HC Deb 12 April 1973 vol 854 cc1528-607

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

4.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Lord Lambton)

I think the House should know that I shall make two speeches today. This afternoon it is my intention to try to deal with the fundamental problems of the RAF in relation to its present and future armament and role. Later tonight I will try to deal with other points which have been raised in the debate, including what might be described as the peripheral activities of the RAF.

I would like to inform the House now that I propose to deal then at some length with the problem of low flying which I know has concerned the right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) and the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Robert Hicks), in whose constituency recently there was, unfortunately, an air crash. I hope this will prove satisfactory to the House.

Nearly three years ago when I took over my present position the Secretary of State said that his chief worry was that a comparatively small part of the money spent annually on the Royal Air Force was directed towards strengthening the front line. He thought the task which the Service should set itself was to increase front-line expenditure within the framework of the Air Force budget by finding economies elsewhere. He hoped that this could be done without further damaging the fabric of Service confidence which had received such damaging shocks over the period of the previous decade. Therefore the task we set ourselves was to increase the strength of the front line without reducing Service confidence.

This was not easy, for reasons that I think I can best explain by a short historical digression. It is I think no exaggeration to say that defence history since the war has been divided into three eras: 1945 to 1957, 1957 to 1967, and from 1967 until today, when we have been living in a period in which flexible response has governed our action.

In the first of these eras we continued to maintain a large conventional Air Force and, broadly speaking, were prepared and able to meet any emergency within the orbit of our then world role. This was, of course, also a period of intense world-wide nuclear development. America remained the dominant nuclear power and made it understood that it would in certain circumstances assert its nuclear superiority. These developments were concurrent with a period of rising costs and, towards the end of the period, decreasing responsibilities for the United Kingdom. It was obvious and necessary, therefore, that there should be a search for economies and for a new role, and the result was the White Paper of 1957 envisaging total war or total peace.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of that conception its effects on the Royal Air Force were considerable. It resulted in concentration on the maintenance of a credible V-bomber nuclear deterrent, and led to the reduction of the RAF's conventional capability.

Therefore, when in 1967 hon. Members accepted the policy of flexible response in place of the "trip-wire" philosophy, it is no secret that the Air Force was short of types of aircraft other than those which had been necessary in its previous role. Yet the Service still maintained much of the framework of a large conventional force and we retained bases in various parts of the world. However, during the last three years of the Labour Government the announcement was made of withdrawal from the Middle and Far East. These planned withdrawals created a political situation which, on our return to office, made it seem unwise for us to reverse decisions which we would not ourselves have made.

This being the case, I found when we took office in 1970 that the Air Force, although it would soon be mainly stationed in the United Kingdom and Europe, still retained much of its old managerial structure which was backing a front-line strength disproportionate to its frame.

It was against this background that we set out to increase our numerical aircraft strength, largely financed by internal managerial economies.

As I told the House last year, the main elements of Strike Command, which was formed in 1968, and Air Support Command have amalgamated to form a single RAF Command for all United Kingdom based operational forces. This increased efficiency and saved manpower. The new command, still called Strike Command, was formed at High Wycombe last year.

We have also made changes overseas. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Near East Air Force now exercises full command of RAF Gibraltar and RAF Gan, and has assumed administrative and engineering responsibility for RAF units in Singapore and Hong Kong. As a result, RAF operational forces are now in three commands only—Strike Command, RAF Germany and the Near East Air Force.

We have also been very carefully considering the support services in the United Kingdom. When the present review has been completed we should be able to bring closer together the supply and engineering functions of the Service and to streamline and centralise other support functions of the RAF, thereby easing the load on the commands. I should like to say something further about this later in the year when I shall know more and will be able to say more.

The House will remember that other measures to streamline training were announced last year, when we said that the RAF College at Cranwell was to become a post-graduate training centre. It will accommodate the College of Air Warfare, currently at RAF Manby. The School of Refresher Flying at Manby will be disbanded and its tasks moved to other RAF stations. Manby will thus cease to have a flying task.

We are also planning to rationalise, and to economise in, some of the other ground training tasks, and, by relocating tasks, we aim to close a number of further stations. We have already closed RAF Strubby, and Debden and Upwood are also to be closed.

A new pattern of flying training aims to produce economies without decreasing efficiency or safety. As part of this new pattern, Jetstream and Bulldog aircraft will replace the Varsities in the advanced flying training role and Chipmunks of the University Air Squadrons respectively. The first Bulldog has already been delivered and the first Jetstream will enter service this year. As announced in this year's White Paper, a project definition study of the conversion of the Argosy for training aircrew other than pilots is in hand and I hope to be able to announce something about this also later this year. Lynx and Gazelle helicopters and the HS 1182 are planned to complete the catalogue of new training aircraft for RAF use.

I should like to assure right hon. and hon. Members that in addition to these organisational changes a radical—and I repeat "radical"—review of all RAF establishments and practices is under way. Already, some 6,000 RAF posts are being saved and further savings will result from studies now in various stages of completion.

The results of these efforts—aimed, as I said earlier, at reforming the structure of the Royal Air Force and the manning position, both of which had in places remained almost unchanged since 1948 —should be to save more than £80 million in personnel costs by 1980. This sum contributes considerably to the money available for improvements to the front line. Indeed, these are net financial savings, after making allowances for the costs of the extra posts required to support the additional aircraft which will be in RAF service in the next ten years.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

Do I understand from what the Minister is saying that this review is a rolling review which will carry on in every year up to 1980? If not, when does he expect its results to be announced?

Lord Lambton

I thought that I was announcing the results of the review now. The results are that the savings will be more than £80 million in personnel costs by 1980. What we are having is a continuous review of all tasks. I imagine that, from time to time, further announcements will be made. What I have been announcing today is the first stage of this.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Walthamstow, East)

When these RAF stations are closed, will they remain the property of the Ministry of Defence or will they be returned to civilian use?

Lord Lambton

This is a question that it is not always exactly easy to answer without prior notice. The hon. Member will know that it is essential that there should be certain areas which are in reserve in case at any time the RAF has to expand. Therefore, if my hon. Friend would like to ask further into this, I will let him know separately the answer to each question.

I should like to make it clear that this is not just an exercise in pruning posts and cutting down. It is part of a serious attempt to improve the forward planning of manpower requirements— which I think was the point of the hon Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John).

The intention is for the RAF to use its resources better and I am glad to say the changes have been well received by the Service, who see the recreation of a more powerful Air Force in which waste and overlapping is being largely eliminated.

However, these savings in posts have made it wise to look closely at the current manpower structure as well. Nothing would be sillier than if the end result was a more expensive overbearing of officers or men, or ill-considered cuts. Of course, imbalances of skills or in age groups must also be avoided if there are to be no promotion blockages. So adjustments have to be made.

This is being done in part by reducing the intake of recruits to the ground trades and we are recruiting only 6,500 new personnel this year. But limitation of recruiting of course is not enough. Although this might get the overall numbers right, it would make the manpower structure unbalanced. There would be misemployment—some officers and airmen would be in jobs not matching either their experience or their ability— and promotion would be upset and slowed down. All this would have precisely the wrong effect on morale.

Therefore, in addition to limitation of entrance, we have to keep the manpower structure in balance, mainly by imposing tighter control or re-engagements and extensions of service. This has been successful, but a minimum of redundancy has also proved necessary.

Redundancy is a measure which no one who has had anything to do with the Service wishes to apply and I have tried to see that, as far as possible, the necessary redundancies were secured voluntarily, without any element of compulsion, and on what I hope are considered reasonable financial terms. I am pleased to be able to inform the House that it will be possible to carry out the officer redundancy scheme, which I announced last year, without recourse to compulsion at all. The number of officers who wished to accept the terms offered corresponded very closely to the number—about 500—which we sought to reach. Of those selected for redundancy, the majority will leave the Service in the present financial year but a few will not leave until 1974 or 1975.

An airman redundancy scheme has also been introduced. The scheme applies only to specific trades within which some 900 volunteers, or about 1 per cent. of trained strength, will leave the Service over the next 18 months. The success of this scheme I would like to stress does not reflect a lack of enthusiasm for a Service career. Many of those who have volunteered are NCOs nearing the end of pensionable service, to whom the terms of the scheme are attractive.

I spoke earlier of a temporary reduction in recruiting, but, by the end of this year, things will be in balance again and it will be necessary to start increasing the intake to a more normal level of about 10,000 recruits a year. We are hopeful that we will manage this. Today, recruiting is satisfactory and we have in fact had to turn away a large number of young men. But I will not pretend that there are not minor problems. At the moment we are not recruiting all the fighter control officers we need. Moreover, the basis for the expended recruiting programme must be established now.

Up to now it has been the practice to recruit a proportion of airmen through apprentice training schemes, but, with the raising of the school leaving age, this obviously becomes more difficult. Also, apprentices are obviously more expensive to train than adults, and a recent review established that the requirements of the RAF would be best met by ending apprentice schemes, other than a modified technician apprenticeship, in favour of direct entry adult training schemes. Training times would be cut from three years for an apprentice to about one year for an adult. This would introduce flexibility as well as producing substantial financial savings, probably in excess of £2 million a year in later years. First entries under the new technician scheme will begin this autumn.

I think it would be quite wrong if I did not say a word here about the human element. Today, a whole legion of jobs within the Service require great skill and technical knowledge. I never cease to be amazed at the efficient way in which the Service responds to the never-ending technological discoveries that are made and solving the consequent problems that arise. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that it would be quite wrong for the Service not to look after men of such outstanding ability in a manner which makes them realise that they are appreciated.

I am convinced that the background provided by the Service to their lives must take into account the new type of Service man. It is therefore, I believe, essential that living conditions should be of a high standard.

There were, three years ago, far too many stations where primitive dormitory living conditions had hardly altered since 1939. This was unacceptable, and during the last two years we have launched modernisation schemes creating roomlets and cubicles which, while not ideal, are a great improvement on the past. We have now completed the conversion of approximately 2,320 roomlets and a further 660 will be completed in the next twelve months.

This is slightly fewer than I announced last year, because the interim scheme has been overtaken by a longer-term programme of permanent conversion to barrack flats. The first barrack block in the long-term programme will be converted to the permanent flat concept by the autumn. All future new building will be to these improved standards.

Let me now turn to the other side of the coin—

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Before the Minister leaves personnel could I ask a factual question? Does what he said mean the end of the starred mechanics scheme for the training of fitters, which was introduced by my right hon. Friends?

Lord Lambton

Perhaps I could look into that matter and let the hon. Member know. I do not have the answer in front of me.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)

My hon. Friend announced some profound changes—the virtual abolition by this Government of the Trenchardian System in the Air Force. What is the future of RAF Halton to be? Will it continue for the training for one year of technicians, or will the station itself be closed?

Lord Lambton

Halton will be continuing, and I shall be glad to say something about it this evening.

I wish now to turn to the other side of the coin, the improved operational capability which has in part resulted from these economies.

Over the last three years, the re-equipment of the front line with Phantoms, Buccaneers, Nimrods, Harriers and Pumas has gone steadily ahead. In the last twelve months the build-up of the initial Nimrod force and of the Puma squadrons has been completed; further Buccaneers have been deployed in Germany; in the Far East, Wessex helicopters have replaced Whirlwinds.

Our Harrier force has also now reached its full planned strength. This remarkable aircraft has an important role, and its capability is being increased by progressive re-equipment with more powerful marks of the Pegasus engine. My right hon. and noble Friend has already announced in another place that we intend to acquire additional Harriers in order to maintain the strength of the front line further into the 1980s.

Some hon. Members will recall that the Harrier came in for some curiously strong Press criticism last autumn. This may be a suitable moment at which to repeat assurances given by the Secretary of State in another place. It is true that there were a number of Harrier accidents between 1969 and 1972 before this report was published, but this is no reason for alarm. There are bound to be times when a series of accidents occurs within a few months and this is often the case when a new aircraft comes into service. In fact, the Harrier's safety record has always compared favourably with its predecessors, such as the Hunter. Notwithstanding its unique manoeuvrability, it is not a difficult aircraft for military pilots to handle. It has done well in exercises and I can only repeat that this is a plane of great capability and of distinct value to the Air Force at present.

The coming year will bring further important front line improvements. The first Jaguars will be delivered to the Operational Conversion Unit at Lossiemouth later this year and will include both single and two-seat versions. The first squadrons will form early next year. On the weapons side, the Anglo-French Martel air-to-surface missile and the Rapier low-level surface-to-air guided weapon system will start to be delivered.

We have also recently taken two decisions which will help to maintain the RAF's planned contribution to NATO. The Victor SR2 aircraft, which are currently deployed in the strategic radar reconnaissance role and are due for conversion to tankers, will now be replaced by Vulcans. These Vulcans, like the present Victors, will be declared to SACEUR.

In addition, Canberra reconnaissance aircraft, based in the Mediterranean, are to be earmarked to NATO for operations in AFSOUTH.

Looking further ahead, the RAF's fighting power will be increased by the measures we have taken to increase frontline numbers. We shall eventually have the equivalent of four more squadrons, of Jaguars than was planned before 1970. Most of these will be deployed in Germany. We also have on order additional Buccaneers and Nimrods.

All in all, within the next four years, the RAF's front line will be 10 per cent. larger than was planned by the last Government in 1970, and the RAF will need 6,000 fewer men to carry out its tasks. This is satisfactory but there is no room for complacency and there is need to continually look ahead. We have various plans for future improvements and I would like to mention one example regarding aircraft.

The modernisation of the Nimrod's communications will begin next year, a new radar is being developed and project definition studies are to start on a range of new sensors, processors and attack systems to meet the operational requirements of the future.

No review of the RAF's operational effectiveness would be complete, however, without a reference to the MRCA. Its combat roles will include strike and attack over land and sea, air defence and reconnaissance. The MRCA force will constitute about half the combat aircraft in the RAF front line in the 1980s. The development of the aircraft continues to progress satisfactorily.

Against this background, the Governments of the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy agreed in March that the project should continue and the first flight should take place early next year. We still expect the aircraft, which is, I may say, an exercise in collaboration, to be in operational service in the RAF in the late 1970s.

I would like to say a word here about collaboration. If one looks at the Soviet forces, one is struck by the great advantage they achieve from standardisation of machines and weapons which make their forces far more mobile than their NATO counterparts whose countries are variously armed.

Really effective standardisation among allies, with its benefits, can be achieved only by co-operation and collaboration and the MRCA is in this regard a welcome example which I believe our entry into Europe will give us an opportunity to expand.

I know that many hon. Members are aware that the latest types of Russian bombers have the ability to approach the British Isles at low altitude, as well as medium and high altitude, from the north-west as well as from the north and east, and I do not think this is something one should ignore.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

Is that all the noble Lord intends to tell the House about this most important MRCA project which will provide half of the planes of the RAF? Will he not tell us something further as to a date other than the late 70s? Will he not tell us something further as to the numbers now en- visaged and also when he proposes to make the next statement to the House of Commons on the stage of development that has been reached at that point?

Lord Lambton

I will certainly obtain more detailed information as far as I am able to meet the right hon. Member's request.

Although there is no reason to believe that the likelihood of any general attack on the United Kingdom has increased, we have been carrying out a series of examinations of our existing and planned air defences to ensure their effectiveness. A number of important improvements have already been introduced, others will be introduced over the next two or three years and further improvements are under consideration.

Obviously the capability of Warsaw Pact aircraft underlines the necessity of improving our airborne early warning system. The Shackletons introduced into this role during the last twelve months have successfully shown the value of a system mounted in aircraft, which can deploy their radars well beyond our shores and at heights which significantly extend the range of our low-level radar cover. The Shackletons are expected to remain operational until about the end of the 1970s, and we are already looking into the requirement for a successor aircraft.

