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Mull of Kintyre Review

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2011


My Lords, I wish to repeat a Statement that the Secretary of State made in the other place.

“Mr Speaker, I wish to announce the publication today of the Mull of Kintyre review, the report of the independent review of the evidence relating to the findings of the board of inquiry into the fatal accident of a Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter at the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994.

It is right that I should begin this Statement by paying tribute to the 29 people who died in this accident, one of the worst in the history of the Royal Air Force. As is well known, the passengers were members of the Northern Ireland security and intelligence community who were travelling to a meeting in Inverness, and their deaths were a huge blow to the security of this country. They were also a human tragedy for each of the 29 families who were devastated by the loss of their loved ones.

I pledged while in opposition that I would set up a review because I had worries that an injustice might have been done. The official conclusion that the accident was caused by the negligence to a gross degree of the two pilots on duty that day, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, had been criticised almost since the day it was reached. Doubt had been cast on the findings in different ways by the fatal accident review held in 1995, by the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee of this House in 1998 and 2000, and by the Select Committee appointed in another place in 2002.

A number of Members of this House have continued to voice their doubts over the findings of gross negligence, and I would wish to acknowledge the unflagging interest in the case shown by my honourable and right honourable friends the Members for North East Fife, Kensington, North East Hampshire, and North West Norfolk, and also by Sir John Major. I know that the Ministry of Defence considered those reports carefully, taking independent and specialist advice, but given the weight and breadth of the comments I thought it only right to ask an independent figure to check whether justice had been done.

I announced the establishment of the review—the first independent review of the evidence relating to the accident set up by the Government themselves—to the House on 16 September last year. It was my intention that its report, whatever its findings might be, should draw a line under this matter. It has been carried out by the distinguished former Scottish judge, Lord Philip, with the advice and support of a panel of three fellow Privy Counsellors, Lord Forsyth, Baroness Liddell, and my right honourable friend the Member for Gordon. I am extremely grateful to all four for their thorough and painstaking approach to the task and for the clarity with which they have presented their recommendations, which are unanimous.

Lord Philip and his colleagues have concluded that the finding that the pilots were negligent to a gross degree should be set aside and that the Ministry of Defence should consider offering an apology to the families of Flight Lieutenant Tapper and Flight Lieutenant Cook. I can tell the House today that I have accepted these recommendations. At a specially convened meeting of the Defence Council on Monday, it was decided that, to quote our decision,

‘the Reviewing Officers’ conclusions that Flight Lieutenants Tapper and Cook were negligent to a gross degree are no longer sustainable and must therefore be set aside. We therefore order that those findings shall be set aside’.

I am writing to the widows of the two pilots, to the father of Jonathan Tapper and the brother of Richard Cook to express the Ministry of Defence’s apology for the distress that was caused to them by the findings of negligence. I wish also to express that apology publicly in this House today.

Lord Philip’s analysis is very clear. To put it as briefly as I can, he identifies the central point as being that, according to the regulations in force at the time, a finding of negligence should have been made against air crew who had been killed in an accident only if there was “absolutely no doubt whatsoever” about the matter. Although the two air chief marshals who acted as the reviewing officers for the board of inquiry and made the findings themselves had no doubts on the matter, Lord Philip is clear that that is not enough. The question that needed to be asked was whether there was any scope for doubt in anyone’s mind. In this case, other, competent, persons did have doubts. That is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that the findings should not stand.

I would like to make four further points. First, this report does not purport to tell us exactly why Chinook ZD576 crashed. It is central to Lord Philip’s report that the exact cause will never be established, and I am convinced that pursuing the matter further would serve only to increase the distress of the family and friends of those who died in the accident. But those who allege a long-running conspiracy to cover up technical shortcomings in this aircraft will find no support here. The Chinook has had an excellent safety record since the disaster at the Mull. It has been a mainstay of our operations in successive theatres of war and it has the full confidence of those who fly it. On this occasion, however, the report reveals that the pilot expressed concerns that he felt unprepared to fly the aircraft.

Secondly, I want to emphasise that Air Chief Marshals Sir John Day and Sir William Wratten, now retired, who made the decision were and are highly respected and experienced airmen who acted at all times with full conviction as to the right and proper course and in good faith. They did not reach their decision lightly and they did ask for legal advice. Regrettably that legal advice, although subsequently endorsed by independent Queen’s Counsel, has now proved to be incorrect. I attach no personal blame to these distinguished officers and their advisers.

