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Defence: Nimrod Crash

Volume 718: debated on Monday 22 March 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether there has been any change to the position regarding General Sir Sam Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger and the allegations made against them in the Haddon-Cave report on the Nimrod XV230 crash.

My Lords, first I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Captain Martin Driver, who died in Selly Oak Hospital last week from wounds sustained in Afghanistan, and of Lance Corporal Scott Hardy and Private James Grigg, who were killed in operations in Afghanistan recently. All were from 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment.

Before I answer the Question, I declare a past interest as a non-executive director of the DLO, the DPA and subsequently of Defence Equipment and Support. I assure noble Lords that in those roles I was not personally involved in any decisions relating to the matter before us, and that I have no interest, pecuniary or otherwise, to declare.

I turn now to the Question. The answer is no. The report was published last autumn. The Government are implementing its recommendations, but do not intend to make any further comment on Mr Haddon-Cave’s analysis of the roles of individuals.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that extremely disappointing reply and of course add my condolences in relation to the three people killed in Afghanistan whom he mentioned. The military covenant is the tangible expression of the nation’s loyalty to its Armed Forces in return for their loyalty to the nation. In his report on the tragic loss of Nimrod XV230, Mr Haddon-Cave QC publicly condemned two distinguished senior officers, General Sir Sam Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger, for imposing the defence cuts that were held partly to blame. Ministers, not senior officers, impose defence cuts, so can the Minister tell the House when the Government will heal this clear breach of the military covenant and demonstrate their loyalty to these now-retired officers by publicly refuting their unwarranted traduction for implementing ministerial direction?

My Lords, I have nothing to add on the case of the two individuals. The Minister of Defence accepted his responsibility. He also accepted the direct recommendations of the report and the wider criticism, and we are acting to implement that report. As I said, we have nothing to add on the case of the individuals.

My Lords, we on these Benches send our condolences to the families and friends of Captain Driver, Corporal Hardy and Private Grigg of the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment. During the Nimrod Statement, the noble Lord said that he could not comment on these two officers because of a separate police investigation into two senior serving Royal Air Force officers. What is happening to this police investigation and what is the connection with the officers mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham?

My Lords, I did indeed say that I could not comment for that reason. It is perfectly true that there is a general connection and that that could become a problem. However, on reflection, I think we have to say that quite honestly it is not appropriate to elaborate on the Haddon-Cave report, and we do not think it useful to second-guess that inquiry. I cannot comment on what will happen with these cases. They are in the hands of the Royal Air Force Police, to which they were directed following consultation with the Director of Service Prosecutions. I can say no more until the cases come to court or are dropped.

My Lords, first, I associate myself and these Benches with the condolences that have been expressed to the families and friends of the soldiers of the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment who were killed in action. Will the Minister confirm that these officers were carrying out government policy when they were serving? If not, why were they still allowed to serve?

I assume we are talking about the two officers who have retired. It is true that the DLO was required to make these savings. It was expected that efficiencies would be made as a result of restructuring the Defence Logistics Organisation, merging three organisations into one, so it was indeed a government policy for which the Government were responsible. We have commented elsewhere that we have to see whether our systems can be improved to make sure that financial pressures never come into safety decisions. Indeed, we have affirmed that we are putting safety first.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, who was Defence Secretary at the time, says that he accepts full responsibility for the efficiency targets that he set for the Defence Logistics Organisation. He went on to say that Haddon-Cave made no attempt to interview Ministers, so,

“it was particularly unfair and unjust to name General Cowan … the first ever Chief of Defence Logistics, and his successor, Air Chief Marshal Pledger”.—[Official Report, 16/12/09; col. 1607.]

Do Her Majesty’s Government agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and, if not, why not?

My Lords, the Government accept the position that my noble friend Lord Robertson set out about responsibility for the cuts. He was clear that it was the intention of the Government of the day that efficiencies should be achieved. However, we will not comment on what my noble friend said about the individuals concerned. He offers a view from the evidence, and that is the only evidence that we have. We do not believe that it makes sense to second-guess the inquiry and we will not do so.