The effective range and endurance of our Lightnings and Phantoms has been greatly increased by co-operation with the airborne early warning force and also by in-flight refuelling. The Lightning continues to give valuable service and the arrival of the Jaguar in the strike-attack and reconnaissance roles will enable us progressively to transfer the Phantom FGR2 to the air defence role. The performance of this aircraft gives it an excellent air defence capability against attacking aircraft, including those flying at low level. It is interesting to note that Lightning and Phantom aircraft intercepted Soviet aircraft on over 100 occasions in 1972.

To improve the capability of our fighters, we are planning to introduce new and better air-to-air guided missiles. A new British homing head and fuse are being developed for the medium-range Sparrow missile. Also under way is a project definition study of a new short-range air-to-air missile.

We are giving particularly careful thought to the air defence ground environment in the United Kingdom and a detailed study of requirements is in progress. In the meantime, a radar has been installed in the Hebrides in order to provide additional early warning and control cover to the north-west. This radar is a useful addition to the cover already provided by Linesman radars and other air defence radars located in the United Kingdom and on the Continent.

The last element of the Linesman system to be commissioned is the L1 building at West Drayton which is expected to achieve operational capability about the end of this year. The United Kingdom air defence ground environment has been designed so that it can operate, if necessary, on a decentralised basis from radar units around the country. To increase the chances of survival in the event of air attack, we intend to devolve greater responsibility for some of the control functions which under earlier plans were to have been exercised mainly from the L1 building. Improvements are also being introduced in our air defence capabilities overseas.

The Phantom FGR2 will transfer to air defence duties in Germany and Cyprus as well as in the United Kingdom. On the ground, the new low-level surface-to-air guided weapon, Rapier, will be deployed in Germany and Cyprus, with a mobile reserve in the United Kingdom. Passive defence measures are also being implemented and include the building of aircraft shelters in RAF Germany.

I am sure that the House will be interested to hear of some of the activities of the RAF in the last 12 months. The House will be pleased to know that No. 2 Squadron, against formidable opposition, swept the prizes board in "Big Click", an oddly named AFNORTH tactical air force reconnaissance competition held to test the ability of reconnaissance crews to provide accurate and timely intelligence on a variety of targets. In 1972 our Vulcans again took part in the annual bombing and navigation competition with the United States Air Force and were successful, winning four of the six trophies, showing a marked improve- ment in bombing and navigation accuracy. This is remarkable considering the size of our Air Force compared with some of the others who were competing in the events.

There have also been three international operations of interest. Following the earthquake in Managua in December, Hercules aircraft went to Nicaragua carrying food, and medical and other supplies. A little later, Hercules aircraft were again in operation on behalf of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees in Southern Sudan following the end of the civil war there.

More recently, a detachment of four Hercules aircraft, together with supporting RAF and Army personnel, have been in Nepal assisting in distributing food to remote parts of the country following droughts. This has been an outstanding success and our Armed Forces were delighted to aid a country with which we have such close and enduring links. The operation, planned to take 60 days, was tackled with determination and skill. Within 28 days, 187 sorties had been flown and the task of dropping almost 2,000 tons had been completed. The dropping zones and forward air strips were located in very mountainous country, thereby testing to the full the flying techniques of the crews and presenting an opportunity for very valuable air training. The success of these operations creates valuable good will and the Royal Air Force has in these cases been an effective ambassador.

I have related today some very radical changes which have been made in the managerial structure of the RAF in the last three years. I can assure the House that these changes have been willingly achieved from within the Service and ideas have been put forward at all levels to try to meet problems. I think we have been particularly fortunate in the present Chief of the Air Staff, the Air Force Board, and the field commanders who have worked as one in the knowledge that it is essential to reduce manpower and increase front line strength. As I have tried to show, we have had some successes in this line due entirely to this attitude of determination to increase efficiency.

I have this afternoon tried to outline all the main points of problems facing the Royal Air Force this year and I have tried to describe its purpose and the role I hope it will play in the future. This may have involved me in not going into some of the details hon. Members would have wished but I shall certainly do that this evening.

Some time ago the Sunday Express in its Crossbencher column, which diverts us all on Sunday, said that I had stayed with the RAF because I had no ability to go anywhere else. If that is the case I am grateful for it because it has enabled me to be with the Service at a time of considerable achievement and moment. I can reassure the House that this by no means the end of the story. The force is now in excellent condition and is continuing on the same path of increasing efficiency that makes it one of the finest fighting forces now in existence.

4.56 p.m.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I think the hon. Gentleman will by now have realised that that is not the only cross which Crossbencher inflicts on us. Certainly looking round the Chamber one can see that this debate does not have the drama which perhaps attends debates nowadays on the Army, involved as it is in Northern Ireland and with those sudden and dramatic events. The truth is that whilst some of us might oppose a joint service—probably all of us do— nevertheless we must realise that the whole defence effort of the country is interdependent, and the ability of any one Service to carry out its task is heavily dependent on the excellence of the other Services involved.

Thus the performance of the duties by the Army in Northern Ireland has been greatly helped by the vigilance of the Royal Air Force and in particular by the Nimrod pilots who located and shadowed "Claudia" and were able to bring about a state of affairs where there was a great loss to terrorists of potential weapons in Northern Ireland.

The RAF has exemplified the high standard that we have come to take for granted from that skilled force. Although I thought that it was an oddly named competition—it sounded like a "clickety-click" competition—I am glad to know of our successes from the Minister and particularly that of No. 2 Squadron, which was at one time based at the same station where the most reluctant national Service man of all time—namely myself —was stationed.

Speaking in the comparable debate to this on 2nd March 1972 my right hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris), who led for the Opposition on that occasion, made the point that he hoped that this year's White Paper would contain a detailed and forward appraisal of the role of the RAF. The necessity for the appraisal has been somewhat removed by the first part of the Minister's speech where he dealt with some of these questions. The appraisal is necessary for three reasons and they are all to do with the future equipment programme to provide for the RAF the capacity to undertake our aerial defence. The first reason is concerned with the defence budget. Despite some valiant or misplaced attempts by Conservative back-benchers, both parties are now committed to the philosophy that the total defence budget must be contained within a proportion of total Government expenditure. We know that the Royal Air Force will have the greatest pressures placed upon it because, as the Financial Times said on 27th February 1973, Pressures will become severe on the Royal Air Force as expensive new programmes such as MRCA build-up to their peak. When that happens, whatever Government are in power will be faced with an agonising series of decisions. First, they will have to decide whether to hold the budget to the amount that has been allocated or whether to allow escalation. In view of the fact that there have been very few new factors this year and there has been an increase in real terms of 5.6 per cent., it can be seen that the real percentage increase when the programme reaches its peak may well be substantially more. That is bound to conflict with what one Government Minister has recently described as the legitimate claims of other spending Departments.

If we are to hold to the Defence Estimates we are likely to be faced with a choice between Services and a choice between pieces of equipment. In the presence of the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles), I hesitate to put forward the possibility that there may be a choice of force and that a Government may have to decide between the through-deck cruiser and the MRCA. That is the sort of decision about pieces of equipment which may be forced by a decision on total budget resources.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

The hon. Gentleman must recognise, with his new responsibility for defence on the Front Bench, that that sort of choice has always faced Defence Departments throughout our history. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) has said that this country is either defended or is not properly defended. I am sure that whatever Government are in office will be bound by that basic fact. I am sure that the hon Gentleman will agree with that.

Mr. John

The proper defence of Britain is a matter of legitimate concern for us all. A genuine point which seems to command at least Front Bench alliance is that whatever expenditure on defence is necessary, that expenditure must be related to the total economic climate of the country.

Programmes such as the MRCA programme will be coming to their peak at the end of the decade. I ask the Government to take a forward look so that the relationship between defence costs and the economic climate can be considered and so that priorities between pieces of equipment can be worked out. More important than that, and the second reason for taking a forward look, is the factor which the Under-Secretary of State indicated—namely, the choice between aircraft and other equipment and manpower in the Royal Air Force.

The Financial Times on 27th February, in the article to which I have referred, said that personnel are responsible for over half of the total budget of the Royal Air Force and that the increase in the cost of new aircraft and equipment is more than the rate of inflation. Therefore, unless costs are reduced in one area or in another, the expenditure limits cannot be kept without reducing the size and capability of the front line.

The size of the Royal Air Force is already being reduced to a plan. It is vital that Service men who continue to serve in the Royal Air Force should know that their future is being thought about so that they can serve to their maximum capacity. I have also heard the suggestion in Service quarters that there may be a limit to the rate and to the point at which manpower can be run down so to enable us to buy new pieces of equipment and new aircraft. In other words, we must not run down too far the level of manpower to enable us to afford extra aircraft. That is the second reason which compels me to believe that it is important to think now and not later.

Another reason for having a forward look at Royal Air Force policy is the uncertainty which is expressed by the British aircraft industry about future production of military aircraft. The British aircraft industry wants to know whether it is to be exclusively geared to joint projects on a European basis, such as the MRCA, or whether there is still a place for exclusively British aircraft. It wants to know the Government's thinking. It wants to know whether there will be off-the-shelf purchases in future, such as the purchase of Phantoms.

The reasons which I have indicated compel consideration of our long-term plans. It is a matter of regret that the Defence Estimates statement this year does not contain a forward-looking policy. Nowhere is there set out in that document any recognition of the valid point which was made last year, that a forward-looking policy was necessary and should be adopted.

I was heartened by the first half of the speech of the Under-Secretary of State. He seemed to be correcting the balance. We shall all want to study his words with care. However, the major point of RAF policy and the major point of the debate should have figured largely in the hon. Gentleman's speech. I find it incredible that he should have cursorily dismissed the MRCA. The MRCA, is described by Air Commodore Davies in a recent review of the Royal Air Force as an aircraft on which the RAF's future plans should rely upon almost exclusively. It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to say, "Everything is all right, chaps, and we are going ahead a bit."

I know that the Under-Secretary of State said that he will answer detailed questions when he winds up. I hope that he will pay attention to the series of questions which inevitably I must ask him. Air Commodore Davies asks whether the MRCA will ever come into production. We have had an indication that it is nearer production than it was. His second question is whether the MRCA will perform as planned. The question whether it goes into production is very much bound up with the question of costs. Despite their baying in Opposition, the Government have not revealed to us any details of the costings of the MRCA. Certain figures have been given and development costs of £250 million were mentioned initially. Has that been exceeded? If so, what is the new development figure? Certain unverified remarks were bandied around the House about unit costs when MRCA was first considered. The unit figure at that stage was £1½ million. At paragraph 43 of the Second Report of the Expenditure Committee it is clear that at an early stage costs were exceeding estimates.

It was hoped initially that a thousand aircraft would be produced. It was thought that Britain would take roughly 350 to 400. The Germans have reduced their requirement and the total production now being talked about is in the range of 800 aircraft. What effect will that have upon unit costs? Shall we adhere to the number of aircraft which we said that we would take?

Are the Government satisfied that the apparatus for the control of the product has been adequate to protect the customers? It was said in the Sunday Times on 12th March that in the MRCA organisation bureaucracy is rife and costly. That may not be so, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reassure us. An allied point is that, even if the organisation of the project is not costly, are the Government satisfied that the apparatus is sufficiently flexible so that decisions are taken as quickly as they should be and are taken near to the point of production, instead of endless referrals either to the country of origin or to the main offices of the companies concerned?

The second point has to do with its performance. Allied to that is the question of when it is coming into service. As I understand the Minister's statement today about it coming into operation in the late 1970s, it means that there has been some slippage from the date of 1976 when it was originally said to be coming into operation. The Minister shakes his head. I hope that in due course, with the leave of the House, he will tell us that this is not so. In the interests of economy certain modifications have been made to the performance of the aircraft. I hope that even with those it will still give the same sort of performance as was initially envisaged and I hope, too, that its ultimate performance will be sufficient to give us a steady and stable defence capability in the future.

These matters are crucial to the whole question of the future of the Royal Air Force capability. I hope that a fuller statement will be made tonight about the MRCA than has hitherto been the case. The House has everything to gain by an assessement of the current programme at this stage. I believe—and I have to acknowledge that the Labour Party no less than the Conservative Party has been guilty of this in the past—that too little information is given to the House on defence matters on grounds of so-called secrecy. I often think that we are the only people who are in the dark. Certainly if we go to our allies we get much better briefings. Much of the information which has come to us on the MRCA and Concorde has orginiated with our allies rather than ourselves.

It is equally certain that our enemies will know a great deal about this, whether we like it or not. What is the reason for our being the only people in the dark? I hope that we shall eschew the dreary international saga of secrecy plus escalating costs which are even now bedevilling the civil aviation industry.

What is at stake is too important because all Governments—this one particularly—complain that the criticism of their defence spending is ill-informed and misguided. If that is so it is because the Government do not supply sufficient information to allow the House to make well-balanced and constructive criticisms. There is every reason why the Minister should tonight give us a full and detailed view of the MRCA.

I come now to the Harrier. I was glad that the Minister was able to dispel criticism of this, particularly the criticism which appeared in the Sunday Times dealing with the fact that there had been 14 crashes in three years. I believe that it is a fine aircraft, an outstanding technical achievement. I am glad that the criticism has been dispelled because of the prospects of foreign sales. Is the Minister prepared to give us some indication of the foreign sales position? There are one or two other aspects of the Harrier with which I should like him to deal.

The first is the question of the Harrier simulator in RAF Germany. When the Expenditure Committee was out there the Harrier simulator had not been erected and there was some confusion as to when, if ever, it was to be erected. I hope that the Minister can give us a firm reply on this. The second matter has to do with the use of helicopters in conjunction with the Harrier service. Has a study exercise yet been undertaken? The Minister will know that the C-in-C, RAF Germany, has said that a study would be necessary and that he thought that the use of helicopters was highly desirable in conjunction with the Harrier.

The Minister will also know that at the moment logistic support is provided by lorries. This is accepted in RAF circles as being a second best. I can understand that it may be necessary for economic reasons. I hope that such a study has been undertaken or will be carried out into the use of helicopters in connection with this project so that this fine aircraft will not become a cart hitched to a buggy. This seems to be the effect of putting these two pieces of equipment in tandem.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the question of the Harrier—and both sides of the House have said what a fine aircraft it is and what enormous potential it has— will he try to get an answer from the Minister about the maritime version? I have never been able to get such an answer.

Mr. John

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman, with all of his powers of persuasion, has failed I feel that it is beyond my powers. I have no doubt that the Minister noted the question. Statements have been made and I believe that the latest position is that the evaluation is almost complete. Therefore a decision will be taken in the near future. However this is for his hon. Friends not for me.

I come now to the question of aircraft shelters. I am a little puzzled about the slowness with which these are being introduced, particularly in RAF Germany. The Select Committee reported a considerable time ago. Its report was presented on 10th February 1972. It was said then that this project already had SACEUR approval and that it was intended to give the aircraft shelter programme the maximum priority. I had intended to ask the Minister whether this had been completed, but I gathered from what he said that it is still very much in the course of being carried out.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to announce very soon the completion of this programme because it is obvious, if we have a strategic air force in Germany, that much of its effectiveness, certainly in a limited confrontation, must depend on the protection of our aircraft on the airfields. The so-called hardening of the airfields is desperately necessary if RAF Germany is to have any value at all.