Thirdly, the procedures for investigation of air and other military accidents were changed some years ago, with the result that it is no longer the practice for boards of inquiry—now service inquiries—to ascribe blame to those involved, whether or not they survived the accident. This was because sometimes the business of ascribing blame can get in the way of finding out what actually happened and, most importantly, preventing any recurrence.

Fourthly, the report makes one further recommendation: that the Ministry of Defence should reconsider its policy and procedures for the transport of personnel whose responsibilities are vital to national security. I accept that recommendation too. It has implications for land and sea as well as air transport. I have directed my officials to ensure that the policy and procedures in place across all three services ensure that we do not unnecessarily risk so many individuals who are vital to national security on one vehicle. It is worth noting that Flight Lieutenant Tapper had asked for the passengers on the Chinook that crashed to be split between more than one helicopter.

This has been an unhappy affair that has caused much reflection within the Royal Air Force and anguish for the families of those who died, and particularly for those who were wrongly officially found to have been negligent to a gross degree. I hope that this report and the action that I have taken in response to it will bring an end to this chapter by removing this stain on the reputation of the two pilots”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State for Defence. As a result, an opportunity has been provided to enable noble Lords from all sides of the House to express their views in the light of the Statement on a tragedy that has been the subject of considerable comment and concern.

We pay tribute to the 29 people who died in the accident, and to the dignity and bravery of their families. We add our thanks to Lord Philip for his review of and report on the tragic accident in June 1994, when a Chinook mark 2 helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, and also to the panel of three Privy Counsellors who assisted Lord Philip in his work, two of whom are Members of your Lordships’ House.

The review was mainly of the written record of the board of inquiry and of other related evidence that, it was felt, might throw light on the findings of the board. The original board of inquiry made no finding of culpability, but the two reviewing officers made a finding of gross negligence in respect of the two pilots. It is unfortunate that some of Lord Philip's conclusions were apparently leaked, as they were fairly extensively reported over last weekend. Perhaps the Minister might like to comment on this in his response and tell us what action, if any, is being taken.

The principal recommendation that the board of inquiry finding of negligence to a gross degree should be set aside has been accepted and implemented by the Defence Council. Lord Philip felt that the Ministry of Defence should consider offering an apology to the families of Flight Lieutenant Tapper and Flight Lieutenant Cook. The Secretary of State for Defence has just given that apology and we agree with that.

There is also an issue of the large number of key personnel who were travelling together on the Chinook that crashed. The matter was reviewed after the board of inquiry and guidance was produced, and I note from the Statement that the Secretary of State intends to take another look at this issue to reassure himself that procedures are adequate and appropriate. Lord Philip has also commented on the board of inquiry procedures at the time of the accident but indicated that his concerns have been met by subsequent changes to those procedures.

The terms of reference of the review were:

“To examine all available evidence relating to the findings of the board of inquiry into the fatal accident at the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994; and to report conclusions to the Secretary of State for Defence as soon as possible”.

The review was not asked to make conclusions as to the cause of the accident but it did not find new evidence to suggest mechanical failure, and no safety issue with the Chinook mark 2 has been raised in the report. Lord Philip’s conclusion is very specific. He states that according to the regulations in force at the time, a finding of negligence should only have been made against air crew who had been killed in an accident if there was “absolutely no doubt whatsoever” about the matter. Lord Philip indicates that competent persons did have doubts, albeit not the reviewing officers, and that accordingly the findings should not stand.

It would appear that successive Secretaries of State, initially from the Conservatives and then from Labour, serving from the time of the incident until the last election, felt they should follow the view of the reviewing officers, which was backed up by legal advice, even though it now seems from Lord Philip’s report that the RAF’s own regulations were not followed since there was not the necessary level of proof—namely, “absolutely no doubt whatsoever”—which there should have been for a finding of gross negligence. Indeed, investigations by the Public Accounts Committee in 2000 and a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House in 2001 both found that the findings of the board of inquiry did not satisfy the burden of proof required.

The Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence accept Lord Philip’s finding that there was room for doubt on the matter and that therefore the finding of negligence to a gross degree was unjustified. We believe that, in the light of Lord Philip's report, the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence have made the correct decision. It is only right that if a finding of negligence to a gross degree is to stand, the evidence must be such as to leave no doubt whatsoever. Lord Philip has quite clearly found that not to be the case.

