Heather Bell

– in the House of Commons at 7:23 pm on 10th March 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 7:24 pm, 10th March 2005

It has been a long wait. As we have just heard, this has been the third longest sitting since records began and although to the rest of the world it is Friday evening, to us it is still Thursday. However, for me the 30-hour wait has been worth it, because the subject of the debate is important to my constituency.

The debate is about the sad death of my constituent, Heather Bell, a rider who was thrown from her horse after it had bolted from a low-flying RAF Chinook. That resulted in a number of recommendations to help reduce the chances of such accidents occurring in future: first came the recommendations of the coroner, and then the petition from my constituents.

I recognise that the Minister has taken a step in the right direction—I give him credit where credit is due—in response to the coroner's call for

"better communication with the public", and has set up a hotline. However, the information provided by the low-flying hotline is valid only at the time of calling. The caller must either

"keeping calling back" for

"updates or . . . take a chance".

That means taking a chance on death or serious injury to horse and rider. In the wake of the several deaths already caused by the problem—I should emphasise that the matter does not just concern my constituency and the tragedy that occurred there; there have been serious injuries elsewhere—that is scarcely reassuring.

The hotline adviser told someone from my office who called to inquire about the service that

"if you were out for a couple of hours, we could say 'No, there's nothing'—and then near the end of the ride a low-flying aircraft comes along".

Given that the information is therefore limited not only to one specific day but to one very brief time slot and subject to change within a half hour or less, it appears that the value of the hotline is not much above the cosmetic.

The same adviser took pains to stress that all times were "just advisory", and that the best time to ring was "just before" going out. When asked what flights would be taking place between 4 pm and 5.30 pm in the central Market Rasen area in Lincolnshire, the adviser stated that there would be "one large rotary" during that period. The area covered stretches across Boston, Scarborough and Wakefield—some hundreds of square miles. The information is therefore completely useless to anybody who wants an idea of whether a Chinook is to thunder down on them as they are riding a horse, perhaps causing it to bolt. Low-flying area 11 covers Humberside, North Lincolnshire, north-east Nottinghamshire and north-east Yorkshire—4,618 square miles.

The adviser could give no information whatever about the following day, and, as the MOD's press release announcing its launch last month pointed out, it is a "helicopter hotline" only. It tells people nothing about fast jets as they thunder across the countryside. If someone is planning to ride anywhere near a base or a helicopter training school,

"it will not be able to provide information on . . . activity around" such locations

"due to the consistently high level of activity in these areas."

Furthermore, the hotline operates only between 8 am and 5 pm. When I rang the hotline, I was told that it was too late and to "ring back tomorrow". Could the availability of the hotline be extended, particularly as at times a busy person might not be able to get through?

As the Minister is aware, I have called for the Ministry of Defence to notify the public on a website of a strip of perhaps 10 square miles either way where training is proposed and when, but that has not been done. Yet, as I have said before, there is no convincing reason—in security or technology terms—why it should not be done. The coroner accepted, as of course I do, that

"on occasions security issues may prevent publication of proposed sorties."

However, he went on to say that he suspected that that

"would not apply to the majority of training flights."

I am sure that the Minister accepts that that is entirely reasonable.

I do not question in any way the need for the RAF to conduct low-flying training; it is protecting national security. Nobody in Lincolnshire is a fanatic about the matter; we all recognise that Chinooks have to go out. We just want warning of where they will be on the training flights, which I would have thought are planned in advance. Co-ordinates must be laid out and the pilot must be given them. It is surely possible for the public to be told.

It is true that the current MOD website gives a skeleton timetable and calendar for low flying in the three most intensive low-flying areas of the country—central Wales, north Scotland and the Scottish borders—but that is no good either to my constituents or, for the first few days of this month, to people living in those three areas, as on 4 March the website was still showing the calendar for February, despite the claim that it had been updated on 1 March. If the information was merely about leisure activities or various public services, that would be regrettable, but it is about saving people's lives and there have already been deaths. Regrettably, there seems to be no great sense of urgency about that at the Ministry of Defence. Neither does it give one great confidence that any online service giving information about low flying in my constituency would be as helpful as one would hope.

