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Nimrod Review

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2009

I am today publishing the report of the independent review that the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), announced on 4 December 2007 following the loss of Nimrod aircraft XV230 over Afghanistan on 2 September 2006. Fourteen members of the armed forces tragically lost their lives on that day.

The Ministry of Defence must take responsibility for many of the failings identified in the board of inquiry. My predecessor said as much at the Dispatch Box in December 2007, when he announced that we were setting up an independent review under a senior Queen’s counsel, Mr. Charles Haddon-Cave, to look into the events that led to the loss. I am grateful to Mr. Haddon-Cave, who has provided a rigorous and powerful report. It will be very distressing reading for many, and particularly for those families who lost their loved ones three years ago.

On behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Air Force, I would like again to say sorry to all the families who lost loved ones. I am sorry for the mistakes that have been made and that lives have been lost as a result of our failure. Nothing I can say or do will bring these men back, but for their sake, and for the sake of those families, friends and former colleagues who grieve, we can provide clarity about what actually happened, where failings occurred and what must be done to ensure that, as far as possible, this never happens again.

Flying, especially in a military context, is never without risk. We have an obligation to our people to understand and manage those risks and to ensure they are as low as reasonably practicable. The safety of our personnel is of paramount importance and that is why the report is so significant. Mr. Haddon-Cave was asked to review 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 into account best practice in the civilian and military world, and to make recommendations. In his report, Mr. Haddon-Cave has been critical of both the MOD and our industrial partners, at both organisational and individual levels. He has stated clearly that the loss of XV230 was preventable.

As he was asked to do, Mr. Haddon-Cave has also made a number of recommendations in his report about what we must do to learn lessons for the future. He has proposed new key principles around which we should base our airworthiness processes—leadership, independence, people and simplicity.

I met Mr. Haddon-Cave this morning and we discussed his report. It identifies numerous weaknesses in the airworthiness system that we will address thoroughly and urgently, but he has confirmed to me that his report does not raise concerns over the actual airworthiness of individual fleets, and I have been assured by the Chief of the Air Staff and the defence chief airworthiness engineer that our fleets remain safe to fly. I have full confidence in our people carrying out airworthiness duties, but we need to ensure that they are supported by an improved process.

Mr. Haddon-Cave also states that, in our pursuit of financial savings, the MOD and the RAF allowed their focus on safety to suffer. We accept this with regard to the Nimrod XV230. As a Department, we have a duty to continue to seek efficiencies in how we deliver defence, but I am absolutely clear that that must not be done with any detriment to safety.

The two officers still serving in the RAF who are strongly criticised in the report have been moved to staff posts that have no responsibility for safety and airworthiness. The RAF will now consider what further action should be taken in relation to these officers, in light of the evidence uncovered by the report. Mr. Haddon-Cave has, quite rightly, made it abundantly clear that he wants the Department to produce a considered response to his report.

We will now examine all aspects of the report, produce a full response and update the House before the Christmas recess. I have set this challenging timetable because I want to ensure that we can act with confidence that the right decisions will be made and that the necessary work will be seen through.

We have not been idle waiting for the outcome of Mr. Haddon-Cave’s review. Let me set out briefly what the Ministry has already done in the three years since the loss of Nimrod XV230. We have implemented a comprehensive programme of work to ensure that we can have confidence in the safety and airworthiness of the Nimrod aircraft as it is today. This involves implementing the recommendations of the board of inquiry, and includes ceasing the use of the air-to-air refuelling system, as well as of the aircraft’s relevant hot air systems while the aircraft is in flight, and adopting an enhanced aircraft maintenance and systems inspection regime. We do not allow Nimrod aircraft to fly without having had their engine bay hot air ducts replaced, and we have introduced an ageing aircraft systems audit focused on guaranteeing the safety of the Nimrod’s systems for the remainder of its service life. This included a forensic-level inspection of a Nimrod aircraft.

