooked by a low-flying Chinook. In December 2003, Melanie Dodds was killed when her pony was startled by a low-flying military helicopter and the horse ran into two cars. In 2004, the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay compensation to Sacha Jane Smith, an event rider who was badly injured when her horse was spooked by low-flying jets. Her gelding reared and fell into a ditch, badly damaging his legs, flattening her pelvis, breaking her ribs and injuring her back.
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The assurance that Ministry of Defence aircraft were not engaged in wanton crueltyI have never suggested they werewas not a generous present to me, and it offered no succour whatever to Mrs. Lewis. The Minister went on to state that low-flying training is essential and that the Ministry was investigating the recommendations made by the coroner for Louth and Spilsby following the death of Heather Bell. That coroner's report is important, and I want to focus on the five of its recommendations that I judge to be most relevant to my constituent's circumstances.
First, the coroner recommended reducing the area in which low-flying training in helicopters takes place in the United Kingdom. Currently, the whole of UK open airspace is available for such training. Instead, it is suggested, and I agree, that we should revert to the pre-1979 practice, whereby only 40 per cent. of the space was available and the majority of low-flying training in helicopters took place in sparsely populated areas. If the flying were restricted once again to such areas, manifestly the risk to the general public would be reduced and, in areas in which flying does take place, the smaller number of human beings living there and the livestock would inevitably become more familiar with it. The coroner suggested that a great deal of low-flying training in helicopters occurs in what are technically and officially known as designated user areas. He recommended that the capacity for increasing training in such areas should be explored. I hope that the Minister agrees and look forward to hearing what he has to say on the matter.
The coroner was also informed by a representative of the Health and Safety Executive that a ministerial edict already requires that 60 per cent. of fast jet training takes place overseas, most of it, I understand, in remote areas of Canada. I agree with the coroner that the Ministry should now seek to export a proportion of low-flying training in helicopters as well, investigating the possibility of using parts of Scandinavia, Australia, the United States of America and Canada.
Secondly, the coroner recommended an increase in the use of simulators. There are limits to their use, but there is scope for using them more widely. Currently, they are used for 40 per cent. of military training. By comparison, the commercial sector uses them for 99.9 per cent. of training. Stephen Jowell, the expert adviser to the coroner, stated that he
The RAF, interestingly, and perhaps alarmingly, did not acquire simulators until 2000, much later than the Navy, which acquired them in the late 1960s, and civil aviation, which acquired them in 1978. I am sorry that the Minister is not attending to the debate at the moment. I hope that he will return to his seat. For his information, I was referring to the phenomenon whereby the RAF acquired simulators much later than the Navy and much later than civil aviation, which has had them for more than 25 years.
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The coroner called for all low flying to be moved to dedicated areas of the country instead of taking place nationwide. He added that pilots training at 50 to 100 ft did not receive the correct training for war flying at 5 to 20 ft and that it would be better to use a simulator or operate in parts of the world where there would be no disruption.
Thirdly, the coroner advocated better communication with the public. In response to that very reasonable recommendation, the Ministry of Defence has this week launched a helpline. It is an encouraging first step, and I welcome it, but there are still problems, specifically, for the purposes of today's debate, as far as my constituent is concerned.
First, the information that is provided is valid only at the time that it is givenanother flight might be logged as soon as one puts down the telephoneso one either has to keep calling back to secure updates or one must take a chance. It is not feasible for Mrs. Lewis to call the helpline every 30 minutes for an update. She rides for a substantial portion of the day, so she cannot keep using the telephone. Secondly, the area for which information is given is huge. The helpline is unable to provide more specific information, because it does not have access to it. Why, I reasonably ask, cannot the information be more precise? The man contacted at the helpline by my office said that he would be happy to give out better information but that he simply did not possess it.
Yesterday, 3 March 2005, at 10 o'clock in the morning, Mrs. Lewis was advised that flights in area 4 would be taking place between 9.50 and 11.10 am and between 11.5 and 11.45 am. In the afternoon, flights would take place between 1.30 and 1.45 and between 4 o'clock and 4.25. The message is clear: in the morning, she could not safely ride between 9.50 and 11.45. That would take virtually two hours out of her day. In winter, there are limited numbers of daylight hours. What is she supposed to do? If she takes a chance and rides, reasoning that the flights will not be nearby, and she proves to be wrong, what happens? Will the Ministry of Defence in its infinite wisdom then argue that she rode at her own risk and had been informed of the flights? How is she supposed to run a business that involves being in the saddle for significant portions of the day if there is a constant fear of low-flying aircraft?
The coroner's fourth recommendation was improved technology. Helicopter pilots are overly reliant on visually identifying horse riders to enable them to take evasive action. A tracker-type device could be worn by riders to warn helicopters, similar to the gadget worn by off-piste skiers to reduce the risk of being lost in an avalanche. The coroner recommended taking immediate steps to investigate that proposal. Mrs. Lewis has no objection to that recommendation, but it is not relevant to her case. She does not need to be tracked. She rides in a fixed territory. The ménage is on her property. The Ministry of Defence is well aware of who she is and where she lives. The helicopters fly over her land when she is training her horses on it.
Fifthly, the coroner focused on the subject of avoidance notices. Specifically, he argued that as Market Rasen, the town where Heather Bell was killed, is a horse-riding area, an avoidance notice should remain in place. Mrs. Lewis argues that Gawcott is also
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full of horse riders. There are five training arenas in the area. Judy Harvey, a local trainer, is a selector for the British dressage team and qualified to judge at the Olympics; I have met her and can testify to her experience in the field. David Trott, another local, is a chairman of selectors and was chef d'équipe for the bronze medal-winning team at the 2003 European championship. Why can the Ministry not issue an avoidance notice so that flights do not take place across Mrs. Lewis's property?
I have some specific questions to put to the Minister. First, to date how many people have been injured or killed as a result of low flying incidents? Secondly, what percentage of those deaths or injuries occurred through breach of regulations and what percentage occurred despite adherence to them? Thirdly, what is the view of the Health and Safety Executive and what plans are there for it to undertake risk assessments? Fourthly, what percentage of requests for avoidance notices derive from fear of death or injury and how many requests are granted? Fifthly, given that centres of riding for the disabled have avoidance notices issued, why should my constituent not receive similar protection in order to avoid death or disability?
As I hope is clear, Mrs. Lewis is both aggrieved and frightened. I understand why, and I share her concern. Too little has been done to protect her and others like her. The time has come for decisive action by the Government. I look forward to the Minister's reply to my specific inquiries. I hope that it is good. I know that he is standing down from Parliament at the forthcoming general election and that someone else will be responsible for these matters. I hope that that person will be a Conservative Minister, but whoever is responsible, I shall expect that Minister to protect my constituent and her horses. Be in no doubt: I will bang on and on and on about the matter until that protection is provided.
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