Equipment inevitably plays a large part in the consideration of so technical an organisation as the RAF. I turn from that to deal with various manpower questions. The Minister dealt with the planned run-down and with the problem I raised last year, which has continued to be a source of grievance, namely the preservation of a career and promotion structure by preventing some NCOs from prolonging their service. I understand all of his arguments which I believe are unanswerable. There has to be such a plan.

On the other hand, the complaints that I have received from NCOs completing their 16 years who have been refused prolongation are bitter and heartfelt. Put quite simply, this is a matter of pension rights. It means the transformation of the best asset in the RAF, a contented and skilled NCO, into a person nursing a sense of grievance against the RAF.

Some of my constituents are certainly in this position. They feel, however wrongly—and I accept that it probably is wrong—that they have been cheated in being put out of the Service when they have many more useful years of work left and when their competence has not hitherto been questioned. They are good men who have served loyally and well. When men of such seniority harbour a sense of grievance they are likely to make very poor recruiting advertisements.

While I appreciate that the Minister cannot look at the question of the extension of their service without destroying the whole of the pattern which has been worked out for maintaining the career structure, I wonder whether he would look instead at the question of pension availability. Would he look at what is in a very real sense a special case—those men who, after 16 years, are being put out of the Royal Air Force because they have been refused an extension of service—so that they might in pension terms be treated more generously? That would remove the sense of grievance under which they labour and would be an advertisement for the humanity and care with which the Royal Air Force treats its members.

Great progress has been made in the provision of better accommodation for serving men. I have recently visited the Royal Air Force, St. Athan, where the provision of accommodation for single Service men is as unbarracklike as possible. The men serving there must feel a greater sense of privacy and independence which no doubt leads them to a greater feeling of care and protection towards their accommodation. There are shortages of accommodation, particularly for married ranks. How many families are separated in RAF Germany? How long do they have to wait for accommodation, and when does the Minister expect the housing programme for them to be complete? When the Select Committee on Expenditure looked into this it found that there were about 480 separated families.

A question which is tied up with that and is of almost as much importance to young married Service men is how many, particularly in RAF Germany, live in accommodation which is described as very poor in quality? The Minister will know from the evidence given and the investigation made that some of the outside accommodation is well separated from the camp and is also of poor quality. When young Service men marry so early it is important that the wives who have to go to a foreign land should have good accommodation.

Many questions remain on manpower, but I will content myself with raising again the transfer of the Royal Radar Establishment at Pershore. Questions were asked about this in our last debate, and the statement made by the Minister on that occasion has not reassured the people who are employed in the establishment. I understand that the request made by the men to meet the Secretary of State for Defence has not been granted. I ask the Minister to put that request to his right bon. Friend, as those men are labouring under a great sense of injustice. They are unconvinced of the need for, and the economics of, the move to Farnborough for several reasons.

One reason is the congestion of air space over Farnborough. The current edition of Flight contains a letter written by Mr. M. Hawes which deals with congestion over Farnborough on 22nd March when he was in the Farnborough MATZ area radar frequency. We understand that Farnborough is to be preserved for the purpose of the international air show. Is not Farnborough too congested for the transfer of the establishment? Would not the availability of Pershore for landing in case of emergency save the RAF £6 million in spin-off?

Lord Lambton

The air traffic around Farnborough is less than it was some years ago.

Mr. John

That is not the general impression, and it is one reason why someone from the Ministry should see the men urgently and meet their points. The men say that their points are never met.

It has been put to me that the men who are necessary for the work will not be attracted from inside the establishment so that more and more of the work will be contracted out. If that is so, the £1.2 million which was originally estimated as the cost of transferring the establishment to Farnborough will be grossly exceeded. Is the Ministry having difficulty about the range of operations which it is proposed to transfer to Farnborough?

It has been put to me that the transfer to Farnborough would ease the task of unfriendly people in monitoring the systems which are being practised there. Not only could those systems be monitored from sea vessels, but, as the location is so near the metropolis, it would be much easier to monitor them from land.

There may be perfectly good reasons for this transfer. The Government have always claimed that there are. If so, I hope that Ministers will take the trouble to meet the workers and to go through their case point by point. The suspicion that they have voiced to me is that the transfer to Farnborough is designed merely to perpetuate Farnborough as a place to hold the international air show. That may be an unworthy suspicion, but it is their feeling and it deserves an answer.

I come now to low flying aircraft, particularly in Wales. I say that in deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks), who is concerned about low flying over his constituency. I will leave that part to him. Low-flying aircraft do not affect my constituency but they affect the constituencies of my hon. and right hon. Friends further west.

According to a parliamentary answer, 9 per cent. of low level flights occur over Wales, but that is not a meaningful measure of the nuisance and annoyance caused. More meaningful is another answer which states that, for example, in the month of August 1972, there were 2,900 low-level flights over Wales, and in September of that year 1,800.

I understand that in contour flying, which is the training that these pilots are undergoing, aircraft tend to keep to the contours at fairly low altitude and to fly along the valleys. In the parts of Wales most affected by that type of flying the valleys are the most densely inhabited areas. The pilots therefore are not flying over uninhabited territory. My hon. Friends have described graphically the disruption of life and the misery which are caused by low-level flights.

I appreciate that low flying is essential for the training of pilots, but is it not possible to route more flights over uninhabited areas? If we cannot eliminate them altogether, cannot we at least minimise the degree of disruption to communities caused'by low-level flights? The Minister, with great pride, has described the efforts which the Royal Air Force makes to assist the civil population by performing sea rescues, and so on. The RAF has built up a good name for itself and a good reputation with the public. After all these efforts, it is a pity to dissipate that good will by continuing with low-level fights over inhabited areas.

I wish to mention, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon the low-level flights over Cefn Cribwr in his constituency. The Minister has said in advance that he will reply to that point. I understand that the minimum height level was raised to 1,000 feet, because the aircraft are in transit from mid-Wales to Devon. Therefore the minimum height at which they could fly was raised to 1,000 feet. I am told that this eased the problem considerably However, I am also told that this has slipped back and that pilots are not observing it. Flights are taking place at very much lower altitudes.

There are two possibilities. The first is that the instructions have been changed, in which case I should be glad to have the Minister's explanation. The second, if the instructions have not been changed, is that they are not being obeyed, and that is a fairly serious matter upon which I am sure the Minister will wish to comment. I look forward to his doing so.

I have dealt with the need for our forces to earn public respect. I do not believe that that is altogether bad. Their need to earn respect rather than having it conferred on them automatically is a powerful spur to them to achieve high levels of excellence. I believe that it has produced in the RAF a body of men who are renowned and admired by all. What they want from Parliament is the long view of their role, for which I have asked, for their own security of occupation and certainty about the future. Given that, I know that they will continue to serve us in the future, as they have in the past, with exemplary devotion and skill.

5.31 p.m.

Wing Commander Sir Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

Each year in these Royal Air Force debates there is some slight change to be recorded, even though on some occasions it is hardly noticeable. Yet, when one examines all the changes or the evolution over the past two decades, the result is truly amazing.

I first took part in the Air Estimates debates, as they then were, 23 years ago. I have spoken in many annual discussions on the RAF since 1950. Always in those days there was a small dedicated company of hon. Members who sought to speak. When the late Mr. Arthur Henderson was Secretary of State there were speeches from Vere Harvey, now Lord Harvey, from Ian Orr-Ewing, now Lord Orr-Ewing, from "Laddie" Lucas and from me, all from the Tory side of the House. Then, as you will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, came the long years of "Geordie" Ward, now Lord Ward, whose PPS in those early days was the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. Generally in those speeches there were congratulations for the RAF's work and progress. There was an effort to boost recruiting by opining that there would be a requirement for trained pilots for manned aircraft for many years to come. Invariably there was a call for more money to meet all the requirements of the Service.

In those immediate post-war years there were shortages. There was reorganisation. There was National Service and competition for recruits. There were also some anxieties for the world-wide responsibilities which still remained with us.

Gradually over the years we sought to streamline the Service, to strengthen existing alliances and to create new ones. Major re-equipment programmes were envisaged, planned and begun. Always the same principles endured through the years—the necessity for real power. To unify the three Services, Navy, Army and Air Force, was a tremendous undertaking. Many were the teething troubles before the project was completed by the now Lord Thorneycroft as Secretary of State for Defence. I saw something of it in those days because during his period as Secretary of State I was his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Today the major re-equipment programme begun 10 years ago in the mid-1960s is well advanced so that before 1980 we are expected to have more than 1,000 new front-line and other aircraft at a cost of more than £1,000 million. Yet we could still, as always, do with more money. There are those who think that more money should be available. But the main task to my mind is to ensure that such money as is available is spent in the best possible manner.

The payment of good money as an inducement to good recruits is necessary in this technological and competitive age, and the wage bill accounts for over half the RAF's expenditure. I believe that the figure is 53 per cent. This can be reduced as a percentage only if there is greater gross national production and we can then take a larger share of the national cake. We should aim to reduce the percentages to at least 50 and, to my mind, the ideal may be about 45 per cent. This means that manpower has to be streamlined and that maximum effort in diverse forms should be obtained on the manning side of the Service. I believe that that is what is being done with great success. The capacity for greater effort appears to be there, and there is evidence that present-day training ensures diverse and maximum output. Thus the Service is able to make better use of its skilled and dedicated manpower.

All this encourages everyone to become more cost conscious, and the management training on commercial lines is beginning to pay off. My hon. Friend the Undersecretary made some mention of ideas and proposals which have come from the staff. Will he confirm that more than 1,200 have come from staff in all parts of the Service?

There must be great satisfaction about the change made in recent years whereby a cadet passes straight from school to university without losing the college spirit associated with Cranwell where he spends some time before and after his university course and attachment to a university air squadron.

The closing of some Training Command stations and plans for further closures can be accomplished without loss of capability if the Service is able to capitalise on recent advances in training techniques and, of course, all this makes for sensible economies. Is my hon. Friend in a position to comment on the feasibility of a main base concept, with one for mechanical, one for electronic and one for administrative trades? Is it true that Training Command moneys are divided almost equally between flying training and ground training, and does my hon. Friend think that that is the right proportion? Can my hon. Friend also say a word about the 1,200 overseas students whom the Royal Air Force trains annually and about how much we take from the overseas governments concerned in cash payments? Is this part of the RAF's work which is likely to increase?

Although the RAF's main task is the responsibility for air defence in the United Kingdom and a share in European defence generally, provision has to be made for offensive and defensive forces for maritime operations, and to my mind we still retain a global role. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary comment on our plans for the defence of some of our sea routes, especially round the Cape, and whether air power can be readily available in the event of a sudden flare-up or offensive incident against our shipping.

I believe that we have been able to save wisely by retaining a large proportion of our forces at home and to have access to air fields by arrangements with allies and other friendly countries throughout the world. I applaud the regular exercises and exchange of personnel which provide opportunities for good training and for real experience. Again, it is a system which makes maximum use of the moneys available.

Strategically the real strength of the RAF overseas lies in its ability rapidly to reinforce small skeleton units in an emergency with forces capable of making a real impact on any local situation. A varied and versatile force of military transport aircraft can rapidly take ground crews, spares and armaments as required. The new Strike Command in the United Kingdom plays its important part in such overseas reinforcement. To my mind, this flexibility is one of the fundamental strengths of air power.

With the coming into service of the Anglo-French Jaguar to replace the Phantom, which we are promised later this year, and with the British-German-Italian multi-role combat aircraft, the MRCA, due in five or six years, further substantial modernisation will have been effected. So we continue with the evolution of the Service. Perhaps the Minister will tell us something more about the MRCA this evening, as he has already been requested.

Those of us who took part in those early debates and others who have followed the progress of the Royal Air Force must be staggered by the evolution and tremendous progress of the Service. It is a story that should be more widely told.

This week I was glancing through old copies of the Air League's Air Pictorial and I read from a leading article of four years ago: It is our good fortune to have opportunities to meet and listen to students. To one question, 'Are Britons concerned about aviation?', they gave a remarkably unanimous retort: Of course they are, but they find the whole business too inaccessible. They can find no recognised way in to find out about it, to sample it from inside and, without being committed, to learn. For the dedicated enthusiast there is the valuable ATC with its several flying scholarships, and there are other means.

Today I believe that recruitment does not present much difficulty and that the Service is able to be selective. But there is still a great public relations duty to inform more fully the vast British public of the excellent work and progress of the Royal Air Force. I think that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) was saying this in rather more critical terms.

Perhaps the Minister will bend his thoughts to the task of making the public more generally aware of their Air Force. We have a good story to tell, and it should be told. There are congratulations for all concerned, and there should be a wider sphere of enlightenment to make for a greater realisation of the value of a Service which reached its fiftieth anniversary only a few years ago, a Service which continues to be a sure shield for this country.

Planning for the future must and does continue. I understand—I think that this was confirmed in the Minister's speech— that discussions in considerable detail are proceeding in the Royal Air Force Department with the procurement executive and the aerospace industry for new aircraft in 10 to 15 years. I understand that organisation of flying and trade training for future years are also under current examination.

I am sure that the vast British public would join me in saluting members of the Royal Air Force and those who run it. A deterrent force, up to the minute, flexible, and streamlined will be required for many years to come. The cost will always be considerable. But it is essential to the maintenance of peace, and if our people are kept informed of its work and progress, money and support will always be forthcoming.

5.44 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

Interesting and indeed fascinating to a layman, such as myself, as the debate has so far been, it is not my intention to contribute any personal thoughts on the role of the Royal Air Force or to comment further on any of the strategic, or technical considerations or manpower requirements that have occupied the attention of the House this evening.

I wish to take this opportunity to focus the minds of hon. Members on one particular aspect that is a direct consequence of this nation's training of its flying personnel—namely, the problems that arise resulting from low-flying military aircraft in approved low-flying areas.

Before developing my speech any further, I should like to preface the content of my subsequent remarks in two ways. The first is simply that I support wholeheartedly the contribution that the Royal Air Force makes both to the air strategy of this country and to NATO. Thus, it follows that I recognise that our pilots must be trained in low-flying skills.

Secondly, I accept that it is preferable for this training to take place over areas and regions having a low population density, which tend to be rural areas located in the peripheral parts of the United Kingdom. Large areas of the Bodmin division of Cornwall, which I represent, if I may give a brief geographical lesson to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), fit into these criteria. Indeed, my hon. Friend informed me only yesterday, in answer to a Question, that military aircraft are allowed to carry out low-level training over a little less than half of the United Kingdom as a whole and over approximately one-third of the land area of Cornwall. This illustrates the extent over which the problems associated with low flying can occur.

Having stated categorically that I accept the need for pilots to be trained, I should like to examine certain consequential aspects and effects. I know that the House will understand if I draw on examples and experiences from Cornwall, and my constituency in particular. I fully accept that they reflect similar circumstances elsewhere in the United Kingdom—for example, in Wales, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Pontypridd.

The first aspect concerns the selection of the areas themselves. I have already indicated the type of area that is designated, but may I ask my hon. Friend to inform me why these areas should not be made public? There seems no reason why this should not be the case.

Furthermore, it might on the odd occasion influence a person's decision as to where he will live. For example, I have never known a solicitor's searches on behalf of a client intending to purchase a farm or house in my constituency on the margins of or on Bodmin Moor itself to state that that house or farm is situated in a low-flying area. It might even have affected the value and price that my potential constituent was prepared to pay for that home in that location.