We have applied these lessons to other aircraft as necessary, taking steps to examine, review, strengthen and improve the systems for assuring safety and airworthiness. We are aware that the implications stretch more broadly across defence to other items of equipment, and so we have also scrutinised our safety management processes and organisation with great care.

Safety is now given absolute priority at the highest levels in the MOD. It is the first point on the agenda at every senior management team meeting, and this flows down throughout the organisation as a whole. As a demonstration of our commitment to improved safety and airworthiness, we have also established a new senior post, that of the defence chief airworthiness engineer, to provide improved assurance to me that the whole technical airworthiness process, from end to end—that is, from industry through project teams to the front line—is in accordance with the Department’s regulations. Mr. Haddon-Cave welcomes this in his report as a step in the right direction. We are working hard to ensure that we capture the lessons from incidents and inquiries to improve our safety. As an organisation, the MOD is changing its culture and approach to put safety first.

All these measures ensure that we can continue to fly the Nimrod safely and that it can continue to conduct its essential work in the remaining months of its service life. Mr. Haddon-Cave undertook at the outset of his review to issue an urgent interim report outlining his concerns, if he found evidence that the Nimrod fleet was not safe to fly. As he says in his report, he has not found it necessary to do so. He states in his report

“that appropriate and timely steps have been, and continue to be, taken by the MOD and the RAF to address the immediate airworthiness issues raised by the loss of XV230 and the BOI report and subsequent discoveries about the Nimrod fleet. Indeed, the level of scrutiny now applied to the Nimrod fleet is such that it is probably one of the most closely monitored operational military aircraft fleets in the world.”

The report is a tough read. Its subtitle—“A Failure of Leadership, Culture and Priorities”—is a stark judgment. We are determined to address this and the clear message in the report that we have to do more. I pay tribute, as does Mr. Haddon-Cave in his report, to the Nimrod communities, whom I commend for their skill and professionalism. The Nimrod continues to have an important role in the defence of this country, and the current fleets are, on current plans, very shortly to be replaced by new aircraft.

Our armed forces are truly the best in the world, and we are committed to providing them with all the support that they need, including learning the lessons and making the changes for the better if tragedies occur. Let me say again that the safety of our personnel is of paramount importance. In the case of Nimrod XV230, we failed. We cannot undo this. Nothing will bring back those 14 men, and for their grieving families, the loss will be with them for ever. I will do everything in my power to guard against anything like this happening again. I am today placing a copy of Mr. Haddon-Cave’s report in the Library of the House.

For the families of those whose lives were lost, today will bring back painful memories and reawaken emotions of grief and anger. Our thoughts are with all those families today.

The House owes a great debt to Charles Haddon-Cave for the report. It is a formidable indictment and describes multiple and repeated systemic failures. It is genuinely shocking. Its most damning central conclusion is that there were previous incidents and warning signs that were ignored, and that the loss of the aircraft was avoidable.

The criticism of the Nimrod safety case is excoriating. The report says that it

“was a lamentable job from start to finish. It was riddled with errors. It missed the key dangers. Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency, and cynicism.”

How will oversight of such projects occur in future?

The report is critical of the Nimrod integrated project team, and of QinetiQ and BAE, including specific individuals. How will these be dealt with, and how can we ensure that technical guarantees given to Ministers in the future by these and other companies can be relied upon and independently verified?

The Government as a whole must bear responsibility for the way in which the MOD has been treated under the pressure of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. As the report says:

“Financial pressures and cuts drove a cascade of multifarious organisational changes, which led to a dilution of the airworthiness regime and culture within the MOD, and distraction from safety and airworthiness issues as the top priority.”

Ministers themselves must address their failure of stewardship at the MOD. The report says:

“The shortcomings in the current airworthiness system in the MOD are manifold and include…a failure to adhere to basic Principles…a Military Airworthiness System that is not fit for purpose…a Safety Case regime which is ineffective and wasteful…an inadequate appreciation of the needs of Aged Aircraft…a series of weaknesses in the area of Personnel…an unsatisfactory relationship between the MOD and industry…an unacceptable Procurement process leading to serial delays and cost-overruns; and …a Safety Culture that has allowed ‘business’ to eclipse Airworthiness.”

