A major change in departmental policy

The quashing of the findings of gross negligence against the pilots of Chinook ZD576 shows, among other things, that independently-minded ministers can make decisions that countermand the wishes of their senior officials.

Chinook ZD576 crashed on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994 killing all 29 on board including 25 senior police and intelligence officials. RAF air marshals blamed the two pilots but the Government set aside the finding last week after an independent review by Lord Philip said the air marshals were wrong.

Nobody knows the cause of the crash but it transpired that the helicopter type that crashed had unreliable safety-critical software which had hundreds of bugs. The MoD’s purchase of the Chinook Mk2’s Full Authority Digital Control [Fadec]  proved to be one of the worst IT-related procurements in Whitehall: the RAF’s software engineers had little control or say over the developing or final Fadec product. In the end the RAF could not verify the software as safe.

Separately a senior RAF engineer categorised the Fadec system as “positively dangerous” nine months before the crash on the Mull of Kintyre.

Successive defence secretaries in the last administration, including government spokespeople in the House of Lords, were unwilling to upset officials and air marshals. They rejected all well-argued calls for a review of the decision of two air marshals to find the pilots of ZD576, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, grossly negligent.

But the coalition’s defence secretary Liam Fox has proved to be much less susceptible to the influence of his officials.

The quashing of a decision by the air marshals could not be set aside by the defence secretary or even a prime minister acting alone. It required a decision of the Defence Council which is the MoD’s most senior departmental committee.

The Defence Council is chaired by the defence secretary, and includes other ministers, the Chief of Defence Staff, senior officers and officials who head the armed services and the department’s major corporate functions. It has a range of powers vested in it by statute.

At a specially-convened meeting of the Defence Council on Monday last week, Liam Fox drove its decision not simply to accept the report of the Lord Philip panel, which said that the MoD should consider apologising to the families of Cook and Tapper, but to quash the finding of a properly-constituted RAF Board of Inquiry.

The Defence Council decided that the finding of two air marshals that Tapper and Cook were grossly negligent was “no longer sustainable and must therefore be set aside”, said Fox in the House of Commons on Wednesday this week. The Council ordered that “those findings shall be set aside”.

And to his further credit Fox, after his announcement to Parliament, had the grace to meet the families of Cook and Tapper in a room near the main debating chamber of the Commons.

As Fox told the Commons:

“It shows the House of Commons at its best when pressure from the House of Commons can cause an injustice to be overturned.”

If a minister can achieve what Fox has achieved – a fundamental change of thinking within a major department of state – coalition ministers can achieve anything within reason.

Labour MP Frank Field, in congratulating Fox for driving the decision to clear the pilots’ names, put it succinctly in his short speech in the House of Commons on 13 July 2011:

“May I congratulate the Secretary of State on showing the guts to get his Department’s public stance to where justice demanded it should have been for many a year?”

All the defence ministers in the last administration will soon be forgotten. If for nothing else Liam Fox will be long remembered for overturning a miscarriage of justice, one of the most grievous in the past 100 years.

Chinook campaign – the 16-year campaign for justice.

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