I have three questions to put to the Minister. In the Statement, it was said that the report reveals that the pilot expressed concerns that he felt unprepared to fly the aircraft. Could the Minister tell the House how this matter was dealt with at the time, and what lessons have been learned and implemented? Secondly, can the Minister say what issues surrounding compensation for the families of the deceased arise from the report? I hope that this now brings this matter to a conclusion—one that all will feel able to accept. With that sentiment in mind, I have only one further question to ask the Minister: will he confirm that there will now be no further reviews or enquiries seeking to establish the cause of the accident?

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for his support for the work carried out by Lord Philip and his review. I am also grateful to the noble Lord for his support for what my department is trying to do to establish what happened and what lessons can be learnt. Like the noble Lord I, too, pay tribute to the 29 people who died in this accident and to their families.

The noble Lord asked me several questions, the first of which was about the leaks. It was disappointing that Lord Philip’s main recommendation was widely reported over the weekend. We commenced enquiries immediately to establish who was responsible and those enquiries continue. There has been a lot of wild, inaccurate and unhelpful speculation in the press, which must have been very distressing and concerning to the families. I deeply deplore that.

The noble Lord asked me about key personnel travelling together. As Lord Philip’s report acknowledges, we reviewed our process for transportation of personnel vital to national security after the board of inquiry, and we did produce guidance at that point. However, the Secretary of State has said that he wants to take another look to reassure himself that our procedures in this area are adequate.

The noble Lord also asked about the safety issues relating to the Chinook. Lord Philip’s report raises no safety issue with the Chinook mark 2. Indeed, Lord Philip writes in his report that,

“it is now regarded as a highly successful aircraft”.

The Chief of the Air Staff endorsed this position and wrote to the Guardian in January last year. He said:

“The Chinook helicopter has a remarkable safety record and has proved a mainstay of recent operations”.

The noble Lord pointed out that the pilot had expressed concern. I quote from Lord Philip’s review:

“We were told that Flt Lt Tapper telephoned his Deputy Flight Commander on the evening before the delivery of ZD576 to Northern Ireland expressing concern that some time had passed since his conversion training. He felt unprepared to fly the aircraft. He had attempted to persuade the tasking authority to spread the load between more than one aircraft, but his request had been refused”.

My Lords, I am sure lots of lessons have been learnt from that, and certainly we put safety as an absolutely pre-eminent issue as far as the Royal Air Force is concerned.

The noble Lord asked me about compensation for families. This is a confidential matter, but I can assure him that this will be taken forward in the normal way. Finally, I can reassure him that I very much hope that this is the end of the matter. For the families of all those who were killed, I very much hope this is the end.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his repetition of the Statement from the other place, and also thank the Secretary of State for the willingness with which he has acknowledged the conclusions of Lord Philip’s review. Will the Minister reiterate his thanks to Lord Philip for his tenacity and his wisdom in dealing with this matter, and also to my noble friend Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan? He has worked closely with the families, as recently as today, to ensure that they are kept up to speed with what is happening in your Lordships’ House and in the other place.

All of this sorry saga hinges on a piece of legal advice that was wrong. It is unfortunate that that happened. There are family members of both Flight Lieutenant Tapper and Flight Lieutenant Cook who did not live to see this day. Our sympathy goes to them as well. Will the Minister acknowledge that many lessons had been learnt before now in matters of how deceased air crew are represented before a board of inquiry? It is not before time that we now have a system that ensures that this miscarriage of justice cannot ever again be repeated.

I thank the noble Baroness for what she said, and I certainly echo her thanks to Lord Philip. I also thank the noble Baroness herself and my noble friend for all the very hard work that they put into this excellent report. I also assure the noble Baroness that many lessons have been learnt from this whole process, and hopefully we have a template to make things very much better in the future.

My Lords, as the representative for North Antrim in another place at the time of this happening, this is a sad day. Yet it has some gladness about it, because the record of the two men concerned is now clear. That is a great relief to the families and to those of us who have followed this carefully. I, as the MP for that area, followed it very carefully and in fact raised it in another place. The years have gone by. Today, the fingers no longer point at the two men at whom they were pointed. I am relieved that this matter has come to this conclusion. Of course, there will be soreness; death is cruel, and so are the circumstances that bring about such deaths. I thank the two brilliant men who served their Queen and country well. They have now passed to the other side without any blemish upon them. I am sure that on the great day when all secrets are revealed, there will be full justice for all. There will be a degree of joy and gladness that this matter has come to this end. I do not want to make any other comment than that.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I thank the Government for listening. I was a bit of a nuisance to them, and I needed to be, but I am glad that we have this good finding today. The way of two wise men will stand the test, and it has stood the test.

