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Nimrod XV230

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

I am able to inform the House today of the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry on the crash of RAF Nimrod XV230 in Afghanistan on 2 September 2006. First, I know that the entire House will join me in paying tribute to the 14 service personnel who lost their lives in that tragic incident. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, and with the men and women of the armed forces, who I know feel the loss of their colleagues very deeply. I would also like to pay tribute to RAF Kinloss. That close community was hit hard by the Nimrod tragedy, but it has maintained magnificent support for the Nimrod crews deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan.

I remind the House that the purpose of a board of inquiry is to establish the circumstances of the crash and to learn lessons. A board of inquiry is a statutory process under section 135 of the Air Force Act 1955 and is convened for any air accident. It makes recommendations to the chain of command on its findings; it does not seek to apportion blame. I am placing a copy of the board’s report in the Library, redacted only to withhold personal information that we are required to protect under the Data Protection Act 1998 and information that could prejudice the security and effectiveness of the armed forces.

The report is a detailed technical document. I am conscious that, in the time available for an oral statement, I will not be able to do justice to all the issues that it raises, so I am making a supplementary written statement that sets out the board of inquiry’s conclusions in more detail, along with a summary of its recommendations and the actions taken by the chain of command.

The board established that on 2 September 2006, RAF Nimrod XV230 took off from its deployed operating base at 09.13 hours, Greenwich mean time, on an essential operational flight. The initial stages of the mission appear to have gone according to plan. At 11.11 hours, approximately 90 seconds after completing air-to-air refuelling, the crew experienced almost simultaneous fire and smoke warnings. Smoke was observed in the cabin, and flames were observed from the rear of the engines on the starboard side. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft depressurised. The crew commenced emergency drills and at 11.14 hours transmitted a Mayday alert and turned to head for Kandahar airfield. At 11.17 hours, a Harrier GR7 pilot reported that the aircraft had exploded.

A combat search and rescue team confirmed that there were no survivors. Subsequently, the site of the crash was secured for as long as it was considered safe to do so by a combined force of Canadian and British units. As quickly as possible, the board of inquiry was convened and travelled from the UK to the operational theatre to begin its investigation.

The board of inquiry has conducted a thorough investigation with the material available to it. Throughout this process the board has been assisted by other independent agencies, including two air accident investigators from the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport. It has been unable to identify with absolute certainty the cause of the fire. None the less, the board has deduced the most probable area where the fire started, and the probable causes of the events and factors that led to it.

The board of inquiry concluded that the crash was not survivable. The cause was a fire that most likely resulted from escaped fuel igniting against a hot pipe in a compartment near the starboard wing-fuselage attachment—the No. 7 tank dry bay, not in the bomb bay as some have previously suggested. The fuel probably gained access to the pipe through a gap between two types of insulation. The fuel most likely came from one of two sources: a pressure-relief device in the main fuel tank, which may have released fuel during air-to-air refuelling, or a leaking fuel coupling.

It is clear that the crew of Nimrod XV230 faced a series of complex and demanding emergencies. Throughout this incident they acted in an exemplary manner, calmly performing drills initiated by their captain in an attempt to save their aircraft. All are a credit to their respective services and to their families. I am sure the whole House will join me in honouring their bravery and their professionalism.—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

This was a tragic accident, but there were a number of contributory factors that the board has identified. Both fuel and hot air components are present together in the No. 7 tank dry bay. The underestimation of that hazard was considered by the board as a contributory factor. Further possible contributory factors that could not be discounted and which are subject to further investigation include the fuel and hot air systems maintenance policy, the age of some of the component parts, the lack of a fire detection and suppression system within the No. 7 tank dry bay, and the failure to consider the cumulative effects of a number of changes to the air-to-air refuelling capability when it was formally incorporated into the aircraft in 1989.

The board found no evidence that the maintenance or servicing conducted on the aircraft was a cause or contributory factor in the loss of XV230. It also concluded that, while the continued commitment to long-term operations places pressure on the Nimrod force, there was no evidence that this was a cause or factor in the loss of the aircraft.