The MOD website is not easy to navigate, and people need to know that the information is available before they can find it. When it is at last discovered, buried in a paragraph, it is pretty vague; time slots of up to eight hours are given for several days in a row in northern Scotland and central Wales. Even washing machine repair men can usually say whether they will be coming in the morning or the afternoon, and that drives us all crazy. I urge the Minister in the strongest terms to ensure not only that the current website is made much more user-friendly, but that the current state of affairs will not be the model for any other online information.

None the less, the question must be asked: why could not the MOD apply even the same skeleton plan, with all its deficiencies, to the area concerning my constituents? Currently, all that they can find out about their broad area from the MOD's website is the total number of hours flown in "North Lincolnshire". That covers hundreds of square miles, and it included bordering areas the previous year. That might be useful to statisticians or students, but I do not see how it will save any lives.

Gainsborough might not be in the top three areas for military low flying, but that did not prevent 23 complaints from being logged in Market Rasen before Heather Bell's death. In fact, according to figures released to the Lincolnshire Echo last month under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the MOD received 332 complaints about low-flying aircraft across Lincolnshire in the three years between 2002 and 2004. As the Echo commented,

"That's the equivalent of one complaint every three days."

The same report of 8 February recorded the fact that there had been another 45 complaints from residents in the Market Rasen area, including those in the villages of Glentham and Walesby, since the accident on 10 June 2003.

Let me quote a few lines from the report:

"In Middle Rasen itself, two complaints about low-flying helicopters were logged on June 13th, three days later. Two days after the accident, on June 12th, 2003, a low-flying jet was reported over Middle Rasen. A low-flying jet was seen over the village four days later. One complainant contacted military officials to report a low-flying helicopter over Market Rasen on July 21st 2003—just a month after the accident."

Even worse, the report continues:

"A complaint about a low-flying helicopter over Middle Rasen was made in November 2004, even though the MOD has enforced a no-flying policy within a one-and-a-half mile radius of the village."

The number of complaints is increasing. In 2002, there were 95 complaints; in 2003, there were 114; and in 2004 there were 123. Of the total 332 complaints, 262 were about low-flying fixed or non-rotary aircraft, mainly jets, while 56 concerned helicopters—and the MOD was "unavailable for comment".

Let us see what the Ministry does, apart from log events, when a person complains. According to the editor of the Market Rasen MailI presented a petition in response to his newspaper's campaign, which is why I have secured this debate—the complainant receives a visit from the RAF police, and the burden of proof is on the complainant, who has to answer technical questions about exact height and speed. Clearly, that does not encourage justified complaints any more than the current quality of the MOD website and hotline encourages use of those services.

So what is to be done? In the three high-intensity areas, there are regional community relations officers, who, according to the website,

"act as the focal point for military low flying issues in their respective areas."

Can we not extend the area covered by community relations officers? Can we not have them in other parts of the country?

On the coroner's recommendations, I reiterate all the points made by my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow, who raised this matter in an Adjournment debate last week, about reducing the area for low flying. I do not insist or ask that we go back to the pre-1979 situation. I know the arguments about that and I have received a letter from the Minister dated 31 March, but surely there must be a way of avoiding smaller towns and villages. There are arguments about increased use of simulators, which I would have thought was possible, and about improved technology vis-à-vis tracking devices, which I know Air Commodore Garwood called a "very, very good idea" at the inquest. I echo my hon. Friend's support for the coroner's recommendations on avoidance notices, specifically in the Market Rasen area. I would have thought that it was perfectly possible for the RAF to avoid flying over stables, which are fixed buildings, so those involved know where they are.

The coroner said that his task at the inquest

"would have been made very much easier if the cockpit voice recorder had been operational".

