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House of Lords

Tuesday, 2nd June 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Chinook Helicopter Accident Inquiry

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of the deliberations of the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, they propose to review the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry into the crash of Helicopter Flight No. ZD 576 at the Mull of Kintyre on 2nd June 1994.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, the Select Committee made a detailed examination of the lessons to be learned from this tragic accident. The committee made it clear that it was not its intention to become a further court of appeal, and its report seeks neither to challenge nor to endorse the findings of previous inquiries into the crash. It has unanimously concluded, however, that there was no evidence to support claims that design flaws in the Chinook Mk2 or in its components contributed to this crash. The report includes no recommendations which would prompt the MoD to review the findings of the RAF's board of inquiry.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I express the customary appreciation for the Minister's very full Answer, but will he accept that I am genuinely mystified by the Government's position on this? I am not trying to cause the noble Lord problems, but can he answer one simple question, if possible in a simple way? Given the fact that the president of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry said that no blame could be attached to the pilots, given the fact that the fatal accident inquiry could not attribute any cause to the accident, and given the fact that numerous experts both inside and outside the Royal Air Force have cast doubt on the verdict and on the reliability of certain pieces of equipment, is the Minister seriously telling the House that the Government say and believe that there is absolutely no doubt whatever about the cause of the accident, which is what service regulations require?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, as the noble Lord is well aware--he has given a great deal of attention to this matter with his usual perspicacity--the fact is that this matter has been reviewed by two sets of Ministers in the previous government and by Ministers in this Government. I had conversations only yesterday with the Secretary of State and with the Minister of State for the Armed Forces on this subject and I regret to have to tell the noble Lord that we see no reason to change the view taken by Ministers in either this

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Government or the previous government. The fact of the matter is that there is no evidence whatever of any combination of possible minor problems or major difficulties which would have affected the skills of the aircrew and prevented them from continuing to fly in conditions of low and deteriorating visibility, at low altitude, below the safety altitude, flying at high speed straight into the obstacle that they encountered with tragic consequences.

I am happy to invite the noble Lord to come to the Ministry of Defence and to review for himself all the material which has been at the disposal of Ministers and which has led them to come to this unhappy conclusion.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the effectiveness of RAF boards of inquiry has not always been universally admired? Can he say what expertise was available to the board of inquiry in this case, and in particular whether a qualified accident investigator was available, as frequently was not the case in the past?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord's specific question about an accident investigator, but I have full confidence in Royal Air Force boards of inquiry. One problem is that people find it incredible that skilled pilots could find themselves in this position. However, the fact is--it is a sad state of affairs--that a high proportion of accidents involving skilled pilots, both military and civilian pilots and pilots of scheduled airlines, are due to pilot error. Unfortunately, that is a fact of life.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, is it not the case that helicopter pilots have absolutely clear-cut instructions that on entering cloud they must rise above any nearby landmass and that the only reason for not doing so is engine failure? In this case, the accident investigators proved quite categorically that the engines were on full power and that there was no reason whatever why the pilot should not have taken his aircraft up and avoided the mountain.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am, as always, obliged to the noble Lord for his helpful and clarifying remarks. However, there was more than one way of avoiding the obstacle. The helicopter was approaching a waypoint at which the crew had expected to have a change of course of something like 15 degrees to port. Had they done that, the obstacle of the Mull of Kintyre would have been avoided. I entirely agree with the noble Lord's other remarks.

Lord Brightman: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that we have here the exact equivalent of a verdict of manslaughter without hearing the defence? Is that safe?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am not legally qualified to comment on the noble and learned Lord's remarks about a verdict of manslaughter. It is very unfortunate that we have absolutely no survivors to comment on

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what was happening on the flight deck during the helicopter's last few moments. There is absolutely no evidence whatever--this was confirmed by the recent unanimous report from the Select Committee--that there was anything wrong with the helicopter itself.

Lord Kilbracken: My Lords, the Minister said--at least I understood him to say--that the aircraft was flying at high speed. Can he say how that was known and at what speed the aircraft was flying?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, the aircraft had an indicated air speed of about 130 knots and a tail-wind of 20 to 30 knots.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the real problem here is that the inquiry found nothing wrong with the aircraft, but according to the records there was also nothing wrong with the actions of the pilot and crew? Is it not the case that the inquiry concluded that since there was nothing wrong with the aircraft it had to blame the pilots?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, the simple question is: why was the aircraft where it was? Even if one made a series of heroic assumptions, for example that just at the vital moment before impact there had been a catastrophic systems failure in the aircraft, the aircraft should not have been where it was. I am afraid that it is as simple as that.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, can the noble Lord assure the House that a black box will be fitted to every Chinook aircraft so that if there are future accidents we will know what happened?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, there is a programme for fitting black boxes to Royal Air Force aircraft.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the relevant RAF regulation states that in only those cases in which there is absolutely no doubt should deceased air crew be found negligent? Is the Minister satisfied that that very heavy onus was borne in mind by those who found negligence; or is a possible explanation that they reached their conclusion on the basis that it was highly probable that it was negligence?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I can assure the noble and learned Lord that precisely those considerations were in the minds of the distinguished Air Force officers who came to the painful conclusion to which they felt compelled to come. It would have been far easier for those officers to have taken the view that there was something wrong with the aircraft. It would have been much more painful for them to conclude that very senior, skilful young pilots had committed an act of negligence.

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Northern Ireland: School Funding

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Young: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I apologise to the House for the fact that the Question should read "Library Boards".

The amended Question is as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government:

    Why they are proposing to transfer the funding of voluntary grammar schools from the Northern Ireland Department of Education to the Education and Libraries Boards.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the main reason for this proposal is to reduce the number of funding formulae and thus contribute to the Government's stated policy objective of full commonality of schools funding across the Province. The vast majority of schools are already funded by the boards and there is no convincing reason for funding some schools separately.

Baroness Young: My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for her reply, as is only proper, I find the response very disappointing. Is the noble Baroness aware that these schools comprise about one quarter of the secondary schools in Northern Ireland and that they are regarded within the United Kingdom as some of the best schools? Moreover, it is generally considered that these schools are some of the few organisations which, for over 50 years, have been a shining example of cross-community co-operation. They are very concerned at what is happening as regards their status at the present time.

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