It is clear to me that some of the findings of the board of inquiry identify failings for which the Ministry of Defence must take responsibility. On behalf of the MOD and the Royal Air Force, I would like to say sorry for those failings to the House, but most of all to the families of those who lost their lives.

At the time of the accident, the Department took action to ensure that a similar scenario could not occur again on the Nimrod aircraft. Those measures have been revised as the board’s findings have emerged. The chain of command has accepted the majority of the board’s recommendations and continues to pursue the outstanding recommendations made by the board to enhance the safety of our aircraft.

The hot air system remains switched off so that there is no hot pipe against which any fuel could ignite, and we have an enhanced inspection regime to examine for any sign of fuel leakage. QinetiQ has conducted an independent investigation into the fuel system and confirmed that, in light of the measures taken since the crash, the fuel system is safe to operate. Air-to-air refuelling has also been suspended subject to further investigation. The Chief of the Air Staff’s professional judgment is that the Nimrod fleet is safe to fly. I have accepted his advice.

By its nature, the board was not in a position to go into the history of those arrangements or to assess where responsibility lies for failures. I do not underestimate the difficulties that face those responsible for assuring aircraft safety. Flying will never be risk-free. But I do believe that the families of those who died are due more of an explanation of the history than the board of inquiry could be expected to provide. I have therefore decided to put in place a review of the arrangements for assuring the airworthiness and safe operation of the Nimrod aircraft over its service life; to assess where responsibility lies for any failures; to assess more broadly the process for compiling safety cases, taking account of best practice in the civilian and military world; and to make recommendations.

I intend that the review should be led by a senior Queen’s counsel assisted by technical experts on aviation systems, who will examine all relevant papers and interview all those in a position to assist. BAE Systems, the aircraft designer, and QinetiQ, which supported the Department in consideration of the safety case findings, have agreed that the review will have their companies’ full co-operation. The review will be able to recommend a full public inquiry if that is considered necessary and will keep the families of those who died informed of progress. We will publish the findings of the review, subject to considerations of operational security. I shall make a statement shortly confirming the membership and terms of reference of the review.

All the families have already received lump-sum payments through the armed forces pension scheme or the armed forces compensation scheme and, where appropriate, ongoing pensions are now in payment. However, we are also in contact with lawyers representing a number of the families over additional claims for common law compensation. I have directed that those claims be assessed and settled as quickly as possible and I have directed that substantial interim payments be made to those families where appropriate.

I recognise that the board of inquiry report will be painful reading for many, but I hope that the families and friends will take some comfort in finding answers to many of the questions that arise after an incident such as this.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for the briefing earlier today.

This is a grim day. I echo the Secretary of State in conveying the profound condolences of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and all Conservative Members to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragic incident, and in paying tribute to the immense courage and professionalism of the crew of Nimrod X-ray Victor 230, who gave their lives in the service of our country. Their role, and that of their fellow Nimrod crews, continues to be vital for military operations.

The tragedy should bring home to the nation the very real sacrifices being made on its behalf by the men and women of our armed forces, not least in the Royal Air Force, whose fixed-wing and helicopter crews are constantly exposed to danger on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also thank the board of inquiry for completing an extremely thorough job in very demanding circumstances. Although it is clear that the board has been unable to establish definitively the cause of the crash, its analysis would seem to be as accurate as it is possible to be.

Two key issues arise. First, although the age of the aircraft itself may have been ruled out as an issue, the systems failures are clearly a factor of age and maintenance. With on average 40 fire-related incidents a year for the past 20 years and 52 fuel leaks in a six-month period last year, both the Royal Air Force and the manufacturer were acutely aware of the potential hazards arising from the Nimrod’s ageing systems. Secondly, the aircraft should have been replaced by the MRA4 four years ago. It is nothing short of a scandal that the new aircraft will not enter service for at least another four years.