This report must act as a wake-up call for us all—for politicians, for industry and for the military. Cutting corners costs lives. Wars cannot be fought on a peacetime budget, and there is a moral imperative that those who are willing to risk their lives in the armed service of their country should know at all times that everything is being done to maximise the chance of success of their mission and to minimise their risk in carrying it out. The failure to do this resulted in the death of 14 servicemen—the avoidable and preventable death of 14 servicemen. The report concludes:

“In my view”—

the aircraft—

“was lost because of a systemic breach of the Military Covenant brought about by significant failures on the part of all those involved.”

There could not be a more damning charge list.

I do not retreat from many of the comments made by the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Haddon-Cave asks us to implement an entire new airworthiness system and to address further the culture that he sees as the basic problem within the MOD and in parts of the armed forces. The only thing that I can say in mitigation is that that has been recognised, and recognised some time ago, and that a lot of work has been done throughout the time that I have been a Minister at the MOD to try to put those systems in the right place. Having looked at Mr. Haddon-Cave’s report, we have to make absolutely certain that we are going to the lengths that we need to to make certain that we recalibrate that culture within the Department. I am not sure whether we have got there yet, so there is more that we have to do.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a wake-up call, probably for far wider than just defence. The pursuit of efficiency is something that every organisation must do—public sector, private sector, Government and the rest. But sometimes organisations lose sight of some of the basic fundamentals as they try to drive in those efficiencies. We need to consider matters in detail, and we need to use the report as a tool to get the change that is absolutely necessary within the MOD. There were glaring dangers apparent in the aircraft for decades, and there were opportunities to spot those dangers, which were simply missed. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, apologised to the House for that. We knew that that was so at the time of the board of inquiry, and we need to repeat it and to have some due modesty about the situation that we find.

I thank the Secretary of State for his necessarily very sombre statement to the House this morning. This is a tragic case of an accident that could have been avoided. The 40-year history of Nimrod has, as the Secretary of State just acknowledged, been very difficult. Many critics of procurement in the MOD have their own candidates as to which has been the most bungled procurement. The distinction of Nimrod is that it has culminated in the tragedy of unnecessary deaths, and today’s report will certainly reawaken the sense of grief in the families and communities involved.

I welcome the candour of the Secretary of State’s admission of fault by the Government, and I welcome his saying that the MOD is changing its culture and approach to put safety first, but I regret that he had to acknowledge that that is necessary and was not always the case in the past.

This has not been a good few weeks for the Government, with Bernard Gray’s report last week indicating a culture of poor process, indecision and mismanagement, and we must all hope that lessons are learned. The case under discussion has been one of wake-up calls from previous incidents not being heeded. The report in 1998 gave warnings that were not taken on board by those managing the project, and, as today’s report says, that was the

“best opportunity to prevent the accident”,

and it “was, tragically, lost”.

The report is also damning of industry, which it accuses of “incompetence, complacency and cynicism.” There is always a danger with flying military aircraft, but some of those issues were unnecessary and avoidable, and the lives of personnel have been lost. BAE Systems, as our biggest defence contractor, finds itself on the wrong end of some scathing words. Its involvement in the Nimrod safety case was

“poorly planned, poorly managed and poorly executed, work was rushed and corners were cut.”

In addition to the errors in industry and in the MOD, Mr. Haddon-Cave refers in the report to “organisational trauma” in the MOD between 1998 and 2006 as a result of the 1998 strategic defence review. I hope very much that Ministers will dwell upon that and ensure that the forthcoming strategic defence review avoids any similar aftermath. Where will Nimrod feature in the new review? Can we please be assured that all the lessons of this appalling story will be learned for the future?