The second aspect relates to the suitability of an area. Will my hon. Friend inform me how often these areas are reviewed and, if necessary, their boundaries revised? I ask this question for the very good reason that the geographical distribution of our population is constantly changing. Let us take, for example, the southern fringes of Bodmin Moor which are included in the approved low-flying area where there are a number of fast-expanding villages. Ten years ago—indeed, only five years ago in some instances—these villages, although all within a six-mile radius of the local market town of Liskeard, were completely separate entities with populations that had hardly altered probably over the previous 50 years. In the last five years or so these old Cornish villages such as St. Cleer, Pensilva, Linkinhorne and Darite have without exception expanded. All have new housing estates and in consequence their populations have doubled, and in some cases more than trebled. Therefore, the Minister must accept the need for a constant revision of the situation.

This leads me to my third point, the subject of safety. As my hon. Friend is already aware, the problem of low-flying military aircraft was highlighted in my constituency on Tuesday, 27th March when there was an accident involving a Royal Air Force Hunter jet which flew into one of the supporting stays of the television transmitter on Caradon Hill. Fortunately, the pilot baled out. I hope that he makes a quick and successful recovery from his injuries. Furthermore, on that occasion, as far as I am aware, there was no damage to property. As my hon. Friend has already informed me, a full investigation is being carried and will include all relevant safety aspects.

I shall not expect the Minister in his reply to refer to this specific incident, but I believe that this is an appropriate occasion on which to make certain observations of a more general nature. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Caradon Hill area is within an authorised low-flying area? If it is, is it necessary to include that area? It not only includes the prominent local landmark of Caradon Hill, which is 1,212 feet above sea level and which stands above the level of surrounding countryside, but it also contains a television aerial mast on top, which is a further 780 feet high. In addition, the low-flying area is located adjacent to the growth villages to which I have referred.

I do not wish to sound provocative or alarmist, but a local person has calculated that had this Hunter aircraft at the speed it was travelling hit the mast at an angle two or three degrees different from that at which in fact it struck the mast, it could well have crashed and the parts would have been spread over a populated area.

I make this point deliberately because I believe that it helps to justify the genuine concern that is being expressed locally in respect of the wisdom of selecting this particular district and the associated fear for peoples' safety. Since the accident a petition has been organised and so far 450 people have signed it. The terms of the petition are that this district should be withdrawn from the list of approved low-flying areas. I share their apprehension.

My fourth and final point relates to the conditions under which low flying may take place and what instructions are laid down. Could my hon. Friend clarify the situation, particularly in respect of permitted heights. Constituents have informed me that exercises often take place in doubtful weather conditions, even though the Department when replying to individuals have stated in terms that flying only takes place in conditions of good visibility". Individuals have also drawn my attention to the fact that on occasions these aircraft fly at almost ground level. A constituent who runs a pony trekking business on Bodmin Moor has described an unpleasant incident when his horses were disturbed with people on and around them, while farmers and other private individuals have described to me similar adverse effects which have resulted from the activities of low-flying aircraft. I originally drew my hon. Friend's attention to this matter in July 1971 when the secretary of the local branch of the National Farmers' Union approached me about the matter. Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the way in which the Claims Commission works particularly in proving liability?

Since then there have been further occasions, and I know from first-hand information from my constituents and from the Minister in answer to parliamentary Questions that his Department has received representations direct from a large number of my constituents. In addition the divisional headquarters of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary at Liskeard has sent on nine formal complaints as well as receiving other verbal representation.

I appreciate that this is not a new problem, nor is it confined to my constituency. In addition to the recent incident involving the Hunter at Caradon Hill, our area in south-east Cornwall has been the scene of two other accidents in which military aircraft, both helicopters, have been involved since August 1972. In both cases electric power lines were affected.

I hope the House will realise the understandable concern felt about this real problem in certain parts of my constituency. I trust that the Minister will not only answer my questions but will also provide me with the assurances which both my constituents and I require.

5.58 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Walthamstow. East)

I should like to begin by taking up some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John). The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the cost of our defence forces but I would remind him that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance. It is difficult to work out exactly what is the cost of eternal vigilance, but I am sure that unless we are prepared to pay that cost, we shall not have democracy. I also remind him that in the 1930s we were unwilling to pay that price and nearly lost our freedom.

Mr. John

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that both Opposition and Government Front Benches have made clear that defence expenditure depends on the proper calls of other spending Departments. We have had this argument on almost every Service Estimate. Does he believe that we should cripple our own economy by obtaining armaments and thus make the price of freedom or the price of eternal vigilance not worth it? The freedom one is defending in those circumstances becomes meaningless.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am grateful for that intervention. It brings me to a point that I intended to make. Perhaps we might modify the concept of the price of democracy being eternal vigilance by having cost-effectiveness within that price. That was the point that I suspect the hon. Gentleman was trying to make. I was seeking to sound at least a warning signal that we should not imagine that, somehow or other, defence is the one area in our economy where we can make cuts without ultimately damaging the whole framework and structure on which our economy is built.

Having said that, I welcome my hon. Friend's statement today about streamlining and slimming down the Royal Air Force without at the same time giving away anything in efficiency or operational ability. This seems absolutely right. It seems to follow the line of cost-effectiveness which we require from our defence forces.

But even so I would like to ask the question whether we have thought out the operational rôle of the Royal Air Force in the mid-1970s and onwards in quite the way that we should. Reading the White Paper, one has to accept that although the Royal Air Force will have a lot of new equipment—which I welcome—it has two different rôles to fulfil. One rôle is to play its proper part in the defence of Western Europe, in terms of NATO, but, secondly and no less important, is its other rôle which is to play its part in the defence of these islands. For, in the last resort it is a part of the defensive structure of this country. Therefore, one has somehow to reconcile what seem to be two totally different rôles, which in turn demand different responses.

In the United Kingdom terms I am coming to the opinion that we must think in terms of what I would describe as a single national security force rather than three separate Services. I have recently had an opportunity to read about the work of the French Gendarmerie. I was surprised to find that the French Gendarmerie does not consist only of policemen, as we all imagine when we go to France and think that the police are called gendarmes, but is a military force which has within it soldiers, airmen and country policemen.

I am coming to the opinion that that concept is perhaps the right concept for the United Kingdom's security forces. Indeed, as the operations in Northern Ireland develop one begins to realise that, whether or not we wish it, our forces in Northern Ireland are becoming just such an internal security force. For instance, it is a little surprising to realise that the largest helicopter force in Northern Ireland is not an RAF unit but the 36 helicopters of the Army Air Corps which are operating at brigade level and doing a most valuable job.

If one asks members of the Army Air Corps how they see their rôle, they argue that their rôle is close operational support for troops. That seems absolutely right. There has been an Army Air Corps for a very long time in this country. I believe that the genesis of the Royal Air Force, to some extent at least, was from Army flying, although in those days it was observation balloons. Therefore, it does not seem surprising when one reads an article suggesting that the Harrier aircraft should most logically go into the Army Air Corps and not be operated by the Royal Air Force at all, because the Harrier is a close-support aircraft designed to assist troops.

Although one may argue that at present the Army Air Corps is in no way equipped to cope with such a complex aircraft the logic of having it in the Army Air Corps rather than the Royal Air Force seems inescapable. That also applies to the logic of having a medium-lift helicopter in the Army Air Corps rather than the RAF, because a medium-lift helicopter would be there for the logistic support not only of Harriers but of troops.

I put forward this idea because I believe that logically it is the right development. However, I do not want to stray too far into the area of the Army Air Corps as this is a debate on the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the hon. Gentleman have in mind the Puma and the Wessex?

Mr. McNair-Wilson

No, I am talking about the Chinook, of which we have none, and the Sikorsky aircraft, which is I think the SR53. We badly need this medium-lift helicopter for logistic back-up. It is in service in Western Europe and has given extremely good service to the United States forces in Vietnam.

Even if it is too much to suggest that Harriers and medium-lift helicopters should go into the Army Air Corps at this stage, may I suggest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that at least one of the lessons of Operation Sky Warrior was that this helicopter could have a vital rôle to play. Is it not conceivable, with the end of the conflict in Vietnam, at least in American terms, that there will now be a large surplus of these machines on the market which we could buy at a comparatively cheap price and thus give our forces a piece of equipment which on one or two occasions my hon. Friend has agreed the RAF would dearly like to have but has so far been prevented from buying through lack of cash? When I visited the members of the RAF's 38 Group at Odiham, they agreed that this was a machine they would like to have. It is crucial as I have said if we are to give the Harrier the logistic back-up which will make it the flexible vertical take-off aircraft that we want it to be.

I started my speech by questioning the rôle of the RAF in the two tasks that it has to perform. The close support aviation which the Army Air Corps provides to the battlefield, and which would in terms of the maritime Harrier be given to the Navy, is not necessarily the task of the Royal Air Force. As, I see it the RAF's task is the much wider task of guaranteeing air supremacy over the battle zone in terms of manned aircraft, interception, reconnaissance, strike and airborne early warning.

That naturally brings me to the aircraft which is being built to fulfil exactly some of those rôles—the multi-rôle combat aircraft. I listened to what my hon. Friend had to say this afternoon. Like other hon. Members, perhaps, I would have wished that he could have given us a little more detail about this extremely important military aircraft One welcomes it in every sense. But one wishes so much that the doubts which seem to still hang over it could once and for all be blown away and that we could know for certain that the RAF will have it and that it will become the standard aircraft for three of the air forces of Western Europe.

At a time when so much is being spoken about the integration of the European aerospace industry, one can only regret that the French have decided to have nothing to do with this project and to build an aircraft to fulfil a similar rôle but of purely French design and construction. That is a sad thing for a Europe which is trying to unite.

I was concerned by the remarks of the hon. Member for Pontypridd that there might have been any modification in the performance of this aircraft. I do not know what he had in mind, but I should be very unhappy to think that such an important aeroplane would not be as good as we need it to be and that an attempt was being made to reduce its performance simply to meet a cost figure. This aeroplane is far too important to the whole of Western Europe for that sort of jiggery-pokery to be allowable.

From the MRCA I turn to the whole question of airborne early warning. I was delighted to read in the White Paper that the conversion of the 12 Shackletons to this rôle is nearly complete. I welcome that but at the same time I cannot dodge, any more than anyone else in this House can dodge, the fact that the Shackleton is a very old aircraft. Although no doubt these aircraft have been refurbished and are almost as good as new, that means that they are as good as this aircraft was when it first entered service so many years ago. I hope therefore that we shall press ahead with the conversion of Nimrod to this rôle. In every way Nimrod has lived up to expectations and seems ideally suited to be an airborne early warning aircraft. I believe I detected in what my hon. Friend said a suggestion that this was in the Government's mind.

Perhaps I could add a further thought to the whole question of airborne early warning because it has been put to me that at the moment we are using two aircraft for two rôles which are very similar. We have an aircraft for airborne early warning and we have another aircraft for flight refuelling. Of course the Victor Is, soon to be Victor IIs, are doing and will do sterling service in providing flight refuelling; and we are all aware that by flight refuelling it is possible to keep the fighter screen many hundreds of miles away from its land bases and to give it an adequate ability to protect both the shores of these islands and, in its European rôle, and NATO task which it may be asked to fulfil.

If we need any proof that flight refuelling can keep a fighter aircraft in the air for almost as long as one wishes, we have only to remind ourselves of the London to New York air race, which the Harrier was able to win simply because it was refuelled so many times over the North Atlantic, although it is an aircraft of extremely short range. If, therefore, the tanker force has this extremely important rôle of keeping our fighter aircraft, and therefore our fighter screen, at long range from base, it is also undoubtedly true that if airborne early warning is to be effective it, too, must be operated not far from those fighter aircraft and certainly hundreds of miles away from its bases—that is, if early warning is to be meaningful.

Why, therefore, if we have two aircraft fulfilling rôles in the same vicinity, should we not have one aircraft to do both tasks? Of course it may be argued that the Shackleton could not do it and that the Victor I and Victor II could not do it but if—I put this forward as a possibility—the Chinese order for VC10s becomes a reality, I hope we shall give very serious consideration, if the VC10 production line is to be reopened, to ordering VC10s for airborne early warning tanker operation. I have been told by Service chiefs to whom I have spoken that this is an ideal aircraft for the tanker rôle and that because of its ability to carry heavy loads it could carry the radar equipment to make it an airborne early warning aircraft. That suggestion seems to have a good deal of credibility and worthy of investigation.

In the course of this debate the Harrier aircraft has been referred to yet again, by myself in terms of the Army Air Corps and by others. No debate of this kind ever goes by without all kinds of compliments being paid to the Harrier. I wish, however, that those compliments could have been turned into more positive results for the aircraft. Whether it be the land-based version or the now more controversial maritime-based aircraft, we always pay compliments to it but seldom follow it up with positive action.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

We have paid it compliments for 10 years.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

As my hon. and gallant Friend says, compliments have been paid to it for years, but there is not much to show for the compliments. We all appreciate that this is an aircraft with outstanding abilities. Yet somehow or other one feels that we have never quite realised those abilities as should have done and that, in maritime terms at least, there has been a most extraordinary dragging of feet. I hope we will agree even now that a maritime version should be continued.

Just in case that does not happen, however, I suggest to my hon. Friend that with flight refuelling one can maintain one's fighter force over one's fleet and give it adequate cover without the requirement of actually having organic air, in terms of aircraft, operating from those ships. Thus the tanker aircraft today, and perhaps in the future, seems to me to be becoming an increasingly important aircraft in giving the Royal Air Force all kinds of abilities that are not necessarily built into the aircraft in terms of range and so on.

Reference has been made in the course of the debate to the accidents to which the Harrier has been prone. I simply ask my hon. Friend two questions. In referring to RAF Harriers the Sunday Times suggested that one of the problems from which this aircraft suffered was that if it ingested birds at low level its engine was likely to stop and it had not the ability to restart, thus causing the pilot to eject speedily and the aircraft to crash. What was needed, therefore, was a modification which the Americans had fitted to their Harriers. I understand from a reply that was given to me that we are proceeding with this on RAF Harriers. I should like to know whether all our Harriers have been modified so that the engine will not stop as a result of bird ingestion.

I should also like to ask my hon. Friend what further measures have been introduced for airfield protection against bird strike. Last summer I had an opportunity to see airfields that are protected by falcons. I was most impressed by an American Air Force base that I saw in East Anglia, where falcons were used and which appeared to a great extent to be bird-free. I believe that the RAF have tried falcons from time to time but has not continued with them. Whether this was because environmentalists argued that the shortage of English peregrine falcons was such that to use them in this way might hurt the species or because they were not found successful, I am not sure. Certainly the Navy used them at Lossiemouth until the day it was handed over to the RAF. I wonder whether falcons are still being used there, because as I then said what I saw of them was extremely impressive. Just one or two flights by falcons had all the other birds flying for their lives, without any necessity to kill. This would be one means of protecting our aircraft from the hazard of bird strike.

From falcons of a feathery kind I turn to the new RAF aircraft to be called after the falcon's offspring, the Hawker Siddeley 1182 trainer, the Tercel. I have only one question to ask my hon. Friend. When is this aircraft likely to come into service? It is clearly an important trainer aircraft in the RAF training programme and I should like to have an idea of when the RAF will be given it.

I now turn to the question of servicing. Last year I visited the RAF centre at St. Athan, to which the hon. Member for Pontypridd referred, and I saw the extensive servicing and maintenance work being carried out there on a variety of aircraft. This year I have visited certain parts of the aircraft industry that were also carrying out servicing and maintenance. I found a great sense of unease about the desire of the RAF to keep so much of its servicing to itself and not to use the very extensive facilities of our aircraft industry to do this work.