As the Secretary of State confirmed, the report is detailed. Many detailed technical questions arise, but I shall confine myself to just six. First, why was the recommendation, made by BAE Systems in 2004, to install a hot air leak warning in the location of the hot air ducting rejected following an earlier incident involving another Nimrod? Secondly, is it true that the investigation carried out last year by QinetiQ found that repair teams were using out-of-date manuals and equipment, and that there was

“considerable loss of expertise and experience as trade specialists have left the team”?

If so, is not that an example of the dangerous run-down in Royal Air Force numbers, which are now 1,500 below strength?

Thirdly, since the hot air pipe running past the No. 7 fuel tank was effectively redundant because the requirement for an on-board systems cooling had reduced, why was not it removed or rendered inoperable before now?

Fourthly, the board finds that the fuel and hot air systems maintenance policy was a contributory factor to the loss of the aircraft. Why has guidance on ageing aircraft systems, which was recommended in 2006, not been issued?

Fifthly, if all air-to-air refuelling involving Nimrod aircraft is suspended, does not that seriously inhibit the aircraft’s ability to carry out its vital role in Afghanistan?

Sixthly, how does the Secretary of State intend to manage with the elderly fleet for the next four years, as fuel leaks continue to increase?

Does this tragic incident reveal the underlying truth: our armed forces are operating at a tempo well in excess of that for which they are resourced? I hope that the Secretary of State can dismiss as wholly untrue today’s press reports that the Prime Minister is looking for a further £15 billion of cuts to the defence budget.

Today, every serviceman and woman, together with their families, will look to the Secretary of State, in exercising his duty of care towards them, to stand up for them and demand that they have the resources to do the job.

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has an appreciation from his own service of the challenges that the Royal Air Force faces and the risks that are associated with the job that it does? His words will be welcomed by the RAF and especially by the families and communities that support it. They are appropriate words to recognise the scale and nature of the sacrifice that people are prepared to make and the challenges that they are prepared to face. I thank him for them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the age of Nimrod, which, as he knows from the detailed briefing that he received, the board of inquiry raises and believes to be, in a limited respect, a contributory factor. The key issue, as I am sure he knows, about an aircraft is whether it is fit to fly. The board of inquiry confirmed that the Nimrod has a very good safety record overall. That is incontrovertible. As I said, the board of inquiry identified age as a contributory factor, but we need to consider that in the context of the whole report. It identified two components, whose condition may have been affected by age. Since the incident, the important thing is that we have removed the hazard by turning off the source of ignition, without which a fire is not possible.

I did not recognise the circumstances that informed the hon. Gentleman’s first question, but that may be a failing on my part. As with several questions that he poses, I am sure that he accepts that it falls squarely in the remit of the review that I have announced today. Those questions are entitled to an answer. They cannot be answered by the BOI and should be answered by a process of independent investigation, and I have therefore set up the review. The questions will be passed on directly to the principal reviewer when he is appointed. Indeed, any other questions that Opposition Front Benchers identify as needing to be asked should be fed into the process in due course.

In dealing with the comprehensive questions that the hon. Gentleman posed, let me deny that there is any truth in the story in the media this morning to which he referred. There is no truth in it.

On the basis of the BOI report and its conclusions, the three matters that one could have identified as contributory factors as a consequence of resources were considered and specifically said not to be contributory factors to the accident. They were: maintenance—not the system or policy of maintenance, but maintenance itself; servicing the aircraft; and operational pressures, about which the hon. Gentleman made, with all due respect to him, inappropriate observations. Those matters were all considered by the BOI, in an entirely independent fashion, not to have been contributory factors in the accident.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of operational effectiveness in the absence of air-to-air refuelling. That will of course restrict the amount of time for which the Nimrod can fly, but it can fly for nine hours without such refuelling. As he knows, other ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—resources are being deployed to the operational theatre that could be used to gain the information that operations require.

I wish to express my condolences and sympathy to the family and friends of the fallen servicemen. The 14 men deserve our utmost gratitude and admiration for their service to the country.