I do not disagree, again, with many of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We are not unaware of the weaknesses in the procurement system. We commissioned Bernard Gray’s report in the first place and we published it last week—I think that it was only last week—to help us to address those issues. Mr. Haddon-Cave, in his report, refers to procurement as part of the cause of the problem, and we need to make absolutely certain that we learn the right lessons, not the wrong lessons.

In the Nimrod saga, there has often been a focus on the safety of the aircraft itself and whether it should be grounded. Charles Haddon-Cave focuses on the systems themselves, and that is where the focus needs to be. There were systems that simply did not fit the purpose for which they were designed, and, instead of being distracted by other issues, that is where we must focus our attention and that is what we must put right. As the hon. Gentleman has said, safety cases have become completely distorted to the point where they simply are not—or were not, in this case—value for money or of any benefit at all. Putting those systems right has to be our overriding priority.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s attitude with regard to the statement. There was humility, and he said, “Sorry, we admit we got it wrong and we are going to put it right.” I await with interest the Government’s response to the report. He said that Nimrod issues were missed over the years, but will he change that to “ignored” over a number of years?

The report makes grim reading. Glaring dangers with the Nimrod aircraft existed for decades and were not recognised for decades. The safety casework was, as Mr. Haddon-Cave says, far and away the best opportunity to identify those dangers that were so clear to see, but it was missed. Despite great expertise and expense, the dangers were simply not identified, proving that the system was totally and utterly inadequate for the job.

As I listened to the Secretary of State’s words and read about the tick-box culture, I thought that he was genuinely sorry. However, I thought that he and, perhaps, all of us have no understanding of the massive job that we face in changing the culture not just of the Ministry of Defence, but of the country. In that respect, I was very pleased to see the Leader of the Opposition in his place, listening to the Secretary of State’s statement. However, if we are to change the culture, let us start here. The strength of this crushing report is that it was rigorously independent. But the Secretary of State has yet to accept the key recommendation of Bernard Gray’s review of acquisition—that the assessment of the equipment programme should be similarly rigorously independent. Why not; and, will the Secretary of State please do so?

I recognise that the lessons that we could learn from this episode are absolutely profound in terms of defence, and we have to try to learn them. However, they go far wider than defence. How do we get right in our modern world the balance between the pursuit of efficiency, which everybody wants us to pursue because nobody wants to pay more than they absolutely have to for equipment or capability, and making certain that we do not compromise safety in any way? We really have got to put in place systems that properly calibrate those priorities.

On Bernard Gray’s report, the one significant recommendation that I do not accept is that we will improve procurement by placing defence equipment and supply with a contractor-run organisation. We can and must do that by other means, and we have to have military knowledge properly plugged into our procurement processes. That recommendation would not be an aid to procurement; it would be a detriment.

I commend my right hon. Friend on the manner in which he registered the Government’s contrition for the events that have taken place, but I refer him to the assurance that he received from the Chief of the Air Staff and the defence chief airworthiness engineer that our fleets remain safe to fly. Had my right hon. Friend asked for such an assurance on 2 September 2006, would he not have received the same assurance? He says that he has full confidence in the people who carry out airworthiness duties, but how confident can the House be? Will he give an assurance now that no incident in the future will occur due to any fiscal shortfall?

If my hon. Friend manages to read the report, which is very lengthy and detailed, he will see that it contains words that could be read as indicating that Mr. Haddon-Cave himself feels that not only the Nimrod fleet, but some of our other aircraft fleets are not safe to fly today. The reason why I met Mr. Haddon-Cave this morning was to make absolutely certain that I understood what he was saying in his report—I thought that I did on my overnight reading of it, and he confirmed that this morning. It is not only the Chief of the Air Staff and the individual in the new position of defence chief airworthiness safety engineer who are telling me that the fleet is safe, but Mr. Haddon-Cave. Mr. Haddon-Cave says that, on Nimrod, he had been invited to make an interim report, if he felt that one was necessary, because of airworthiness considerations. He has not made that report. He assured me this morning that his report should not be read as saying that our current fleet or fleets are not safe as they fly today.