He therefore recommended that in future such recorders remain operational. He commented that as health and usage monitoring systems—HUMS—which constantly monitor the condition of aircraft, like a constantly updated MOT, can record data for up to eight hours, they should be left on. That must be possible, as is the norm with civilian aircraft. The coroner suggested that more information should be coming out of the cockpit, and that is what we want. It could be useful in assisting the RAF police with investigations and to relieve complainants of the burden of attempting to supply the answers to technical questions about height and speed, which they cannot simply answer.

The coroner's sixth recommendation was that, following the practice applied to fast jets, helicopters involved in low-flying training could be fitted with video equipment so that the whole sortie was recorded on videotape. I agree with his comment that

"if helicopter crews were aware that their flight was being videotaped then it would encourage strict compliance with Flying Regulations."

It would also provide more useful and, importantly, "immediately available" evidence. There would then be no need for "flight reconstruction". Does the Minister believe that that would be a worthwhile investment?

The coroner's seventh recommendation in the event of future similar fatalities—or, one might add, accidents—was that

"clear procedures need to be established to immediately secure available evidence."

He specified that

"all flight crew should immediately be the subject of alcohol and drug testing", that the impounding of the helicopter should be considered "at a high level", that no further sorties should be undertaken following such an incident, that the downloading of information should be given the highest priority, should be done by

"a member of the RAF who has considerable experience in such matters", and should take place in the presence of a RAF police officer. The downloaded data should be stored in

"a tamper-proof bag which should be properly labelled" and

"immediately be placed in a secure place and kept under lock and key with limited access."

I ask the Minister to note the coroner's comment that Sergeant Newton of the RAF police, who investigated the case,

"was not aware that Chinook helicopters had HUMS equipment fitted", and that

"he had received no training about which aircraft had such equipment and relied upon picking up such information by word of mouth".

Another suggestion from the coroner was that inquiries should be made to ascertain whether it would be technically possible for the loadmaster, who sits at the left rear of the aircraft, to

"receive the same audible information as the remainder of the crew".

Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the coroner's statement that these recommendations

"need to be considered in their totality."

The Minister is aware of the petition launched by the Market Rasen Mail, which I fully support. It endorses the coroner's call for a return to a restricted zone for low-flying training and greater use of simulators. It calls for the lower limit to be raised above 50 ft and for devices to alert people to aircraft in the area, and recommends a recorded message briefing of daily flight plans.

With the navigation system used in helicopters and sophisticated altometers, it should be possible to know where a helicopter is and at what height at a particular time, so that complaints can be monitored. I hope the Minister will accept that there is no more time left for words of comfort. He must translate those words into action, so that my constituents may feel that some good has come from the tragic death of Heather Bell. He must take action. The MOD has a reputation for being slow-moving in this and other matters—witness the debate over the veterans of the Arctic convoy this week. This is an opportunity for the Minister, in his final weeks in the MOD, to make a name for himself and once and for all resolve the issue of low-flying aircraft and helicopters.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence 7:38 pm, 10th March 2005

I join Mr. Leigh in welcoming the fact that we eventually got to the Adjournment debate after 32 hours. It is a particular pleasure on a Friday evening to be speaking on Thursday evening. That is certainly a first.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive approach to the debate and for the points that he raised in relation to a particularly tragic accident. One cannot begin to imagine the sense of grief and loss suffered over the past 16 months since that tragic accident, and our condolences are extended to Mr. Bell and his family.

We must not forget that Alexandra Nixon and Melanie Dodds also lost their lives in similar tragic circumstances, and I extend our condolences to their families, as I did last Friday. I readily understand the strength of feeling shown by the hon. Gentleman's constituents, which has been expressed through him as the constituency Member, and in the petition organised by the Market Rasen Mail. The letter to which he referred summarised, I hope, the action that we have taken so far.