The companies I saw made the point that by continuing to do Service maintenance civil companies were able to keep an fait with the advanced technology in Service aircraft. Thus we had a tuned-up aircraft industry able to help the RAF, and those companies thought that they were probably more cost-effective than anything the RAF could do for itself after perhaps first- or second-line service. Yet those same companies told me they believed that, if anything, the RAF was doing more rather than less of its servicing and maintenance. They found this extremely difficult to understand.

They also made the point that the French aircraft industry does most of the servicing of French military aircraft, which gives that industry the ability to know about the technology of modern military aircraft and thus to be more competitive in what it can provide. This point has come up before in RAF debates. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) raising it years ago. The industry generally is worried about it.

I turn next to the sovereign base areas in Cyprus and a visit I paid to Cyprus last summer with a defence delegation. I have already written to my hon. Friend about the visit, because it was not an unqualified success. I want to speak about the lessons I learned from that visit, but first I should pay tribute to the RAF personnel who helped to organise it and who looked after us so well while we were there.

We were very impressed by the morale of all the Service people we met, but one problem was clearly nagging many of them, particularly those who were due to return to this country soon to retire. I refer to the cost of housing. I do not want to make too much of it in an RAF debate, but I was surprised by the great number who asked "How shall we be able to find somewhere to live when we retire?" I do not know whether there is any way in which the Services can help such people, but they were shaken by the prices they thought they would have to pay when they got home.

The aircraft that carried us out to Cyprus was a Royal Air Force VC10 Why do we use VC10s dressed in RAF livery to perform a task that could be performed as well by BEA, as it is now. and no doubt could be performed by civil charter companies? The RAF VC10 in which I travelled was not a particularly comfortable or well-serviced aircraft. There was nothing in it that would commend me to fly RAF if I could fly BEA. I hope that that is not too harsh a comment. But it is not my view alone. I think that most of those who flew with me felt the same. I wonder why the RAF thinks it necessary to have a small fleet of its own airliners when Service men and their families could just as easily be moved by BEA, or British Airways as it is to be, or by aircraft chartered from the many charter companies in this country.

I was forced to wonder how many Service men with their equipment could be carried in a VC10. There did not seem to be much room for civilians carrying very light luggage. Do we need VC10s for trooping operations to any great extent? We already have a fleet of Hercules aircraft which can carry troops as well as freight.

One point that struck me about Cyprus was that neither the Lightnings nor the Vulcans in service there have light recorders. It is time more and more Service aircraft carried flight recorders, as do civil aircraft, because the need to ascertain the cause of an accident is just as important with a military aircraft as with a civil aircraft. I should like to think that flight recorders would become more of a standard fitting in military aircraft in the years to come.

In Cyprus the sovereign base areas are costing this country many millions of pounds a year. They provide a main airfield from which we are operating our Vulcans and Lightnings. To make those areas effective there are 3,960 Service personnel, but as a back-up to them there are 8,000 wives and children. A ratio of two to one to make the bases work seems to me to be rather high and disproportionately expensive.

The limitations of the sovereign base areas imposed by the Cyprus Government, the fact that they are not NATO bases but simply British bases and that any attempt by NATO to use them is frowned upon, gives them a rather limited use. Therefore, is it necessary to have such a huge number of people when what we are seeking to do is to have 3,000 Service personnel in the base areas?

We make an important contribution to the United Nations peace-keeping force in Cyprus, and I welcome that, although I wonder why we give our contribution free whereas all the other countries receive a financial contribution in return from the United Nations. On cost-effectiveness grounds therefore, I wonder whether the limited uses of the sovereign base area bases are worth the considerable expenditure, and whether we need to provide the facilities for so many civilians to have such a comparatively small number of Service men actively employed.

6.26 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

It is an interesting reflection on our debates on defence subjects that the Opposition back benches are completely empty, and have been practically empty all afternoon, and that the back benches on the Government side are almost empty. After all, we are discussing a Service that costs the taxpayer about £1,500 million a year. That means that each Member who is voluntarily present, if we disregard the two Front Bench spokesmen, who have no option but to be here, is in fact approving about £250 million. That makes me feel rather generous, although my hon. Friend the Minister will understand if I say that I wish it were even a little more in my case.

I suppose the Government could claim that the empty benches mean that their defence policy has received almost universal support, because no one wants to question it very much. If that is so, and if approval is almost universal, it leaves me out on a limb, because there are one or two aspects about which I want to express myself as being somewhat less than happy.

However, I warmly welcome the additional aircraft ordered to increase the general purpose combat forces of the Royal Air Force. These additions will make some contribution, though not yet a sufficient contribution, to make up the leeway in the strength of the RAF brought about by the vicissitudes of defence policy under the Labour Government.

I have a few specific points to put to my hon. Friend. First, can he explain exactly what is the Government's attitude towards the air protection of our trade overseas outside the NATO area? There are many baffling and confusing aspects of the matter. Before the election we were told that the Labour Government's decision to withdraw from east of Suez was completely wrong. The importance of the trade routes in the Indian Ocean was emphasised by the Conservative Party managers, and the Labour Government's refusal to sell aircraft and equipment to South Africa for maritime defence of the Cape route was criticised. Their decision to scrap the aircraft carriers was described as creating a "serious gap in our defences".

Much more recently—in the past few months—the Royal Navy presentation team from the Defence Department has been going round the country emphasising the importance of the protection of overseas trade and giving some striking statistics about the sort of trade we might have to protect, both from the sea and from the air. For example, in its official handout the team points out that 120 ocean-going ships arrive every day in Western Europe, discharging more than 1 million tons of cargo, half of this to United Kingdom ports.

The 1973 White Paper, the Royal Air Force aspect of which we are discussing this afternoon, under the heading "Development in the Threat", after describing the vastly increased naval activity in the oceans of the world, goes on to say on page 2: Russian long-range aircraft are active over all the sea areas around the coasts of Europe and far out over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; on occasions they have also been seen over some areas of the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean. But in the context of that threat we have had from the Government no decision about seaborne aircraft, no decision about the maritime Harrier, which we have discussed so often, no decision about who is to fly the Harrier if it is used at sea and no decision so far as I know about the future of aircrew who are still flying in the Fleet Air Arm.

We have no decision, or at least no action, about the sale of Nimrod aircraft to the South African Government. I appreciate of course the Government's political dilemma about this, but the sale of essentially maritime aircraft such as Nimrod cannot possibly be linked with approval of all the policies of the South African Government. Nor could such aircraft in practical terms possibly be used for any internal repressive measures.

I raised this subject during the defence debate last month and made the specific point that it was not sufficient for the Secretary of State to say that the South African Government had not asked for Nimrods. As I explained at the time, it is my belief that that Government want them and need them if the Cape route is to be properly patrolled. Obviously, they are not willing to embarrass themselves or the British Government by asking publicly for them until they know that supply will not be refused. I have had no reply about this from my hon. Friend the Minister and I wonder if he can say something about it when he replies to the debate this evening.

On the wider issue of fair support for the fleet certainly exercise Strong Express revealed grave deficiencies in the ability of the Royal Air Force to supply air support on the spot and on the dot. In the Daily Telegraph, the very well informed Desmond Wettern said of exercise Strong Express: … even exercises in the North Sea involving virtually the whole of RAF Strike Command showed that there simply were not enough planes to go round. The White Paper shows very small allocations of expenditure and personnel for the maritime rôle, and in my submission the situation is made even more worrying by alleged differences within the Ministry. On 3rd March this year the Economist had an admirable article drawing attention to these differences within what is supposed to be an integrated Ministry.

I have the article with me and I should like to read two very short extracts from it: Britain, it might be said, is conservatively sticking to a tradition. But unless it deliberately chooses to become a third rank, third rate naval power, what else can it do? Of all the countries of western Europe it is the most dependent on seaborne trade; and its history has made it acutely aware that the protection of its shipping—and hence its economic well-being and even survival—cannot be restricted to some arbitrarily defined zone close to its own shores, but must extend all the way from remote parts of lading. It goes on to say: And, as the Russians push their warships out into the open seas of the world, the countries of western Europe cannot but increasingly recognise that their seaborne trade needs the protection provided by the maritime powers. In suggesting how to deal with this problem the Economist points out what I believe to be the existing situation within the Ministry—the differences within the Ministry of which I have spoken and which worry me very considerably. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something specifically about this.

The Economist says: The RAF, only too aware of how much money is to be spent on the multi-role combat aircraft, is sceptical about the advantages of carrying a few Harriers aboard the through-deck carriers. It has doubts about their effectiveness. But it also wonders and worries whether once the navy has got some Harriers to sea it might demand in time a specialised maritime jump jet, with a different airframe and a more powerful engine. In short, the RAF sees in the maritime Harrier and its possible successor another competitor for scarce funds. Both the RAF and the navy couch their arguments in terms of operational requirements and capabilities. The debate between them has some echoes of the earlier, fiercer struggle about aircraft carriers. Like that brawl, the fight is largely to do with money. That being so, only a Cabinet decision will resolve it. And, in view of the politicians' penchant for compromise, it must be wondered, if the navy does get some Harrier aircraft, over what time-span will the through deck cruisers be brought into service and what other cherished projects may it have to postpone or give up altogether. I emphasise that I know very well from my experience that divergencies between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy do not occur at a practical level, but I am worried whether there is some divergency at the top of the tree within the Ministry.

The pain fact is that shore-based aircraft cannot adequately cover operations of the Fleet even in the NATO area, let alone in more distant waters. To sum up, in the face of a growing threat of tremendous Russian expansion in all the oceans of the world, the British Govern- ment's policy about maritime air defence seems to be completely in the doldrums.

The Minister appears to be searching for something and has been doing so for some minutes. Perhaps he is searching for a policy! If he cannot make a definite statement about this question of maritime air policy today, can he tell us openly that a difficulty exists and can he assure the House that the Government will grasp this nettle?

The second subject I wish to raise with the Minister is the question of the Royal Air Force involvement in search and rescue operations around our coasts. There are, of course, several different organisations concerned with marine search and rescue. There are Royal Air Force and Royal Navy helicopters; there is the Coastguard; there are various local organisations manned by volunteers, usually on a small scale; and there is of course the Royal National Life-Boat Institution which, I need hardly emphasise, is an independent organisation financed entirely by public subscriptions. I ought perhaps to declare an interest, although not a financial one, because I am a member of the Management Committee of the RNLI.

There is sometimes agitation to put all these various and different organisations under centralised control. For example, only last week the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine contained an article by a journalist called Michael Cope under the heading "Divided they Save". The subheading said: There are about 4,000 sea rescues each year and many of these are rescues of pleasure craft close inshore. Is it time for the Government to establish a centrally financed rescue service? I should like to make the point that it is quite wrong to suppose that any centrally-financed rescue service would produce better results than we see today. There is in fact a Government committee to co-ordinate marine search and rescue, which is chaired by the Department of Trade and Industry and on which there is Service representation. This committee is making very good headway indeed in achieving closer practical co-ordination between the RNLI and all branches of the service, both civil and military. It is true to say that the relationship between the Royal Air Force and the RNLI is particularly good and regular exercises are carried out when these will be beneficial. Co-ordination in any emergency between lifeboats and helicopters is the responsibility of the Coastguard and the present system works well. I strongly urge the Government not to change this system in favour of any centrally-financed system.

In connection with civilian air-sea rescue, Questions have been asked in the House criticising the fact that Government expenditure is involved in rescuing civilians—yachtsmen for example—at sea. I urge exactly the opposite point of view. Generally, the Service aircraft and manpower exist in any event, so that only minimal additional expenditure is involved in using them for any rescue operation. Again, search and rescue operations, with their atmosphere of urgency and reality, are extremely useful and valuable training for the forces. Thirdly, the occasional dramatic rescue is extremely valuable to the Service from the point of view of public relations and in recruiting.

I now have several relatively minor matters to put. First, we know now that our delegation to the European Parliament has a dreadful job in going to and from Brussels and other cities on the Continent. Apparently our colleagues have to go as tourists with economy-class tickets, having to use crowded airports in summer for example. I believe that if we are to continue, as I am confident we shall, to send delegations to the European Parliament—hopefully, from both sides of the House—the delegation should be taken there properly, point to point, preferably by helicopter. Who better than the Royal Air Force to start such a system? I do not think it is right that our colleagues going to the European Parliament should have to mill around crowded airports behind queues of children with buckets and spades and the rest, because that is completely at variance with their responsibilities and parliamentary duties.

Secondly, can my hon. Friend say something about the future of the Royal Observer Corps? He mentioned the various measures which have been taken by the Government regarding passive defence. The Royal Observer Corps, which has a very important history, has a rôle to play in such passive defence. From my knowledge of it, I believe that some reassurance about its future would be valuable.

Thirdly, I have two points to put affecting the personnel of the forces, specifically the Royal Air Force. First, the Services' voting procedures need to be overhauled from top to bottom. They are far too complicated. In my experience, when a General Election comes along very few Service men are properly enfranchised. Secondly, there are wide anomalies in the forces' pensions for widows. Widows' pensions at the rate of half the husband's pension were introduced into the Civil Service last year. Can my hon. Friend indicate when the provision of half the husband's pension will be reintroduced for the Armed Forces?

I have made a few criticisms but I end by emphasing that shortcomings in our air policy are not in my view the fault of the Royal Air Force. I pay great tribute to the Royal Air Force. Although I served in the Royal Navy, I lived with the Royal Air Force and flew with it for very many months at a time both in peace and war, and I shall carry my admiration and affection for it to my grave. It is not the fault of the Royal Air Force that our air defence policy is in rather low water. It is our fault in this House for starving it and the other Services of the necessary funds.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)

In previous debates of this kind, I have tried not to be repetitious and I have tried to analyse different aspects of air policy. I must begin by declaring an interest, although a tiny one. I am an occasional lecturer at the Royal Air Force's officer cadet training unit at Henlow, and that should be known.

In the past, I have tended to dwell at length upon the Soviet threat in the air. That needs no repetition. Indeed, it is spelt out in the White Paper this time. I think we have seen in recent air operations the capabilities which the Soviets or their allies enjoy. The 1968 Czechoslovakian operation was the one I quoted last year. I think we must also bear in mind the rapidity of the advance of the Indian Army in East Pakistan in 1971, which could not have been achieved without, first, air superiority and, secondly, the great tactical mobility which it enjoyed through its use of air power, particularly helicopters.

Today, I want to be more domestic and more particular. First, I want to refer to training, which is at the foundation of the fighting effectiveness of any service. That is particularly true of the Royal Air Force. At a time of rationalisation and very close scrutiny of expenditure, it is right that training should be thoroughly examined and that we should try to get as much of our fighting forces into the front line as possible.

Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of training policy which bear further examination. First, there is the question of flying training. It seems exceedingly strange, at a time when the Select Committee on Expenditure has exhorted us to rationalise the functions of all three Services, that flying training should not have been as thoroughly rationalised as it might have been. The area most obvious to hon. Members in this respect is that of rotary wing flying training.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson) and I were privileged recently to visit the Army Aviation Centre at Middle Wallop and could not fail to notice the fact that the Royal Navy, the Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force had different training establishments for helicopter pilots. I cannot believe that this makes sense, at least in the basic stage of training. In tactical and operational training, it may make sense to have different establishments according to the particular rôle of the helicopter pilot or crewman, but that cannot make sense at the earlier stages.

To be fair, one must point out that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force personnel go through the same primary flying training school at Church Fenton, near my constituency in Yorkshire. But this is not the case with the Army pilots, although they use the same primary flying training aeroplane, the Chipmunk. I urge my hon. Friend to look at this question of helicopter training again, and extremely thoroughly.