May I say to the Secretary of State that I accept that he is deeply distressed by the report and will do his best to implement the recommendations? May I also say that many of us fear that the long-standing disregard for safety, arising out of a concern for savings, may extend right across the MOD budget—for example, into the military budget, including armoured vehicles and the historical lack of body protection; the Navy, perhaps, with its submarines; and the RAF, with the Nimrod and, I fear, the Puma? Given all that, will he accept that the situation requires a change of culture at the highest level of the services, probably involving direct intervention from Ministers?

Yes, I do. I accept that savings were a part of the problem—I do not demur from that at all—but I do not think that the pursuit of savings alone is the cause of the problem. It is therefore necessary to drive through culture change. We have been trying to do that, as I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept. We have learned the lessons not only from Nimrod but from the deaths on the Tireless submarine a couple of years ago. We have tried to learn the lessons of our own boards of inquiry in trying to drive in the management and cultural change that is needed in the armed forces as well as in the MOD.

I welcome this hard-hitting and detailed report, as will my constituents, who wish all the best for everybody at RAF Kinloss and the families of the 14 brave service personnel who died aboard the Nimrod XV230. We have had an independent inquiry and inquests, we have had reviews, we have had numerous reports, and we have had analysis about Nimrod. At every stage, Ministers have given assurances that the right lessons would be learned and acted on. Clearly, they were not—so why should we have confidence in the assurances that we have heard today?

We commissioned the report because we knew that assurances were necessary given the findings of the board of inquiry—not through any fault of its own, but because the terms of reference of boards of inquiry mean that they do not consider the wider background and apportioning blame but the direct causes of the accident. There was an absolute necessity to commission this piece of work because it was obvious that some of the reasons for the crash went beyond the remit of the board of inquiry. I hope that we are able to reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents—many of the lost lived in his constituency—that we take this matter very seriously and are determined to drive in the change that is necessary. When I meet the families of service personnel who have lost their lives in very many circumstances, I find that their overriding desire is to know that their loved one did not lose their life in vain and that we genuinely learn the lessons of the loss that they have suffered; and that is what we must try to do.

The Mk 2 Nimrod is nearing the end of its service life. Indeed, part of the report exposes the fact that we have extended its out-of-service date repeatedly because of delays in the supply of a replacement. On current plans, the MR2 has only a few more months of service life left. However, I remind my hon. Friend that we also have the Nimrod R1, which is conducting vital operations in Afghanistan.

The MOD is very often—continually, it seems—criticised for its inability to provide the right equipment at the right place. Surely we can expect that when equipment is provided it is at least safe and airworthy. There are two stark facts in this report. First, Mr. Haddon-Cave refers again to the pursuit of financial savings and taking eyes off the safety ball; and secondly, he is very critical of our industrial partners. We heard what the Secretary of State said about the internal review that he is going to conduct within the MOD. What ultimate sanctions can be taken as regards our industrial partners, and how can they be called to account?

This is a very detailed report with some pretty far-reaching criticisms, not only of us but of others—individuals and companies, including important British companies. I therefore do not want to leap to conclusions about how we take these matters forward. I have promised to look in detail at every aspect of the report and to come back to the House before Christmas, and I will do that.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s saying that he is going to learn from Army boards of inquiry, because, as he knows, a second Army board of inquiry is due on my late constituent, Captain James Philippson.

I was pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is aware of the financial implications stretching more broadly across other items of defence equipment. Will he take that down to the lowest common denominator—namely, not just equipment that is out there and may not be functioning correctly, but the absence of equipment that should be there?

In the case of the hon. Lady’s constituent, she knows that we are awaiting a second Army board of inquiry. Her constituent was not at all happy with the outcome of the first Army board of inquiry, and I would not like to prejudge any findings that the second board of inquiry comes to.