The circumstances surrounding Mrs. Bell's death have been sufficiently aired, and I agree that we must learn lessons from this terrible accident. The Louth and Spilsby district coroner conducted an extremely comprehensive inquest into the death, and the Ministry of Defence provided our fullest co-operation, but before I turn to the coroner's recommendations in detail—as I said I would last Friday—let me address the individual points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the provision of a telephone advisory service as a first step to improving communication. However, he made a number of criticisms, which deserve some comment. He pointed out that the information is valid only at the time of the call and does not provide a forecast of forthcoming activity. That is simply because low-level bookings by military aircrew can be made only on the day when they need to undertake such training—they cannot pre-book training in the UK low-flying system. This approach is born out of the experience that weather, equipment availability and other factors can make earlier booking meaningless, and lead to the public's being given misleading information. The only exception is when we anticipate low-flying activity connected with a specific exercise that needs to be pre-planned—but even that has to be booked on the day when such activity takes place. Moreover, given the short-notice changes that can be made to planned low-flying training as a result of a number of factors—that can include additions as well as cancellations—it would be irresponsible for the system's operators to say anything other than that the information is valid only at the time of the call.

The hon. Gentleman expressed disappointment at the fact that the telephone service does not include information on low-flying fast jets or on activity close to our main helicopter-operating bases and training schools. As I said last Friday, we intend to keep all these issues under review, and I hope that the House will regard that as reasonable, given that the phone line has been in operation for just 11 days.

It is a fact that a high level of helicopter activity is expected near our main helicopter bases and training schools, which are known as dedicated user areas. We are, of course, extremely grateful to the public for their tolerance in these areas, but it is not practical to provide information about the number of helicopter movements there. However, the bases in question all have points of contact for the public, should they have any particular issues to discuss.

We have never sought to mislead anyone about the service offered. We have made it clear that at present we are unable to provide anything other than a broad indication of planned low-flying helicopter activity. The information that we are providing has not previously been available to the public, and it does indicate the expected level of low-flying helicopter activity.

I now want briefly to respond to some of the hon. Gentleman's other points. The information available on our website on low-flying activity is not buried, as he suggested. Indeed, a simple search for "low flying" on the internet provides a prompt and direct link to the MOD website; in fact, it is the first search result. Nor do I accept his view that navigating the website is an issue. For example, details on the new telephone service feature on our home page, with a link leading straight to the relevant low-flying information pages. I was also a little puzzled by his saying that information on the tactical training areas was out of date. As he said, that information was updated on 1 March, but it should be noted that it related to both February and March. Indeed, it has always been our practice to make available information on both the preceding month and the month ahead.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that 23 complaints were logged in the Middle Rasen area in the 18 months before Mrs Bell's death, but that should be seen against the background of the near presence of four major RAF flying stations. He is correct in saying that the number of complaints across the county has risen, but of course that might reflect an increased awareness of such activity.

It is, regrettably, true that, on occasion, avoidance areas are intruded into by military aircraft. The hon. Gentleman made reference to a number of specific complaints. All such incidents are subject to full investigation by the defence flying complaints investigation team. However, I am surprised that his constituents find those investigations intimidating. The feedback that we receive is generally favourable. Complainants are pleased that their reports are being taken seriously. The investigators merely seek to clarify the reported facts as far as possible and ask only for estimates of height and speed.

The hon. Gentleman referred to three "high-intensity areas" as having regional community relations officers. Those posts were established because of the amount of activity seen in areas where there is no RAF presence to give a natural point of contact. Given that there are two major flying establishments, each with their own community relations staff, within 15 miles of Market Rasen, that scarcely applies to Lincolnshire.

I want now to deal with the nine recommendations made by the coroner. The first sought a reduction of the area in which low-flying helicopter training takes place in the United Kingdom. That is a complex issue that requires careful consideration, so we have established an MOD working group, composed of representatives of our rotary wing users, to consider very carefully the requirement for helicopter low-flying training. The low-flying system that we have in place today is not too far removed from that in operation before 1979, but to minimise disturbance we have moved away from fixed transit corridors to spread such training flights as equitably as possible across the remaining areas.

The second recommendation was that we increase the use of simulators—another point made by the hon. Gentleman and by his constituents in their petition. Mr. Bercow also made the point last Friday—he would be deeply disappointed if I did not mention it. I can assure the House that we use simulation as much as we can, and we are finding that the fidelity of the simulation offered to support our more recent equipment purchases is allowing us to make greater use of simulated flight.