I commend the Secretary of State for the way in which he delivered the statement: he always gets these situations right and strikes the appropriate tone.

I welcome the statement and the board of inquiry report, which is comprehensive and detailed. However, 14 months is far too long to wait, especially given that there is to be a further inquiry into this incident. That has not been fair on the families, who wanted earlier answers. Can the Secretary of State assure us that such delays will not be repeated in future?

Why were the warning signs—the significant increase in coupling and seal leaks in recent years, the blow-off fuel from tank No. 1 draping the side of the aircraft in previous sorties, and the gaps in insulation of the hot air piping—not heeded? Is not that a failure of the process rather than individual judgments?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a review, which should help to provide some of the answers that the board of inquiry was unable to provide. Fundamentally, however, why are we still relying on an aircraft design that is almost 40 years old, is based on a failed civilian version and was originally intended for hunting Russian subs? Was the in-service date for the new MRA4 delayed because of failures by Ministers to make a decision? Are not the Government forcing the ethos of the armed forces to change from “can do” to “make do”?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of condolence and support for our armed forces, particularly for those most directly associated with the Nimrod force, who will find them welcome.

As I explained, the board of inquiry process is a creature of statute. It is required to take place, it is instructed by the commissioning authority, which is the command of the RAF, and it is entirely independent of Ministers and should continue to be so. It is an important process as it stands in that environment, uninfluenced by Ministers. I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman assurances in relation to the length of time that the board of inquiry has taken—about 14 months, as he said. As he will be aware, the commissioning authority reconvened the board when it had reported because there were unanswered questions that it wished to have answered. That is entirely how the process is intended to work. It is self-contained and does not report until it is complete. That is in the control of the board, and so it should remain.

Nobody should infer from what I have said that there is any criticism of the way in which the board of inquiry conducted its affairs or the time that it took. This was a very complex inquiry with a very small amount of evidence, and I think that it has done an absolutely excellent job with the evidence that was available in working out what most likely happened to the Nimrod XV230. I do not think that there is any room for saying that if it had done it more quickly it would have done a better or more appropriate job. I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say about failures. He expresses in different words the failures identified by the BOI and that raise the questions required by the supplementary review.

I would like to deal with an issue raised by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that I did not address—the in-service date for the replacement MRA4. That has been delayed by about seven years. The principal reason for the delay has been technical challenges in the design and production of the MRA4, and we have had to extend the period of service for which we plan to keep the present MR2 fleet in use. I have to say, however, that despite the age of this aircraft, it is still considered to be the premier maritime patrol aircraft in the world. In other air forces around the world, older aircraft are performing perfectly good jobs.

The age issue is relevant, as the board of inquiry identifies, but the most important question is whether the aircraft is fit to fly. Not only because of its very good safety record, but because of the application of the recommendations of the board of inquiry and the lessons learned from it, and the institution of further safety measures that have taken place as a result of our increasing knowledge—particularly of this incident—I am absolutely clear that the aircraft is airworthy and is fit to fly.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and I concur with everything he said about the bravery of the RAF crew. There is nothing new in the use of ageing aircraft, or the considerable extension of the life of aircraft, but by definition, older aircraft are harder to maintain, and the propensity for accidents to occur becomes greater. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is in a position to do anything to bring forward the in-service date for the replacement of the Nimrod.

I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing a point that I have now made twice, but which bears repeating. The calendar age of an aircraft is not an indicator of its operational utility, its condition or its remaining service life. The Nimrod is maintained to strict standards and if we did not have confidence in the aircraft, we would not allow it to fly. Moreover, it is common practice in military and civil aviation for what are known as ageing aircraft audits to be carried out to ensure the structural integrity of the airframe of an aircraft. A Nimrod audit was conducted in 1993 and reviewed in 2003. That process takes place every 10 years, and as an additional safety measure, we are extending the scope of the audit to consider the age of the internal components of the aircraft, such as the fuel system, as well as its structure.