The parents of one of the dead crew members live in my constituency. They find it almost impossible to get closure on the situation because of the time that it has taken to come up with these reports. Will the Secretary of State build into the MOD ethos the fact that the speed with which people need to know what happened is paramount? These parents and families need to know, as quickly as possible, the reason that their child, or whatever, died. Could we please have some form of timetable after a disaster for when the information comes back to this House?

I accept that the hon. Gentleman is genuine about the point that he makes. This was a big issue with me when I first became Minister for the Armed Forces over two years ago. These things go on for such a length of time that people cannot possibly get closure. However, I have come to accept that one cannot impose arbitrary timetables in such cases. The board of inquiry in this case took more than a year, which was very frustrating. We then had the inquests, and we then commissioned the Haddon-Cave review. We must be mindful, all the time, that there are grieving people suffering as a result of the process. However, when I talk to them they say that their first demand is thoroughness. Yes, they want speed, and yes, they want closure, but they do not want short cuts. We therefore cannot impose an artificial time line on these things.

The Nimrod aircraft was built at BAE Systems at Woodford; part of the site lies in my constituency. I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his assurance that all the recommendations will be implemented, as the crash was an absolute tragedy. However, will he not stand up for this wonderful aircraft that has done a magnificent job over the years? The R1 is still performing a brilliant role. Will he tell me, and all the work force still at BAE Systems at Woodford, that following this tragic accident, which I deeply regret—my condolences go out to the families of all those who were killed—the Nimrod will not be prejudiced in future purchases by the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Haddon-Cave pays glowing tributes to all those who were associated with the Nimrod, and rightly so. The overwhelming thrust of his report—I have not managed to read every single page and every detail overnight—is not an attack on the aircraft itself in any way: it is an attack on the systems that have effectively let our people down.

I thank the Secretary of State for the content and tone of his statement. He says that lessons have been learned and that there is still more to be done. As part of that process, will he look at the procurement programmes that he has already announced, such as the Puma extended life programme? That programme was much criticised by the Defence Committee, and there are modern alternatives that may prove to be better value and cheaper in the long run.

We must look at our procurement processes. The purpose of commissioning and delivering the Gray report was, in effect, to force us to do that. We will bring forward proposals for acquisition reform as part of the Green Paper process that the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Conservative party are co-operating with, and I hope that we will bring forward some work early in the new year. However, I do not want to get distracted into individual programmes and decisions that people may or may not agree with. This is a far bigger problem than that, and it needs to be considered at a comprehensive and strategic level.

I join the Secretary of State in expressing the sympathy of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the grieving families of the 14 servicemen who tragically lost their lives. I commend the Secretary of State on the manner in which he made his statement and the humility with which he has accepted the report. Can he guarantee that the failings that have been outlined will be corrected, and that a time scale will be given for when those corrections will be made?

There are many people in the MOD who, over the period I have been there, have been absolutely bent towards trying to ensure that we learn all the lessons that we need to learn to put safety in place. Nimrod has been a big part of that lessons learned process. There is a desire to do that, but are we at the right place? No, we are not. We have not yet achieved the culture change that needs to take place, but there is a huge desire to do so and I want to ensure that I encourage that and drive it through so that we get to where we need to be.

Three companies of my local Royal Anglian Regiment went to Afghanistan last week. They will welcome the Secretary of State’s gracious words, but there are of course implications for them in the report. Will he seek to ensure that the replacement aircraft that comes in soon will be able to operate from a base much nearer its operational zone? That may help to reduce risk.

I am not aware of the basing considerations that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I am more than happy to talk to him and listen to any representations that he has. Ensuring that we have sufficient surveillance for operations in Afghanistan is a vital part of keeping our people safe there. That surveillance is provided not only by Nimrod but by many other platforms, and we must ensure that we do all that we can to maintain the overall capability in the best possible shape that we can.