During the coroner's inquest, comparisons were made between the amount of time spent using simulation in training by civilian pilots and by military aircrew. I understand that one witness stated that over 90 per cent. of training in the civilian context takes place in simulation. Let me make this simple point: current operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I said last week, have highlighted the requirement for military helicopters to fly at very low levels in hostile environments, sometimes operating in poor weather conditions, flying under pylon wires, and operating in the face of enemy fire. That, I think the House will accept, is a rather different requirement than that for a commercial pilot.

Another point raised in the petition was the height of low-level helicopter training. By the nature of their operations, military helicopters need to fly as low to the ground as possible. In some cases they are authorised to fly as low as 50 ft or even down to ground level if required for specific training events. However, only the minimum amount of flights at these very low levels take place, for very obvious reasons. Raising the height of those training sorties quickly reduces the training value for the aircrew.

The third recommendation was that we improve our communication about our low-flying activities. We accept that that is a valid point, and we are looking at a range of measures to improve the flow of information to the public. I dealt with that in some detail earlier. The hon. Gentleman made a point about the opening hours of the phone line, and I can confirm that we intend to extend them to 8 pm during the summer months.

The fourth recommendation asked us to consider the utility of improved technology to assist aircrew in locating horse riders. The working group is considering those aspects very carefully and will take into account the technical, cost and practical implications of the use of such devices.

The fifth recommendation was to increase the duration of voice recording tape in our helicopters. Around a third of the helicopters in Joint Helicopter Command have the facility to record voice data. Those meet Civil Aviation Authority mandated standards for voice recording in line with civilian helicopter accident recorders. The aim of the standard is to provide a voice recording of any events leading up to an aircraft accident, rather than being a permanent record of the entire flight. The voice recorders serve to assist post-aircraft accident investigations as opposed to post-incident investigations.

The sixth recommendation was to introduce video cameras into the cockpits. Given that helicopters can have sortie lengths of many hours' duration, the length of the video recording tape would become an issue, as would the endurance of the battery unit. To overcome that, there would be a requirement to "hard wire" the camera into the on-board system. That would present other technical issues, requiring Design Authority approval, which is both complex and expensive.

During the inquest, criticisms were made about the way in which evidence was secured by the RAF police immediately after the tragic accident involving Mrs. Bell. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the coroner's seventh recommendation suggested a number of measures to tighten up our procedures and training of investigators. We accept that there were shortcomings and have since undertaken a complete review of evidence collection procedures, and enhanced training has been put in place. In addition, standardised processes have now been introduced in order to clarify precisely what action should be taken in the event of any serious incidents.

In his eighth recommendation, the coroner suggested that the rear left loadmaster of the Chinook crew should receive the radar altitude warning. Currently, the handling pilot, non-handling pilot and rear right hand side crew member of a Chinook receive an audible warning if the aircraft is at risk of descending below its authorised height. We see no operational value in making that warning available to the rear left loadmaster of the Chinook crew. It is the responsibility of the flying crew to ensure that the aircraft maintains appropriate heights throughout a sortie, and we are satisfied that the addition of the warning for the right hand loadmaster is sufficient for those purposes.

Finally, the coroner's ninth recommendation asked if we would give consideration to granting an avoidance for low-flying activity for the Market Rasen area—a point that the hon. Gentleman repeated—given that a considerable amount of equestrian activity takes place in the area. The House will wish to know that, as a mark of respect to the Bell family, we introduced an avoidance for military helicopters over Middle Rasen, and that that will remain in force for five years, after which it will be reviewed. That reflects, I know, the strength of feeling in the town, and I hope shows how seriously we take these matters.

We have been quite open about the action we are taking in relation to the coroner's nine recommendations. We accept that there are lessons to be learned and we are serious about learning them. On completion of the consideration of the recommendations by the Ministry of Defence, which I expect to be concluded by the end of June, I intend to make a further announcement to the House, and I certainly expect that to be before the summer recess commences.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eight o'clock.