As for the replacement Nimrod MRA4, the in-service date is still 2010. I have explained the reasons for the delay in bringing it into service. Although that is disappointing, it has been necessary to ensure that the technical issues that arose were resolved prior to production of the aircraft, which began last year. I am not in a position to suggest to the House with any confidence that that date could be brought forward, given that production of the new aircraft started only last year.

We have heard of the lack of a fire-detection and suppression system. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the review will cover? Will it be limited to the Nimrod aircraft, or will it also cover things like explosive suppressant foam in this and other aircraft?

Does there not seem to be a difference in approach to the safety issues that face us? When danger is discovered on the railways, no expense is spared to put everything right as early as possible. Is there a difference in approach when it comes to dealing with the armed forces? I hope that there is not. Will the review cover lots of different types of aircraft, and what will be the criteria on which the Secretary of State accepts or rejects any call for a public inquiry?

The issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises in relation to fire detection and suppression will of course be part of the review. Given the probable cause of the accident, had the risk from the hot pipe in that void of the aircraft been correctly estimated, it is almost certain that a range of options to reduce the likelihood of a fire would have been considered. The options may have included redesign, to fit a fire suppression system in the dry bay, as it is known, but it is much more likely that action to prevent the risk by removing the potential ignition source would have been taken, and that is exactly what we have done since the loss of the XV230.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether such events are responded to appropriately when they occur. The decision to shut off that source of ignition was taken within a matter of days of the loss. There have been ongoing changes in relation to the safety of the aircraft in response to information as it emerges. We did not wait until the board of inquiry reported.

It is not my intention to conduct a wide-ranging review beyond the circumstances of this incident for a very good reason: I am conscious that part of the purpose of the review is to answer the questions that the families have, which are revealed by the board of inquiry. I am anxious—I have spoken to some of the families today, who also expressed this anxiety, which is perfectly understandable—that we should not have a process that delays the point at which they can achieve closure on the events, start to deal with their grieving and move on with their lives. I am very conscious of that. A further inquiry would of course be expected in the form of a coroner’s inquest into the incident. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I shall have to balance all those considerations.

In answer to the point that the right hon. Gentleman raised about whether we are concerned that the failings in the analysis and in the safety case for the Nimrod may have been repeated in other aircraft, we have asked those who have responsibility for safety cases to review them all in the light of the findings of the BOI, to ensure that there are no such failings in safety cases for other aircraft.

Order. I understand hon. Members’ concerns and interest in this statement, but I ask for a single question and a single response, so that more may put their questions.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s expressions of sympathy for the bereaved families in their dreadful loss. He is aware that they are looking for openness and transparency, yet were not included in the board of inquiry process. Will he therefore consider providing reasonable legal costs for those families, so that they can be represented at the inquest into the deaths on an equal footing with the MOD?

Because of the nature of a board of inquiry, it would have been entirely inappropriate for the families to be engaged in the process in the way that my hon. Friend suggests they could have been. The purpose of the board of inquiry was to identify what had happened and what lessons could be learned from that, in relation to the causes of the accident. I will consider to the issue that she raised in relation to the coroner’s inquest. I am conscious that coroners are independent of Government and that the process of a coroner’s inquest is designed to proceed in a particular way. I do not want to make decisions that change the character of a coroner’s inquest for reasons to do with the circumstances of an individual case, but I will give the issue some consideration.

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and for the Ministry of Defence’s efforts in briefing the families and parliamentarians today. I also welcome the review that he initiated in his statement. The inquiry confirmed that the crew did everything that they could in the circumstances to save the aircraft. They were brave professional aviators to the last. That is recognised at RAF Kinloss, and by the entire service and civilian community in Moray. We pay tribute to the crew today.

