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Westminster correspondent David Porter
"Peers will have the power to call witnesses including defence officials"
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Monday, 30 April, 2001, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Peers back Chinook crash inquiry
Chinook helicopter
The Chinook crash claimed the lives of 29 people
Peers have voted in favour of a House of Lords inquiry into the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash.

A majority of peers voted by 132 to 106 for an all-party inquiry into the crash on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

The helicopter had been carrying Northern Ireland intelligence personnel to a conference in Fort William when it came down, killing all 29 people on board.

An original inquiry by the Royal Air Force concluded that both pilots were guilty of "gross negligence".

Lord Chalfont
Lord Chalfont led the Lords campaign
There have been continued calls for a fresh inquiry and a majority of peers supported calls for an investigation by a House of Lords select committee.

The Lords campaign for an inquiry was led by the crossbench peer Lord Chalfont.

He raised strong objections to the findings of gross negligence against the pilots by two air marshals.

A peers' liaison committee had rejected a call by the House of Lords on 5 March for an investigation into the controversy.

However, Lord Chalfont told peers on Monday that there was no evidence to prove "beyond all doubt" that the highly trained and experienced pilots had been at fault for the crash.

The peer said an RAF board of inquiry had originally placed no blame on Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook but a second inquiry by the two air marshals had found them guilty.

'Unwarrantable arrogance'

Although they were "perfectly entitled" to reach that conclusion, he said, a wealth of evidence had been uncovered subsequently to suggest there were many doubts.

Independent reports by military aviation experts, a fatal accident inquiry in Scotland and other investigations had all concluded that there was no conclusive proof of what caused the accident, he said.

The government's insistence on standing by the verdict of the air marshals despite the evidence, was described as "unwarrantable arrogance" by the influential Commons public accounts committee, he added.

Lord Chalfont said the RAF regulations at the time demanded no airman should be found guilty of negligence unless there was "no possible doubt whatsoever about the causes".

The peer said that distinguished people including judges, aviation and computer experts former ministers and politicians of all parties had the gravest doubts.

A grievous wrong was done to the passengers. On one view, a grievous wrong may have been done to the pilots

Lord Mayhew
Lord Chalfont's move came as an amendment to an attempt to approve the liaison committee report and he rejected protests that the Lords was not the right forum to examine the issues because they were too complex.

He said there was no need for a select committee to examine hundreds of witnesses or examine technical issues for it be fair.

He won the support of opposition peers' leader Lord Strathclyde who said he was "surprised" that the government did not vote to set up a select committee when the issue was debated at the liaison committee.

Tory Lord Mayhew of Twysden, who was Northern Ireland secretary at the time of the crash, gave his support to Lord Chalfont's call.

Lord Mayhew, a former Attorney General, denied that a Lords inquiry would be tantamount to the legislature interfering with judicial discretion.

He said he had an "emotional involvement" in the case and told peers: "I knew most of those who perished in the Chinook. I met their families.

Wreckage of the crash
Doubts were raised about the official findings
"And I have always felt that there should be something more done than has, as yet, been done to explore the conclusion that was reached by the board of inquiry.

"A grievous wrong was done to the passengers. On one view, a grievous wrong may have been done to the pilots."

All that the Lords inquiry had to consider was whether there had been "absolutely no doubt whatever" of the pilots' negligence and peers would not be expected to discover what had actually happened on the Mull of Kintyre.

Defence Minister Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean told the Lords in March that the government would not ask peers to vote against Lord Chalfont's original attempt to have a select committee set up.

Revised proposal

She told peers on Monday that "nothing has been or is being hidden because there really is nothing to hide. The liaison committee has made its recommendation".

Lord Chalfont said afterwards that he was "absolutely delighted" at the vote.

"I am relieved that we have reached what seems to be a very, very definite step forward after such a long time," he said.

Michael Tapper, the father of Jonathan Tapper, said: "We are very relieved. It is nearly seven years since our sons were killed and blamed for the crash.

"It has been extraordinarily difficult balancing the grief of their loss with the fight to clear their names," he said. "It really was our last chance."

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See also:

06 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Fresh Chinook crash inquiry agreed
30 Nov 00 | Scotland
Blair vetoes new Chinook inquiry
06 Jul 00 | Scotland
Minister accused over Chinook crash
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