The Army goes in for flying training on a contract basis—I understand that Bristow Helicopters has a contract with the Army. But the same is not the case for the Royal Air Force at Turnhill or for the Royal Navy at Culdrose or Portland. This aspect should be examined, especially since the aircraft concerned are common to the Services to some degree. The Lynx and the Gazelle are to be operated by both the Royal Air Force and the Army. This is a further argument for increased rationalisation.

The training of qualified flying instructors is a slightly different question. At present those for the Army and the Royal Navy are trained at the Royal Air Force Central Flying School. This is probably right and it should continue.

But, looking beyond the training side of helicopter operations, my hon. Friend will remember that the Defence Committee of the Conservative Party produced its pamphlet "In Defence of Peace" just before the White Paper. In that pamphlet, we looked to a better allocation of resources between the Army and the Royal Air Force for what I would term tactical support of the Army from the air on the battlefield. I apologise for missing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East who referred to this matter.

I think that there is a broad consensus that the rotary wing operations that are directly involved with the tactical situation on the battlefield should be under the control of the Army commander. I say that as a pure aviator and not an Army man at heart, but it makes practical sense. If a greater part of the Royal Air Force's budget which is at present devoted to the Puma force could be devoted to its main operations, like close support, interdiction, strike, reconnaissance and so on by the allocation of the Pumas to the Army Air Corps, this would be reasonable.

There is of course a great deficiency in the category of helicopters beyond that —the medium-heavy lift helicopters. These are needed both for support of the Army and for logistic support of VSTOL in the field. If VSTOL in the field is to be deployed to its full effect, it needs logistic back-up by helicopters. If one supplies VSTOL in the field in any other way, it is very clear to any reconnaissance pilot what one is up to, because the tracks are plainly evident for all to see from the air. So it is important to have a heavy lift helicopter to supply the Harrier force, and probably the Jaguar force also if it is to be operated to maximum effectiveness.

As for these helicopters, this also is a difficult argument. Part of their operation will be devoted to the Harriers, which must of course continue to be under the control of the RAF and flown by the RAF, but part of their task must be in support of the Army commander and for purely Army purposes. So I would leave this one for the staffs to work out between them, but it is something that we should seriously consider.

On the other side of flying training, when the Government came to power, they made a major decision—to reallocate the Jaguar force. A large proportion of the Jaguars were put into the front line in the form of Jaguar S's, strike variants, and the number of Jaguar B's, that is, the British trainer variants, was reduced, leaving only a small number— I think about 35—to equip the operational conversion unit at Lossiemouth. That can make very good sense and I can understand the rationale behind it, but the Government must accept that the training costs for pilots at the operational conversion units for high performance aircraft will be necessarily increased as a result of this decision.

That is not necessarily a bad thing if the replacement aircraft in the applied/advanced training rôle, the HSII82 is used to its maximum effect; this can be done only if the weapon capability of this aircraft is utilised by the Royal Air Force. It was the experience of the Israeli Air Force in 1967, when it gained air superiority on the Jordanian front, that it could use its jet trainers, its Magisters, very well against tanks in a passive air environment. Therefore, I would urge my hon. Friend not just to build into these HS1182's a weapon capability but also to train the crews to use their weapons and to make this fundamental.

The plan for the Royal Air Force at present, I believe, is to have this option, but not to exercise it, whereas for the export variants of the aeroplane, of course, it is this option that particularly interests the customer. This is very valuable, because I remember that my hon. Friend, in perhaps his first speech from the Dispatch Box, hypothesised about the importance of maintaining a sufficient quantity of aeroplanes in the RAF's front line and not just to concentrate on quality or sophistication of equipment. If he is to carry this philosophy through, I suggest that this is the way to do it.

Something which needs bearing in mind is the fact that when we are looking at applied/advanced training, we should remember that the Royal Navy, in the concluding days of the old-style Fleet Air Arm, used to train its fixed-wing pilots in a system which incorporated on one base what the Royal Air Force does separately—that is, that the Royal Naval Air Station at Brawdy with Hunters, used to do what the Royal Air Force did separately at the Advanced Flying Training School at Valley and the tactical weapons unit 229TWU at Chivenor in Devon.

It would again make sense to deploy on one base an aeroplane which, after the Gnat and the Hunter, will be the HSII82 operating in two rôles—in the pure rôle of advanced flying training and for the more applied practical tactical rôle of weaponry and learning to fly an aeroplane tactically as a pilot might need to do in an operational squadron.

If my hon. Friend is looking for economies and rationalisations, might it not make sense, after the TWU has been moved from Chivenor to Brawdy, to see whether it is right and reasonable to maintain Brawdy in service as a pure TWU and No. 4 AFS at Valley as a pure flying training school. There should be rational economies to be made by combining the two. It would be a large base, I realise, but the difficulties could be overcome.

Looking at the ground training side on its own, of course, as a Trenchardian in upbringing, I was very interested in my hon. Friend's remarks about Halton. The Trenchard concept was to create a small nucleus of highly-trained, extremely dedicated men, both in the officer cadre and among the other ranks, upon which the Service could build in time of war.

It was Trenchard's belief that these men had to undergo a thorough and lengthy period of training in a Service environment. It may be that the educational system, both in school and in university, has overtaken this concept, both as regards others ranks, for the apprentice entry to Halton, and as regards officers, for what used to be the officer cadet entry to Cranwell, but still, fundamentally, it is my philosophic belief that were the Royal Air Force to be used practically and realistically in time of war, there would still be a requirement for young men, whether in the ranks or in the officer structure, who were totally committed to the Service way of life, who lived, drank, ate, slept and breathed the Service, who were enthused by it, its traditions and everything that went with it. We must be very careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water in these reforms.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be careful to be certain that we are not doing so. We are a small nation. We are a nation that is increasingly imperilled by potential enemies. In recent conflicts— the Arab-Israeli one in 1967, for instance —one saw a small, highly trained and dedicated Air Force able to wreak losses far outweighing its numbers. In 1971, on the Western Front, the Pakistani Air Force, outclassed both in numbers and in matériel, was able more than to hold its own against a superior adversary. It was able to do so not because of the sophistication of its equipment but by the élan and discipline of its formations. I still believe that the same is true today, so I will listen with interest to what further my hon. Friend has to say about Halton.

Looking to further rationalisation, my hon. Friend the Member for Waltham-stow, East quite rightly touched on the question of the strategic air transport force and in particular the trooping element. The Expenditure Committee looked into this subject at the end of the 1960s, but I regret I have not had time to look at its findings. However, I believe that the present situation is different in that we have neither the panoply of a post-imperial posture nor the power and financial resources to match it. I therefore believe it inappropriate that we should retain a very substantial strategic air trooping force which was much more geared to a global commitment than to the realities of a Eurocentric strategy.

There will be arguments in the Air Staff, and in other places, attempting to dissuade my hon. Friend from conducting a review into this aspect. I understand quite clearly that there is a need for tactical transportation. The Hercules force would obviously remain indispensable and its successors will continue to have a rôle to fulfil. Likewise on balance there is probably a rôle for a strategic freighter of the class of the Belfast. It may ultimately have to be replaced by something like the C5 Galaxy, but that is for the future. None the less, freighters able to carry equipment as well as paratroopers over long ranges will be required and so will tactical freighters.

The pure trooping requirement however, is something which might well be met by contract to civil airlines. I ask my hon. Friend to look at this, especially as it affects the women, children and dependants of Service personnel. There is no raison d'ê tre for a very substantial part of what was air support command and now forms the air transport group of Royal Air Force Strike Command.

Looking again to recent experience, my hon. Friend will recognise that the Pakistanis were able to reinforce East Pakistan by some two to three divisions over a greater distance than the Atlantic. They did that, circumnavigating the Indian sub-continent, by putting into service PIA's 707s. It is not unrealistic to expect ourselves to be able to do the same in an emergency. If we did so, I believe we could afford more for the front line.

In our circumstances, for further savings to augment the front line capability of the Service, it is essential that we look at the maintenance units. I am aware a study has been undertaken of the costs of third-line servicing between the maintenance units and the British aircraft industry.

The argument is always advanced by the Air Staff that industrial disputes and other kinds of unrest and upset can disrupt third-line servicing in the aircraft industries. But it is a fact of life that the British aircraft industry badly needs work.

The Conservative Party, believing, as it does, in industry, should do its best to support its own industries, particularly in this strategic sector. I am also aware that there have been industrial disputes in maintenance units, so the old argument that maintenance units were somehow sacrosanct is of course not valid, particularly as a great proportion of their personnel is Service personnel. According to my information, it would be some 15 per cent. cheaper to do the third-line servicing in industry.

I also ask my hon. Friend to look at whether the concept of centralised servising is entirely right for the front-line squadrons. I suggest it may be only very marginally preferable on economic grounds. I am here in a sense arguing against myself. But I know—and I think my hon. Friend knows, the Air Staff realises and air commanders fully understand—that squadron servicing is still very important for morale. It enables the formation commander to have aircraft at his disposal much more readily than if he has to try to dig them out of some centralised pool which is often administered very bureaucratically. I commend these thoughts to my hon. Friend.

I conclude with a few obiter dicta. It is important to have an airborne early-warning system in service for the Royal Air Force not merely, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) realises, to replace the Gannets of the Fleet Air Arm, but also to guard against the low-level threat. I am delighted to hear of the construction of the airborne early warning radar in the Outer Hebrides which is essential in this respect. Nonetheless, other countries facing less of a low level threat than we do maintain this capability. If our MRCAs and other interceptors of the 1970s are to continue to be able to operate effectively, they will need sufficient airborne early warning against the low-level theat. My hon. Friend mentioned the Bulldogs for the University air squadrons. He will realise they are a very small proportion of the Royal Air Force's primary flying training task. What will happen to replace the Chipmunks of the primary training school at Church Fenton? Will they be totally resparred and refurbished like the Chipmunks at the Army Aviation Centre at Middle Wallop at almost the cost of a new Bulldog, or what will happen? We should know about this because it is also important to realise what will replace the Chipmunks in the air experience flights which are extremely useful to introduce young men to the Service and which currently fulfil this very valuable task.

My hon. Friend said that the Jaguar S is coming into squadron service at the beginning of next year. Can he tell us where they will come into service? Will they replace the Phantom FGR2s in the Royal Air Force Germany and Second Allied Tactical Air Force, thus releasing those Phantoms for the air defence rôle at home, or will they go into 38 Group? This is a question of interest and does not, I believe, involve any classified information.

I must join with the right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) on the subject of MRCA. This aeroplane is fundamental to the re-equipment programme of the Royal Air Force. I do not believe there has ever been a time since the Second World War when the Royal Air Force has been so totally dependent on one aircraft. The TSR2 was very important in the mid-60s, but was not called on to fulfil the same multipicity of rôles as the MRCA. It could therefore be that our partners may come to show less interest in it than they did in the past and they may want fewer. Various political events may occur calling for a cut in Government expenditure.

As to the Royal Air Force, however, it must get this aircraft and get it in numbers. I should say that those interested in air power would categorically believe that the MRCA and the naval variant of the Harrier must not be mutually incompatible. The question of rationalisation must therefore be very thoroughly pursued.

My hon. Friend said that by the end of the decade he hoped to have saved some £80 million by his very worthy and most laudable rationalisation of the material and support structure in the Royal Air Force. If it is £80 million by 1980, I suggest it probably equals the cost of one extra MRCA squadron plus reserve aeroplanes to fill the gaps caused by attrition and the support costs of that squadron. In numerical terms I do not believe this magnificent saving will amount to very much more unless we reform our whole manpower policies very drastically.

I know I have gone on about this ad infinitum and that it bores my hon. Friends, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Air Staff even more, but I am convinced—and I made my maiden speech on this and possibly I will make my last on it—that this change in the balance of defence budget between manpower costs and equipment costs will not be favourably affected unless we move over much more to the concept of a citizen force. Never have armed forces been so much concentrated in the United Kingdom. Yet it is vital that we rid ourselves of post-imperial postures and try to cut down the clutter of bases, to rationalise support functions and to make our Services more dependent on the civilian economy.

If they are to be deployed in the United Kingdom let us get the civilian economy—whether for social welfare, for education, for housing, for chaplaincy, and so on—to bear these burdens much more and let us look realistically and positively at the rôle that the well-intentioned, enthusiastic, intelligent, well-trained reserves can play.

The Army is doing it, and we went into the election pledged to expand the Territorial Army. Why should this commitment be held to exclude the Royal Navy and the Air Force? It does not in other countries such as in the United States, South Africa and Israel. The Israeli's have proved themselves to have an effective air force and to be capable, like the Swiss, of flying supersonic aircraft.

I suggest, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester was hinting, that there is a civil rôle that Service manpower can perhaps play in air-sea rescue. But there is a rôle in support of the civil community which reserves can also play in air-sea rescue for those areas where there are not too many flying training tasks but where yachtsmen and other navigators occasionally get into difficulty, such rôles as casualty evacuation, searches, communications and perhaps even primary flying training. This reserve should be for all three flying Services.

If the Navy actually ever goes to war —and that is something which no defence planner ever seems to envisage—it will need replacements for the helicopter pilots as well as for fixed-wing pilots. The Army will have a tremendous attrition of helicopter pilots if the Vietnam war is anything to go by. The Royal Air Force cannot be totally committed to the concept of a three- or four-day war. No one knows how long the next war will last. It might last three or four days or three or four years. It might be nuclear or it might be conventional. The Royal Air Force is at least realising the conventional threat and is planning to meet the danger of incursions by the low-level manned bomber.

Let us therefore be positive and have some new thinking. Let us not just keep mollycoddling ourselves about our magnificent professionalism and our ever-shrinking force of highly-trained men located in more and more isolated bases in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, totally divorced from the civilian community, more and more self-adulatory and totally neglecting that great wealth of trained, experienced, enthusiastic manpower in industry and in the professions, young people who would like to give some kind of community service but who in the past have been neglected.

7.14 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Those of us who have had the privilege to visit Royal Air Force stations do not think that they are so isolated in Lincolnshire or anywhere else. The truth about the RAF is probably that it has increasing contact with the rest of us and that is something to be welcomed in the Services.

One of our troubles with the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson), whether post-Trenchardian, neo-Trenchardian or whatever it is, is that since Lord Trenchard's time the reality of the situation has changed considerably. It may or may not have been viable in his time to train pilots quickly, but the reality is today that it is palpably absurd to talk of any kind of: "citizen RAF" at a time when it costs £90,000 to train a pilot on many kinds of aircraft, rather more on a helicopter and, I think, about £300,000 for an MRCA. This is the reality of the situation. I do not complain about it. All I say is that these facts are rather awkward for the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Bradford, West.

Mr. Wilkinson

I did not advocate the training of MRCA pilots. I said that there was a nucleus of highly-trained people, perhaps airline pilots and others with skills built up over a number of years which are not now being fully utilised. These skills could be used in a supplementary and auxiliary rôle with no great sophistication and at very little expense.

Mr. Dalyell

The phrase that stuck in my mind was "citizen RAF".

I now turn to the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles). I thought he asked rather artlessly some extremely interesting questions. I hope that the Minister of State will find an opportunity to answer those questions which concerned the rôle of the RAF and the forces in the Indian Ocean. I am not here to talk party politics at any great length but one can imagine the feelings of the hon. and gallant Member when he reflects on all those things that the Conservative Party said in criticism of my party between 1966 and 1969 when we were in government. I would have thought that the decencies of life would require not an apology, because that is difficult in politics, but some serious explanation sometime by a senior member of the Government as to why so much of their thinking has changed. We have never been told why they changed their mind on a number of vital issues.

I turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks). I had the good fortune to visit the RAF at St. Mawgan and I thought he might have said that in Cornwall—as a visitor I cannot speak with any authority about Cornwall—the RAF there as elsewhere had gone to great trouble to integrate with and help the local population. It is all very well to have a lot of complaints, but my impression of the RAF from visits I have made is that it does its best to keep in touch with the local population.

Mr. Hicks

Perhaps the hon. Member will recall that my remarks were prefaced in two ways. I acknowledged the rôle that the RAF was playing both in a military sense and for the local community. This would certainly cover all the aspects he has raised.

Mr. Dalyell

Of course I accept that, because the important point is that the personnel at these stations go to some trouble to integrate themselves with the local community and those in the Ministry of Defence and senior officers of the RAF demand credit for this.

I now turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson). I was far from persuaded about the case for what he called a "single national security force". I do not understand why it should be that the Harrier should be allotted to an Army Air Corps. However, I thought that what he said about the VC10, if there is to be a VC10 production line, was worth listening to. I hope that in the winding-up speech there will be some comment, because if there is to be an order from China or elsewhere and rejigging and retooling for the production of the VC10 is to go ahead, the hon. Member's suggestion would appear sensible.

The hon. Member also mentioned a bone of contention, and this is the maritime Harrier. We understand that there are difficulties in the uprating of the Pegasus 15 engine but those of us who have been on "Ark Royal" remember that it is now five years since the introduction of the maritime Harrier was discussed. We remember the right hon. Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) when he was at the Ministry of Defence soon after the Government came to power going on board the "Ark Royal" and discussing the matter. Why has it taken so long to introduce some kind of maritime Harrier into service? We deserve to know what the problem is.

I echo the words of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East about housing and the difficulty of RAF personnel returning from Cyprus and elsewhere. I hope that the Service Department will do what it can, not only with local authorities but with new towns. I know that there are a number of new towns that are well disposed towards ex-Service-men. Perhaps more could be done in that direction to make housing available at a reasonable cost.

The starred mechanics scheme was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) in the autumn of 1969. Anybody who has visited RAF establishments must be impressed by the RAF's standard of technical education and the standard of the other Services. That is one of the most impressive things about the British Services nowadays. When it comes to courses to create fitters of a highly skilled nature, the British Services have a credible record.

I am sure that some hon. Members would like to be further persuaded that it is sensible to upset the starred mechanics scheme, which has worked well. The school leaving age has been raised. Why cannot there be entry at 16? As I understand it, the Services are now thinking in terms of adult entry. Donaldson never said that as far as I know.

What is the objection to continuing the starred mechanics scheme and the various other apprenticeship schemes which have a good record? Why has there to be a change from a system that has worked well?

I was glad to hear that the officer redundancy scheme had balanced out, that about 500 wanted to go and that 500 accepted the various resettlement courses. That is good. The top-heavy balance of the problems of NCOs is a cause of great concern. It is the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon and myself, and the view of many of my hon. Friends—our view has been gained after we have spoken to RAF personnel—that the age structure of NCOs is top-heavy. That is a problem to which there is no easy answer.

Last year the question of language training was raised. If our forces are to be integrated with those of NATO it is essential that all the highly-skilled personnel of the RAF have at least some working knowledge of French and also German and Italian. Last year there was an undertaking that this matter would be considered seriously. What has been done during the last year? The purpose of these debates is to progress-chase various undertakings that are given by Government Ministers.

I understood the Under-Secretary of State to say that in Training Command there would until 1980 be a saving of £80 million. That was the claim which he made. How has that figure been arrived at? It is a bit rash to say such a thing about something as expensive as training when costs are escalating at an almost exponential rate.

Lord Lambton

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I said quite plainly that as a result of there being 6,000 fewer positions in the next eight years there will be a saving of £80 million.

Mr. Dalyell

That is an attractive notional calculation. However, I should have grave misgivings about that kind of figure. Although personnel costs may be less—perhaps it is not necessary to refer to the introduction of the Jetstream and Bulldog instead of the Chipmunk—there is the real problem of the likely rise in the cost of aviation fuel.

Lord Lambton

The hon. Gentleman is not understanding me. I am saying that as a result of a reduction in the number of men who would otherwise be engaged and paid in the Royal Air Force, there will be a saving. That has nothing whatever to do with fuel.

Mr. Dalyell

That is a very easy calculation to make. It is very easy to say "Because we have 6,000 fewer personnel, there will be a saving of £80 million." The Government should be careful about promising savings of that kind at a time when we know that pay will go up—at least I hope it will, because I believe in the concept of the military salary—that the cost of training will inevitably rise and that the Government will also be faced with rising fuel costs, which are extremely important.

Lord Lambton indicated dissent.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman should go and talk to the oil companies.

Lord Lambton

The hon. Gentleman must understand that to have 6,000 fewer personnel will make a saving.

Mr. Dalyell

That would result only if there were less flying hours in more sophisticated aircraft. There is a real argument which the Government Front Bench must understand. If we are to have a proper system of training and flying hours are not to be reduced, there will be costs. I do not believe that the situation will be reached when there will be a saving of £80 million. The cost of aero-fuel will be important. The cost of fuel will rise and that has to be taken into account in the calculation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ponty-pridd (Mr. John) referred to the MRCA. Is it true that there is a difference of opinion between ourselves and the Germans on the operational requirements of the MRCA? To be specific, is it true that the Germans want an MRCA which carries less fuel? Of course the Germans are nearer the location of any eventuality. We are insisting that the MRCA should be standardised and should carry rather more fuel than the Germans require.

I need not repeat the points that were put forward so cogently by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd about unit costs, except to say that I do not understand, and I have not understood for some time, why successive Governments must be so coy about giving details of costs. What is the difficulty? Even people who are committed to the MRCA, like Mr. Ollie Heath, with whom I had a long discussion in the autumn, wonder whether British Governments have to be so reticent about giving costs.

We have our suspicions. Originally £1.7 million was the figure calculated for the MRCA. That calculation was made on the basis of roughly 1,000 units. The situation has altered. As I understand it, the requirement for the MRCA is not greatly more than 430 for us and the Germans. If I am very wrong about that the Government should say so.

The situation has been transformed since the original cost calculations were made. My hon. Friend suggested that if we are to be serious about defence expenditure a decision will have to be made at some stage about all the highly expensive projects which will mature at the same time. The MRCA project will mature in the late 1970s, as will the through-deck cruiser and Sea Wolf projects and a number of others, not least the Harrier. Defence expenditure in the late 1970s, if all these projects mature at the same time, will get out of hand.

I have one other specific question. Is it really necessary at this stage in the MRCA project to have separate flight test centres? I would have thought that this was one area where national prerogatives have turned out to be more important than relative economic efficiency. Cannot we settle on one flight test centre for the MRCA at this stage and not be too unrealistic about it? If the Minister talks in terms of collaboration, it is extremely unsatisfactory that we are unable to settle on one flight test centre.

In this context we ought also to reflect why it is that in the production of aircraft, whether we like it or not, the most successful country has been not the United States, ourselves or the Germans but France. Any objective man must see that. We ought to examine why the French have been successful. I pass on the opinion of a man who knows far more about it than I do, David Packard, the former United States Under-Secretary of State for Defence. When he was in London he explained to me that the French have a system of going to the prototype stage. Once they have reached that stage, as they did with the Dassault Mirage, at a cost of perhaps 50 million dollars, they then make up their mind on precisely what they want and the production run goes on from there. It may well be that we have a great deal to learn from France, albeit she has been less co-operative than she might have been over NATO and some kind of common European arms policy. I would say that we have something to learn in the way that she has carried out her procurement and ordering.

I come now to Jaguar. What is the operational requirement for these extra Jaguars at Lossiemouth? It is all very well saying that we are to have an extra four squadrons of Nimrods and an extra squadron of Jaguars but I want to be convinced that there is an operational requirement. Maybe it is right. We did not learn from the Minister why the Government have changed their mind and why it is felt that these extra aircraft are necessary. It was not demonstrated what was the operational requirement. If we are to be serious about defence we should have an answer to these questions. Maybe there is an answer. We deserve to have it.

Lord Lambton

The hon. Gentleman must realise that there is a simple answer to this. As I said in my speech, when we came to power we realised that compared with the forces opposing us we had too few aircraft. Therefore it was absolutely necessary for us to have more aircraft, effectively to meet the threat.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not think my right hon. and hon. Friends would agree that we had too few aircraft. That is a serious thing to say. This is a matter of some dispute between the parties. This is not a very cosy occasion—at least, it is not turning out to be. To make that charge against my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and others who had responsibility is a serious thing for the Government to say and we would like to reflect upon it.

Why is it that the Linesman and Exocet projects have gone on and on? I understand that the Linesman/Mediator system is something like five years behind schedule. Exocet may be all right as a system but why do we first of all have to buy from abroad without, as far as I understand, much consultation with industry, under either Government? We must be candid about that. It was certainly the understanding when my right hon. Friends left office that Exocet would be completed and in operation far earlier than has turned out to be the case. This is the kind of thing to which the Minister should give his mind. It is all very well saying that the Government do not want to give details in the House. These are matters involving millions of pounds. They are of great importance to British industry. I would be far happier if I thought that the Minister was progress-chasing each of these difficult projects.

The Minister said that in his winding-up speech he would concern himself with peripheral subjects. I want to choose one subject which has been exercising the minds of more and more of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is the whole question of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. This is neither the occasion nor the place to go into the merits or demerits of what a British Prime Minister ought or ought not to say to a French President. I ask in passing: if a British Prime Minister cannot influence a French President about this, what on earth can he influence him on?

The immediate question is one of technique. I want to know how it is that the radiation testing team at Pitcairn Island, which I believe is the responsibility of the Royal Air Force, can be so certain that there are no radiological hazards. If we are so certain that there are no such hazards, why, when Mr. Gough Whitlam the Australian Prime Minister comes to Britain, cannot we get some agreement that this testing will take place for example in the Atlantic? I am fairly clear about why the French do not want it in the Atlantic or the Bay of Biscay or anywhere else. The Government should be warned that when the Australian Prime Minister comes here he will ask some extremely tough questions about why this testing should take place in the Pacific.

I gather that it is an RAF responsibility. If we are so certain that there are no radiological hazards attached to the testing of nuclear weapons, why does not this take place in Atlantic European waters rather than in the Pacific? Why should the Australians and the Pacific islanders have to put up with this if we are so certain that there are no radiological hazards?

7.36 p.m.

Lord Lambton

By leave of the House, I will seek to reply to some of the points that have been made. There have been very few speakers in the debate but that has been made up for by the number of questions that I have been asked. I have been bombarded by questions, including some from the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) which I could not possibly be expected to answer since they are not really the concern of my Department. I must say in passing that as far as I know this is the first debate that there has ever been when there has been no speaker from the Labour side of the House except for the Front Bench speakers.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), the right hon. Member for Aber-avon (Mr. John Morris) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Sir E. Bullus) asked me to say something more about the MRCA. The House will realise that I am in a certain difficulty here. It is not possible to go into great detail over a project in which we are associated with two other countries. It is not possible to make off-the-cuff statements in the House without consultation with them. I would like to go through the history of the MRCA up to the present moment, which is as far as I can go.

There is no doubt, as hon. Members have said, that the MRCA remains the major future aircraft of the RAF upon which we shall be very largely dependent in the late 1970s when it is to fulfil so many rôles. Hon. Members know that it will operate in the strike, reconnaissance and air-defence rôles and that it will be the main plane for the RAF in the 1980s.

Further decisions on production numbers are not yet necessary. The numbers to be taken up are a matter tor decision by each of the parties concerned. Perhaps it will give some relief to the hon. Member for West Lothian if I say that the United Kingdom is still planning to take between 350 and 400. Development costs have so far been kept within the planned provision and no increase is necessary at present.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Is the United Kingdom taking the largest number of the aircraft that are to be made?

Lord Lambton

The probability is that we shall.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

What will be the effect of the dramatic change in the exchange rate of the £ sterling and the Deutschemark on the cost of this aircraft?

Lord Lambton

My hon. Friend asked me that question recently, and I am still trying to work it out. It is immensely complicated because of the floating exchange rate. I will let my hon. Friend know as soon as this complicated sum is finished, but I cannot promise that it will be accurate on the next day if the exchange rate varies.

We shall be taking between 300 and 400 of these aircraft. Development costs have so far been kept within planned provisions. No increase is necessary at this stage. It is too early to form a view of the likely unit costs when production decisions have still to be made. The project is of great importance to three major countries. We are determined to maintain a viable programme within the capacity of the three partner Governments and to bring the idea to a successful conclusion.

International collaboration and the sharing of costs which is achieved are the key to the economical development and production of the aircraft. This kind of collaboration should be encouraged in Europe, because many of the advantages which Russia gets from standardisation are lacking among our allies in Europe. Particular attention is being paid to cost control and good management.

There is regular and frequent contact at all levels between Governments and industry, and effective joint machinery is being set up to ensure economical and efficient direction of the project and the achievement of the right decisions. Technological progress is satisfactory and no unexpected difficulties have arisen.

A number of Rolls-Royce RB199 engines are now running in Britain and Germany, and a completely successful demonstration of its performance at this stage of development took place at Rolls-Royce, Bristol, a few weeks ago in the presence of German, Italian and British delegates. They were satisfied with the performance of the engine. We expect the performance of the aircraft to meet the requirements of all three air forces, and both the aircraft and the timetable for its introduction to service are acceptable to all three countries.

It is gratifying that British industry has obtained a satisfactory share of the work in the advanced technological project including engine development and design leadership in the important avionics programme of the aircraft. I cannot be any more detailed on this subject. It is not possible for me to make statements for the Germans and the Italians about their plans. All I can say is that the scheme is under way.

Mr. John

I recognise that it is difficult for the Minister to say more when we are in collaboration with other countries. When this debate recurs next year, I ask him to consult his partners about the maximum amount of information that can be given so that, as so often in Defence Estimate debates, we do not have to make do witih the minimum amount of information.

Lord Lambton

My fear is that, if consultation were to take place, I should not be allowed to say as much as I have said.

The hon. Member for West Lothian asked me about costs. I cannot go beyond what I have said. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is not the practice to divulge the cost estimates of individual projects under development. The work sharing has gone well, and we have nothing to complain of in our relationship with Germany and Italy.

Mr. Dalyell

What about flight test centres? Do we have to have more than one?

Lord Lambton

That is entirely up to the countries concerned. I cannot say that Germany or Italy should not have one. In collaborative projects it is impossible for one partner without consultation to lay down what the other partner should have.

Low-level flying has excited great interest on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) is concerned about certain aspects. The House will be aware of the factors which make it necessary for us to carry on a continuing programme of low-level training, and I need not go into them in detail. The basic reason is, however, that with the improved efficiency of air defence systems of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact it is essential for attack aircraft to be able to undertake their mission as close as possible to the ground. This in turn means that the special techniques required must be constantly practised.

As the House knows, we have lost many overseas training grounds and this has meant a concentration of aircraft in this country. Except for aircraft which have maritime tasks, this training must be done over land if it is to be of value. RAF Germany squadrons carry out their training on the Continent. It is unrealistic to think that NATO countries would be prepared to extend similar facilities to United Kingdom based aircraft unless we gave them reciprocal rights in this country. At the same time, we have to maintain our combat aircraft in a high state of readiness and this limits the possibility of making use of training facilities outside Europe. In short, it is inevitable that a large proportion of our low-level training must be undertaken over the United Kingdom. The Conservative Government have found this, and the Labour Government found exactly the same.