The inquiry has found that the age of the Nimrod aircraft was a possible contributory factor to the crash in Afghanistan. That is a serious cause for concern as it impacts on the rest of the fleet, which is nearly 40 years old. Only recently, another Nimrod aircraft suffered a serious fuel leak and it has proved impossible fully to understand why it happened. It is also a cause for concern that the inquiry confirmed the loss of experienced engineering personnel from RAF Kinloss. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence will do everything in its power to restore confidence in the Nimrod fleet, which performs such a vital military role?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I also pay tribute to him as the MP for the area in which RAF Kinloss is based for supporting those families and the community through a very difficult time and for the very responsible and professional way in which he has dealt with me over this very difficult issue. I have no hesitation in giving him the reassurance that he seeks. The safety of those who fly in these aircraft is our priority; it is not secondary to any other consideration. I have given careful thought to the issue of age and to all the other issues identified in the BOI as contributory factors. I am assured—and I accept those assurances—by those who have the vast technical ability and experience to understand these matters, and having gone into them in detail myself, that this aircraft is safe to fly and airworthy. I would not allow it to fly if I did not believe that to be the case.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement about the inquiry, in which he said that all those in a position to assist will be interviewed? Will he confirm that that includes all service personnel who have relevant information and, indeed, ex-personnel who flew Nimrods in similar circumstances in the past?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Part of the reason for making this announcement is that, around this terribly tragic incident and in the time it has quite properly taken the BOI to come to its conclusions, there has been a lot of speculation and partial leaks of bits of information into the public domain. I know that some of it has been extremely distressing for the families involved. I am seeking to provide an independent comprehensive process of assurance to the families and others that the questions they want answered can be answered. I believe that that process can answer those questions and I am sure that a number of people will want to contribute to it. It is not for me to describe in detail from the Dispatch Box absolutely everybody who should be allowed to contribute to the process. The reviewer and those who support him will have to make that decision, but I am absolutely certain that he will want to speak to the category of person that my hon. Friend identified.

When we hear, as we did from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), explanations of the cost pressures on the number of personnel involved with maintenance and when we hear that decisions to fit fire-suppressant kits had not been followed through, it is very hard for Members to accept that cost has had no bearing on the maintenance of this aircraft. Will the Secretary of State explain what he meant when he said earlier:

“The chain of command has accepted the majority of the board’s recommendations and continue to pursue the outstanding recommendations”?

What does he mean in particular by “pursue the outstanding recommendations”? Why have all the recommendations not been accepted, or are there cost implications for them as well?

The hon. Gentleman will have time to read the BOI report in due course. All I am doing in this statement is reporting on that report. The three possible sources of contributory factors—maintenance, servicing and operational pressures—that could have been created by cost pressures have been discounted by the BOI. I have already said and will not repeat where the failings lie. In my view, those failings are best pursued in terms of investigation through the review that I will set up. That review will go back a considerable distance because it will need to. It will, of course, be open to the reviewer to consider where decisions may have been made in relation to cost.

There were 33 recommendations, 21 of which have been accepted outright by the chain of command and the implementation of eight of which is being actively considered. Four have not been accepted. On recommendation 5—a recommendation to determine the specific life of fuel seals—the judgment was that a better precaution would be to take mitigating action through an improved inspection regime and a targeted seal replacement programme. Experience shows that the life of seals varies, and that simply replacing the seals at an arbitrary point may introduce more problems and have a detrimental effect on safety. One recommendation, on the utility of parachute escape on a Nimrod aircraft, is not being pursued as it is not considered feasible. Recommendation 20, to review the design of the No.1 fuel tank, is not being pursued because it has been addressed by the limiting of the amount of fuel in the tank. Recommendation 28, to increase the stock of BOI kits, is not being pursued because BOI kits are available from other sources.

I welcome the announcement of the review. Along with other members of the Defence Committee, I met Nimrod crews in Kandahar earlier in the year. They are doing a tremendous job in very difficult circumstances. I also welcome the announcement that the families will not have to fight for compensation through the civil courts, and that the Secretary of State wants to settle very early.

Rumours are circulating in the aviation press that both BAE Systems and QinetiQ informed the MOD about the fuel problem two years ago. When the review takes place, will those rumours be thoroughly investigated? If they are accurate, we need to know why no action was taken, and also why the individuals concerned made that decision.