I thank the noble Lord for what he says and I agree with him. I pay tribute to all those in this House, the other place and outside Parliament who have made this day possible.

My Lords, will my noble friend pass on my thanks, on behalf of all the people who took part in this inquiry, for the speedy way in which the Secretary of State has considered our report, and for the way in which he has accepted the recommendations, made a fulsome apology and handled this sensitive situation with the families so very well? Having said that, and having looked at this matter in considerable detail and had some pretty robust exchanges, it should be clearly understood that the air chief marshals concerned, in reaching the conclusions that they did, were misdirected. They acted in the best possible way and felt that they were carrying out their duties. The fact that this matter has now been resolved, and that the two pilots who were killed while serving their country have had this stain removed from them, is a great tribute to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State who initiated the inquiry and to Lord Philip who led it. He has achieved something that I have not achieved in 30 years of my political career—unanimity between me and the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I assure him that I will pass on what he says to the Secretary of State. He referred to the reviewing officers—the two air chief marshals. It is very important that I say this to the House: the integrity and diligence of both senior officers whose duty it was to review the board’s finding—Air Chief Marshal Day and Air Chief Marshal Wratten—are beyond question. They had all the available evidence before them and reached their verdict with scrupulous care and total honesty. They took appropriate legal advice before reaching their decision. They clearly did everything they could to secure advice in order to make a comprehensive assessment of the evidence before coming to their findings.

My Lords, I am chairman of the Mull of Kintyre Group, which has pestered successive Secretaries of State, and, indeed, Prime Ministers, since 1996. This is a day from which we derive considerable satisfaction. Speaking from the opposition Benches, I give full praise to Liam Fox and his colleagues for the manner in which they set up the inquiry and accepted its findings. I also pay tribute to my two colleagues in this House, and Malcolm Bruce in the other place, for the work that they did with Lord Philip in coming to what we regard as a satisfactory ending to a sorry tale. It is a satisfactory ending that should not only enable the two families of the men who have been wronged for so long but afford an opportunity for the book to be closed for the other 27 families whose support in this has been a great consolation to us.

We know that attempts have been made to develop conspiracy theories and to find a silver bullet. The truth is that there is no silver bullet. However, there has been a gross injustice based on legal advice that appears now to have been fundamentally flawed. I would like to think that the MoD will be more careful in the manner in which it seeks and ultimately accepts legal advice of this gravity in the future. I should like to think that the counsel from whom the MoD sought advice will never be employed in that capacity again.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for this all-party support. As I said to the noble Lord opposite, I very much hope for the sake of all the families that this matter can now be closed. That is really important. We will never know the truth of what happened that evening, but today is a happy day.

My Lords, I confirm what my noble friend said: that there is indeed all-party support for the Government’s decision and today’s Statement. I remember well, as do many noble Lords, the events of that day and the shock felt throughout these islands, but particularly in Northern Ireland. While it was a huge tragedy that those 29 people were killed, in my part of the world, because of the extraordinary degree of intelligence that was held in the minds of those people, there was a great fear that many other lives were about to be lost to the terrorist cause because of the death of these extremely skilled and high-serving officers.

Does my noble friend understand that in my part of the world there remains anxiety and concern that the request of the young officer that the 29 should not fly together was set aside? It seems that that approach has not been fully resolved until now, and the Minister is indicating that there will be a further review on procedures. These are not complicated questions. There is a notion that it requires a review of procedures to ascertain whether it was wise to take 29 of the most senior security service officers together, but this is a matter of common sense, not policies and procedures. Can my noble friend understand the anxiety that the Statement creates: that it takes policies and procedures in the Ministry of Defence rather than common sense to deal with the security of our people?

Again, I am grateful to my noble friend for this all-party support for the decision. Of course I understand the anxiety. I clearly remember that terrible, terrible day and I quite understand how it must have felt in Northern Ireland. As I said earlier, the Royal Air Force has learnt lessons from this disaster and its safety standards are higher than those of any other air force in the world.

My Lords, it fell to me, rather sadly, on 22 May 1997 to make my maiden remarks in your Lordships’ House on this very subject. What we have heard today is a lawyer telling us that he disagrees with a decision of another lawyer. This is not a criticism, as I fully understand the deeply held emotions of people on this subject, but we have not heard a thing today about how the crash occurred. I refer noble Lords to col. 559 on 22 May 1997. The pilots elected to fly under visual flight rules, which state that one must at all times be in visual contact with the ground. We know that the highest point of the Mull of Kintyre is 1,463 feet above sea level. About 40 seconds from impact, the aircraft was flying at a height estimated at between 200 and 400 feet. It flew from visual meteorological conditions into instrument meteorological conditions. It was approaching the Mull of Kintyre at least 2,000 feet below the height at which it should have been under instrument flight rules in order to clear the Mull.