Given this requirement, it has been the policy of both the present and the previous Governments to do everything possible to limit the disturbance to the public to the absolute minimum. In pursuance of this aim, low-level training is confined to those parts of the country which are least densely populated. Special rules have been laid down to ensure that urban areas are avoided in low-flying activities, and both minimum height and maximum speed limitations are laid down. The whole pattern of low-level flying is kept under continuous review, and, when it can be done without detriment to our essential operational requirements, we make changes in the interests of reducing disturbance. Without wishing to sound complacent, I am satisfied that in this way we have done a certain amount to cushion the impact of low-level flying on the population at large. In 1972, for example, when more than 140,000 movements were recorded, the number of complaints received by the Department amounted to just over 1,000.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd referred specifically to low flying over Wales. As I have said before, a little over 9 per cent. of all low-level flights by military aircraft take place over Wales. As Wales accounts for approximately 9 per cent. of the land acreage of Great Britain, it is fair to say that it does not have to bear an undue proportion of this burden. Although the number of flights the hon. Gentleman quoted may appear to be considerable, it must be borne in mind that they are spread out over a wide area of rural Wales. It is a reflection on the steps we take to minimise the problem that the number of complaints which we have received from Wales dropped substantially in 1972. In 1971, we had 172 complaints. In 1972 we had 115.

The right hon. Member for Aberavon has been in correspondence with me about low flying in the vicinity of Cefn Cribbwr. He will know from his ministerial experience how essential is low-level training to the operational effectiveness of our squadrons. As I have explained to him, aircraft in transit between Exmoor and the mid-Wales region—both highly suitable areas for low-level training—must inevitably pass over the South Wales coastal plain. Since this plain is well-populated, there is no possibility of selecting a route which completely avoids inhabited areas. However the present flight paths have been selected as carefully as possible so that as few people as possible are affected.

If we were to make changes so as to avoid the village of Cefn Cribbwr, the aircraft would have to over-fly larger centres of population. I was sorry to hear that some of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents had suggested that pilots did not always observe the new rule requiring them to climb to a height of at least 1,000 feet before passing over the village. We are taking steps to remind those concerned about the existence of this rule. But as I have said already, it would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman's constituents could let the Department have as much detailed information as possible about any future flights that they consider to be in breach of this regulation.

I now deal with some of the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin. I do not think that it would help potential house purchasers if we were to publish maps showing where over-flying was likely to take place. As for noise disturbance, it is not simply a matter of the area but of the frequency and intensity of flights and the types of aircraft involved. In any event, we keep the pattern of low-level flying under continual review. Published maps could quickly become misleading and might possibly cause more harm than good. This continuing review takes account of major changes in the population pattern including the large-scale expansion of towns. The rules governing low-flying training may be adjusted accordingly.

Caradon Hill is situated in an area where authorised low-level training takes place regularly. In general it is a relatively sparsely populated area. In the standing instructions, the television mast on Caradon Hill is designated a hazard and pilots are warned to keep well clear. I have already said something about the rules that we lay down for low-level flying. I shall be writing to my hon. Friend to explain them in more detail.

I deal with only two more points in this context, therefore. In the first place, pilots are strictly forbidden to fly at less than 250 feet about ground level. Secondly, low flying is permitted only in good visibility. Visibility has to be at least three nautical miles. If weather conditions deteriorate after the announcement of a flight, the pilot is required to abandon that part of the sortie scheduled to take place at low level.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin also expressed concern about the flight safety aspects of low-level training following the recent Hunter crash in his constituency at Caradon Hill. I understand fully his anxiety for his constituents and I appreciate the interest that he has taken. But I stress that stringent precautions are taken to make everything as safe as possible not only for crews but in the interests of the general public.

I also say in defence of the training that on no occasion has any civilian been killed or injured as a result of any accident occurring since the beginning of 1970. In the light of those facts and bearing in mind that no air force in the world has a better flight safety record, I hope that my hon. Friend's constituents will view the accident in its proper perspective. It is too early for me to speculate on the outcome of the investigation of the crash and it would be improper for me to do so. But I assure my hon. Friend that it is being conducted with all the thoroughness customary on these occasions. If there are any lessons to be learned, they will be learned.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

My hon. Friend may be aware that I have the same problem of low flying from the Army Air Corps base at Middle Wallop in my constituency. If the RAF operates the same system as the Army Air Corps, I can assure hon. Members that the utmost is done to minimise inconvenience to the public.

Lord Lambton

I come now to the problems of the Harrier, to which the hon. Member for Pontypridd referred. Here again one is limited in what one can say. I was asked about sales prospects and about the countries to which we were selling them. Anyone who has ever sold anything knows that the very last thing to do is to announce that a specific country intends to buy it. Inevitably this is an area over which a veil of secrecy must be drawn. Hon. Members cannot expect me to say that such-and-such a country is interested in it. If I were to do that, the Government of that country might be extremely embarrassed to see an item in tomorrow's newspapers about it.

Mr. John

Secrecy or no, can the hon. Gentleman say whether the prospects are good, bad or indifferent?

Lord Lambton

I hope that sales will be made, but I cannot honestly go any further. It is impossible for me to say that sales will be made. One cannot know what is in the minds of other governments. Even less can one know what eventualities may occur.

Mr. Wilkinson

I realise fully that this is a very sensitive area. But is my hon. Friend in a position to say when we are likely to have an air attache in Berne, which we have not had in the past few years? Do not we need someone there who is qualified to facilitate sales since the whole question of a replacement aircraft for the Venoms is wide open and the Swiss Government have bought Hunters only as an interim measure?

Lord Lambton

Certainly I shall consider every suggestion which is likely to help our sales. I can only repeat that the Harrier is a very good aeroplane. I think that that is agreed on both sides of the House.

Hon. Members will know that we are taking an additional 15. They will keep our front line going for a longer period than we thought at one time. Engines for the additional Harriers will be supplied from RAF resources. It is difficult to forecast engine requirements. Therefore forecasts are reviewed regularly. In the light of current forecasts of overhaul and turnround time, it is not thought necessary to buy additional engines for the new aircraft.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd referred to another matter in connection with the Harrier when he raised the question of simulators in Germany. The simulator is now in Germany where it is working effectively. The hon. Gentleman has raised a good point. They are of great value. The use of simulators in training is one of the most advantageous and economic turns to have been taken in the past few years.

I was also asked about the shelter programme in Germany. This is very important. Unfortunately, the start of this programme has been delayed not because of any fault on our part but because of the need to secure NATO approval. A start should be made later this year. Once it has been made, I hope that the whole programme will be completed quickly, though hon. Members will understand that there are major works services involved which cannot be completed overnight.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd asked me about married accommodation in Germany. I am glad to inform him that the Government have approved a programme under which every RAF officer and airman in RAF Germany who is entitled to married accommodation will be provided with such accommodation by the end of 1975. This includes a total of 1,565 houses and flats which will be constructed by German contractors to meet RAF requirements. Over 450 have already been completed and an additional 760 should be completed in the next 12 to 18 months.

This means that, although there has been considerable discomfort there, we are approaching the task with a determination to overcome it. There have been particular difficulties about the ownership of the houses, and so on, in Germany, which has not made it an easy task. When hon. Gentlemen opposite were in Government they found it no easy task. We are carrying on from where they left off. This is not a matter out of which I want to make political capital of any kind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walt-hamstow, East and the hon. Member for West Lothian spoke of the difficulties of Service men finding houses when they retire. This is one of the most considerable problems facing Service men today, because the value of houses has gone up to an alarming degree in the last 20 or 30 months. Therefore, men on fixed salaries who have been in the Services for 15 or 20 years find themselves in an extremely awkward position. There is no simple answer to the problem.

Our Resettlement Service advisers are approaching the problem as best they can. They hope that well before retirement date officers will be encouraged to look around. Terminal benefits, including lump sums large enough to give material assistance with house purchase, do not entirely meet the problem. Special schemes have been arranged with building societies—for example, the RAF Mortgage Savings Scheme. Most local housing authorities respond as best they can to Government circulars which ask them to treat ex-Service men as special cases. We shall continue to do everything we can to help them, but this is a social problem which is not easily solved.

Mention was made of RAF NCOs who, after 16 years' service, would like to remain in the Air Force and whether they might be given pensions if that is not possible. Under present regulations 22 years' service is required for pension. The whole subject of pensions is under review. It is too early to make any forecast of the outcome. The complaint is that men are not allowed to complete 22 years and thus qualify for pension. We are looking into the whole question of airmen's future careers, but hitherto we have had to apply a quota for 22-year and longer engagements. Otherwise the age and rank structure would become unbalanced. All airmen now serving have known from the time they joined that they have no right to a pension under the present scheme.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North asked about the position of foreign cadets serving in this country. We are training at RAF air and ground schools a total of about 1,200 students a year. They come to us from the air forces of well over 40 countries, and they have been on the increase for some years. This is a tribute to the high regard in which the RAF is held. Indeed, we are hard pressed to make training places available to all who would like them ranging from aircraft engineering to advanced flying training on the latest types of aircraft in current service.

I should like to look more deeply into the question of payment, which is a comparatively complicated subject, and I will write to my hon. and gallant Friend about it.

The suggestion was made that I had said we were hoping to save a large sum of money in training. What I said was: I should like to assure right hon. and hon Members that in addition to these organisational changes, a radical—and I repeat ' radical'—review of all RAF establishments and practices is under way. Already, some 6,000 RAF posts are being saved and further savings will result from studies now in various stages of completion. The results of these efforts—aimed, as I said earlier, at reforming the structure of the Royal Air Force and the manning position, both of which had in places remained almost unchanged since 1948—should be to save more than £80 million in personnel costs by 1980. I hope that this makes it finally clear, though I cannot see that there was much difficulty in understanding it from the beginning.

I was also asked about the disappearance of apprentices and what would happen under the new schemes. Schemes for training mechanics will hardly be affected. The principal effect will be that, instead of recruiting boys for long periods of training, including completion of their education, we shall be recruiting rather older boys and completing their training in a shorter period by concentrating on professional skills. There will be no more apprentice mechanics, but other schemes of mechanic training will continue.

This brings me to the question of Halton. As part of the overall review of the RAF's training requirements, which is being conducted as part of our continuing search for economies, we are studying the possibilities of rationalising the various aspects of ground engineering and mechanical training at a number of establishments, including St. Athan, Halton and Cosford. I am not yet in a position to forecast the outcome of the study or to say what will be the future training role at RAF Halton, but it will remain as a technical ground training establishment.

A plea was made for the continuation of the Trenchard concept—that there should be a small elite of officers and a somewhat larger elite of men trained at Halton. Cranwell was not getting the right type of cadet and the direct entry scheme has made it possible to get a better type of cadet who has the opportunity of a university education and can complete his training at Cranwell. The same will apply to a certain degree at Halton. I do not believe that we should get such good boys by tying them up as apprentices—a name which is slightly detrimental nowadays to young men who are looking for a career. The present scheme is likely to work better even though it has not the idealism of the previous scheme, which could not stand up to modern conditions.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester, who always flies the Naval flag with such spirit, spoke about search and rescue. The House should know that the search and rescue units establish regular working relationships with the RNLI and other authorities concerned with marine safety and with local communities. Many requests are met for talks on ways in which members of the public can assist by taking sensible safety precautions themselves. The scheme is working comparatively well.

Another interesting point that arose in the debate concerned the position of the VCl0s and our Transport Force. The Transport Force, particularly its strategic element, represents a large capital investment of £222 million. There is still a very long life ahead for the VCl0s and the Britannias are expected to last for several more years yet.

We have made a study of the size and composition of the transport forces, taking into considering the aircraft we have. We are also examining comparative economies in meeting the Services' needs over the next decade in terms of air movements and in terms of Her Majesty's Government's defence policy in respect of RAF transport aircraft and civil air line charters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West spoke in support of the fact that it was possible to use commercial airlines by arguing that Pakistan did so. I must say that it hardly seemed to have been successful in that case. That war must have been over before they got there. This is a matter which needs serious consideration now that the lines have been so greatly reduced. An interesting point was raised about whether we should go over to commercial flights. I would ask the House to wait until the inquiry is completed. There are strategic aspects involved, and the Royal Air Force is not the only Service which has a voice in what is happening.

I wish to say a few words about the medium-lift helicopter. I do not think it could be denied that, ideally, the medium-lift helicopter would be desirable in support of the Harrier. I have said time and time again that we are constrained by the money we have to spend. Therefore, we must carefully consider which priority should take first place. Therefore, although we would not rule out possible use of the medium-lift helicopter for the future, we must consider it in relation to the other needs of the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Am I right in saying that the Royal Air Force has to borrow Sikorsky helicopters for operations in certain areas? If that is the case, then, following the cessation of activities in Vietnam, a great deal of American war surplus will be coming on to the market. Surely there is now a chance of obtaining some cut-price aircraft of the types which are so badly needed.

Lord Lambton

I shall find out and write to my hon. Friend.

I turn to deal with the maritime role of the VSTOL aircraft which was mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester. I find myself in some difficulty because I do not think I can add anything to what has been said before by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence, who had the advantage of hearing the speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend in the previous defence debate. I have armed myself with the reply which he gave, and so we shall have something of a repeat performance today.

What my hon. Friend said was that the Harrier, which is now in operational service, is essentially a day ground-attack and land-based aircraft. For the maritime role we require a multi-role aircraft capable of attack, reconnaissance and all-weather air defence operations. Project definition studies to establish the technical feasibility of making the current aircraft suitable for maritime employment, and to assess the cost effectiveness of the best solution against the threat at the time are now well advanced. The problem is complex, and some redesign work would inevitably be required. If the results of the project definition phase show that we shall be able to produce a suitable maritime VSTOL aircraft which meets the requirement, our intention is to adopt it. We must, however, complete the project definition studies before we can make the necessary decision.

As I understand the situation, we shall know the result before the end of the summer, and I should like to ask my hon. and gallant Friend whether he will wait until then—otherwise I am afraid that whoever speaks from the Government Front Bench on defence matters will again have to have recourse to the Minister of State's words which, though written in good English, do not bear endless repetition.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I was asking about the much wider issue related to the defence of our trade routes, and not just about the relatively narrow matter involving the maritime Harrier, on which I got an answer of sorts in the previous debate.

Lord Lambton

My hon. and gallant Friend has raised a large issue indeed. There is not the slightest doubt that, looking ahead, one of the great problems in the world will be the defence of the oil routes from the Gulf to this country and to America. I imagine that at a later date we shall be asking NATO whether it believes it reasonable to take the view that our great responsibilities should end at the Tropic of Cancer. That, however, is a rather larger problem than the matter with which we have been dealing today. I believe that it is a part of the world which inevitably will become more important. One hopes that interests in Europe will result in more attention being given to the oil routes by all rather than by us alone.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is what I wanted to hear.

Lord Lambton

I have tried to cover a number of points and no doubt I have omitted a few. I hope that I may be allowed to write—

Mr. John

Will the hon. Gentleman not respond to the request of the people of Pershore for a meeting with the Minister in his Department?

Lord Lambton

We have had endless consultations over this matter, but if the hon. Member for Pontypridd will write to me we shall see whether anything more can be done. The matter has been gone into thoroughly and I doubt whether anything extra is to be gained by repeating what has already been said and made plain. I conclude by saying that if there are any points which I have not answered, I shall deal with them by correspondence.

Mr. Marcus Fox (Shipley)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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