There is a very straightforward answer to my hon. Friend’s question. That is exactly the sort of issue that the review will have to investigate.

The review is of course welcome, but will the Secretary of State address himself again to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) about fire suppression systems? In particular, will the inquiry be able to examine American practice in this context?

I believe that the terms of reference of the review will specifically require it to look beyond our shores—beyond civil and military aircraft in the United Kingdom, and into the international field—when considering what recommendations to make.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the new generation of Nimrod aircraft being built in Woodford, in my constituency, are technically and operationally far superior to the aircraft currently in use? Given the present operational difficulties and resulting bad publicity for the aircraft, has he a message for the 1,200 dedicated workers who are employed on the new MRA4 project?

The new MRA4 is exactly that—a new aircraft, which has been mostly designed as new from first principles. It has modern design features and safety standards including complete refurbishment of the fuselage structure, bomb bay doors and tail assembly, along with other significant safety features. Moreover, 94 per cent. of the parts are new, compared with those of the MR2. I understand that the aircraft is now in production. Testing and commissioning processes will then be necessary. From the information I have received—this is why I signed a production contract last year—those responsible for construction have faced significant technical challenges, but have overcome them and will be producing a world-class aircraft.

We are all desperately sorry about the 14 servicemen who lost their lives in this incident. The Secretary of State has come to the House to apologise for specific failings which he has identified, and for which the Ministry of Defence must take responsibility. What are they?

They are the failings that are spelt out in the BOI report, which I listed in short in my statement. They can be found in more detail in the expanded statement that I have placed in the Library of the House, and which will be available to Members. They are specifically failings in relation to the failure of the safety case to identify the nature of the hazard of the collocation of the hot pipe and a possible fuel leak.

The Secretary of State has confirmed that the fire-suppressant system lies at the heart of the inquiry, but bearing in mind that there are more than 40 fire-related or smoke-related incidents every year on Nimrods, surely the Secretary of State owes it to the House—and, indeed, the RAF—to explain why not one, but two, reports highlighting the problems and dangers as a result of the absence of a fire-suppressant system were ignored. The Government should come clean and say why those important reports were ignored.

Let me say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, there have been fires on board Nimrods—there is no question about that—but this is the only incident of a fuel fire on board a Nimrod. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman ought not to leave the House with the impression that there are no fire-detection and suppression systems fitted to the Nimrod MR2, because there are: it contains a number of fire-detection and suppression systems, which are fitted as appropriate to areas of the aircraft where a potential fire hazard has been identified. Now that the BOI report has been completed, the Nimrod IPT—integrated project team—will consider forms of hazard investigation as part of the Nimrod safety case. If there was indeed a failure to fit fire-suppressant systems to the bomb bay—and I do not accept that that was a failure—that will be just the sort of issue that the review will need to look at. That is precisely the sort of question it must answer, and it would be inappropriate of me to anticipate the outcome of the review.

The Secretary of State is aware that Europe is trying to have a military aviation authority. Will he explain why Rolls-Royce, which has been pushing the Government to accept this standard for years, has been ignored? Will the Government sign up to the European military aviation authority, to bring military aircraft in line with civil aviation? If there is a problem, what is it? Will the Minister sign up to this as soon as possible?

I shall consider the issue the hon. Gentleman raises. I am not in a position today to give him a detailed response, but I shall write to him on it.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the way in which he has made the statement today, and also on the fact that he has highlighted the bravery and professionalism of the crew. All parents of RAF personnel are concerned when their children go into fields of operation. We are very proud of their bravery, but we expect the Government to do everything they can to make the equipment as safe as possible. I note that the Secretary of State said in the statement that the age of some of the components might be related to the accident. Has he instigated a programme of speeding up the replacement of components?

In respect of those components that were identified as aged and that might have been contributory factors, we have instituted specific changes to the maintenance and inspection policy. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of support for a service that I know is close to his heart for the very obvious reason he explained.