I am afraid that I will upset a lot of my friends when I say that there is no doubt whatever in my mind that the crash was down to pilot error. We have not heard a thing today about the plane being unsafe—not a word. That is because it was not: it is a brilliant piece of kit. I am a sorry that I have to disagree totally with this decision. I support the air marshals in the decision that they came to.

My Lords, I sat through the debate in 1997: I have a copy of it here, including the noble Lord’s speech. I support Lord Philip’s finding that there was room for doubt on the matter and that therefore the initial finding of negligence to a gross degree was unjustified. Lord Philip did not find that the pilots were blameless, but rather that it was not clear beyond absolutely any doubt whatsoever that they were negligent. Those are the four important words: “absolutely any doubt whatsoever”.

My Lords, the Minister explained that Lord Philip’s ruling on a point of law means that a finding of gross negligence is not sustainable. However, in relation to some of the issues that have been raised, and perhaps as an aid to clarity for Members of the House, will the Minister tell us what view Lord Philip took of the conduct and findings of the board of inquiry into the most probable cause of the accident?

My Lords, Lord Philip's review concluded that the test on which the air chief marshals came to their finding of negligence to a gross degree did not meet the standard of objectivity that he judged to be right. Therefore, the finding has been set aside. Lord Philip did not criticise in any way the conclusions drawn by the president of the board of inquiry.

My Lords, as someone who took part in the first debate in this House on this subject, perhaps I may ask, very quietly and gently, how it is possible that it has taken so long for this conclusion to be reached: namely, that there was not sufficient clarity to confirm the errors attributed to the pilots. As my noble friend said, there had to be a conclusion that there was no reasonable doubt. This point was pressed very hard during the first debate and in all subsequent exchanges. Were it not for the persistence of honourable Members and members of the pilots’ families, this matter might still have been subject to the wrong conclusion. Therefore, as others have done, I thank my noble friend and, through him, the Secretary of State for Defence for having ordered this further inquiry. I emphasise the point with which he concluded his Statement; it is to be hoped that this will draw a line under this very sad event.

My Lords, I deeply regret that the time that has elapsed has added to the families' distress. The Secretary of State has apologised for the sorrow caused to the families by the original finding of negligence to a gross degree. I share my noble friend's aspirations that this will be the end of the matter.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s Statement. I also welcome the report of the review body and wish to be associated with the words of gratitude to Lord Philip and his review team. I particularly commend the clarity of this report to noble Lords; it is in the clarity that the decision is supported, as we have already heard in this House this afternoon. At the heart of this report is the decision that the legal advice that informed the original decision—repeatedly tested, I have to say, including independently—was wrong.

For my part, when I was Secretary of State for Defence, my noble friend Lord O’Neill and others of his group made representations to me and presented me with quite a substantial body of information arguing for just this outcome. I challenged the legal advice, in the sense that I sought independent legal advice. Indeed, I went further because I challenged another point of law—it has not become part of this report—which I think should also have instructed the conclusion that we have today. I regret that I was no longer in post when that process came to a conclusion.

I do not know this, but I am certain that the original legal advice was reinforced by the advice that came to my successor, my noble friend Lord Hutton, when he was Secretary of State for Defence. I have no way of knowing that that was the case, but I suspect it was. While I understand that this appears to be an argument between lawyers, there is a pretty straightforward argument at the heart of this, which Lord Philip and his review team exposed in a simple and uncomplicated fashion. For those reasons I welcome this decision.

I am pleased for the families of Flight Lieutenants Tapper and Cook that this conclusion has been come to today. However, other families were involved in this dreadful tragedy, the anguish of which has been protracted over a long period. I know from my own information that many of those families and individuals in them were disturbed because of the controversy that continued in relation to this. Every time the issue was raised, there was trauma for individuals and families of the other 27 deceased. I seek reassurance from the Minister that the department with responsibility for this will ensure that those families are supported through this process, because some of them are now left in a situation where they do not know what was responsible for the death of their loved ones.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the points that he makes and his question. I also thank him for his support. I agree with what he says about the clarity of the report. I was aware of the noble Lord’s concerns when he was Secretary of State and, like him, my thoughts are with the families of all the 29. They will be supported by my department and, to start with, they will get copies of the report and the discussions in this House and the other place, and that will be followed through.