§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—Mr. Michael Brown.]
§ 4.9 pm
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)
It was this time last year that the House debated the Royal Air Force in the context of its activities in the Gulf. Despite steps which have been taken towards peace in that region since then, the RAF presence remains necessary; but that is but one of a number of operations around the world to which the RAF is contributing.
In opening today' s debate, I shall focus on how the RAF is continuing to meet its many commitments while at the same time rising to the challenge of substantial reorganisation and change, which will make it a leaner organisation still fully capable of meeting Britain's future defence needs.
Hon. Members will recall the publication of last year's White Paper, "Defending Our Future", which included a new and fundamental analysis of the way in which defence assets are and will need to be employed to meet our various commitments around the world. The framework for the analysis is provided by the three overlapping defence roles to which the RAF makes significant and key contributions.
Our defence strategy continues to be underpinned by our nuclear capabilities, strategic and substrategic. While our longer-term intention is to transfer the substrategic role to the Trident force, this vital link in the chain of nuclear deterrence will continue to be provided by Tornado GR1 aircraft, armed with the WE177 free-fall bomb, well into the first decade of the next century.
Defence role one provides for the protection of the United Kingdom and dependent territories. The integrity of British airspace in peacetime is maintained by the improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment, supplemented by the Sentry airborne early warning force—AEW—and Tornado F3 fighters. We should remember, too, the significant role played by the RAF in Northern Ireland where it provides crucial helicopter support for the Army in extremely testing conditions. The RAF Regiment also provides specialist airfield ground defence. Nor should we forget that the RAF continues to make vital contributions to our forces in Cyprus, Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.
The second of the three defence roles provides insurance against a major external threat to the United Kingdom and our allies. This role is discharged through our membership of NATO. NATO has three new force categories: immediate and rapid reaction forces, main defence forces, and augmentation forces. The RAF contributes to all three and, of course, its nuclear capability, which I have already mentioned, is double-hatted here. Tornado F3 air defence aircraft and Rapier fire units are declared to NATO's immediate reaction force and some 80 Harrier, Tornado and Jaguar aircraft are declared to the rapied reaction force in the critical areas of offensive air support, tactical reconnaissance and interdiction.
In addition, a further 190 aircraft are assigned to main defence forces, including tankers, transport aircraft and helicopters. Finally, a composite force of Chinook and Puma helicopters is assigned to the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps.
I deal now with the third defence role—the armed forces' contribution to promoting the United Kingdom's 436 wider security interests. It is, of course, under this defence role that our armed forces, and the RAF in particular, have in recent years seen most active employment.
The area of current operations in which the RAF is most publicly visible continues to be in the former Yugoslavia. There, the RAF is maintaining its considerable, and key, contribution to United Nations operations. As part of the multinational NATO airborne early warning force, the RAF's Sentry AEW1 aircraft fly daily over Hungary to monitor the airspace of the former Yugoslavia. These aircraft were joined in April of last year by eight Tornado F3s, which deployed to Gioia del Colle in Italy when the emphasis of Operation Deny Flight changed from surveillance to enforcement of the no-fly zone. Since then the Tornado F3s have flown more than 800 operational sorties, and the Sentry AEWs have flown more than 650 since their deployment to the area.
On 16 July, eight Jaguar aircraft also deployed to Gioia del Colle to mount close air support and reconnaissance operations in support of UN forces operating under United Nations Security Council resolution 836, covering the provision of safe areas.
The Jaguars, since December 1993 comprising eight aircraft in the theatre with four ready to reinforce at short notice from the United Kingdom, are drawn from squadrons based at RAF Coltishall and have flown more than 650 operational sorties since their arrival in theatre.
Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft have also flown more than 110 sorties in support of arms embargo and sanctions monitoring operations in the Adriatic, and Canberra photographic reconnaissance aircraft have provided vital intelligence for our forces on the ground.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
My hon. Friend must be aware, in the context of the support of the RAF for the various operations that he describes, that the Secretary of State told the Defence Select Committee on 1 December that there was a need to procure additional large support helicopters for the RAF. My hon. Friend must be aware of the importance to the industry of Somerset and Dorset and the west country of securing an order for the Westland EH101, but many hon. Members are increasingly baffled by the long delay in obtaining a decision on the matter. Will my hon. Friend say whether it will be possible very soon to make a decision under NAPNOC—no agreed price, no contract—arrangements to appraise the contract by the summer?
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend is right to mention the issue and tonight is as good a time as any to do so, although perhaps it is a bit premature for a definitive answer to be given. I am accompanied on the Front Bench, not only by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, but also by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who will answer the procurement question later when he winds up the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that for the time being.
The element of the RAF's contribution that has perhaps the highest public profile is the flights into Sarajevo by Hercules aircraft, which have been carrying on since July 1992. The danger to our aircrew is of paramount concern, and flights are suspended when aircraft have come under ground fire, or when the risk from the warring factions surrounding Sarajevo has been too great. However, the operation is never free of uncertainty and sometimes very great danger.
437 The RAF humanitarian airlift into Sarajevo has now totalled more than 1,100 sorties and has delivered nearly 15,000 tonnes of aid. When requested by the United Nations, the RAF will continue, where possible, to assist with the evacuation of medical casualties, as we have seen on television and in the press. There can be no doubt that the RAF's presence in the region has helped, and is helping, to save the lives of thousands of innocent victims. All the members of the defence team here know from their own experience that all the personnel involved continue to demonstrate great skill and courage in successfully carrying out the United Nations mandate.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
My hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago the role of the Hercules aircraft. I think that he will know of the significance of Centrax, a company in my Teignbridge constituency, and the role which it has played in joining the industrial support group for Hercules. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that programme offers significant industrial benefits to the country as a whole and that, interestingly enough, it offers them in the short and medium term and not simply in the long term?
§ Mr. Hanley
Not only are we aware of Centrax and are grateful for its efforts in the past, but I can confirm that the Hercules is extremely important in carrying out successfully our current defence commitments. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) earlier, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will refer to the procurement aspect of matters later, at a more appropriate time, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the subject.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
I wish to ask the Minister about an operational matter, understanding that he will be inhibited from giving an answer which might have the effect of putting information which should be classified into the public domain. He spoke about the dangers inherent in the operations into Sarajevo airport. There was an apprehension that those operations might be at risk from the use of surface-to-air missiles and especially the hand-portable surface-to-air missile, which can be mounted on the shoulder and may be effective up to as much as 5,000m. Without giving away any classified information, is the hon. Gentleman able to tell us whether there have been any incidents when British aircraft have come under attack from such weapon systems?
§ Mr. Hanley
I am not aware of any instances of our aircraft coming under attack from missiles from the ground, but anyone who flies into Sarajevo in a Hercules sees regularly when ground-based radar is locked on to the aircraft, which shows that there is a possibility of a SAM2 being aimed at the plane. Of course, there are ways of dispelling that threat, should it occur. The fact that that happens regularly, although it might be discouraging to anyone in the House, means that RAF crews regard it as a matter of course. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the danger involved in carrying out the humanitarian task.
This would be a good opportunity for the whole House to join me in praising the efforts of all the RAF personnel who have done their very best in difficult and risky circumstances to bring what relief they can to the area. I am 438 aware that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), too, has had the opportunity of seeing that work in action.
§ Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)
I join my hon. Friend's tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force, but is he aware that the slashing of the front-line strength of the Tornado strike squadrons since the Gulf war from 11 to a mere six represents a devastating reduction in the capability of the RAF? Given the extreme instability in the former Soviet Union today, and the fact that more than a dozen non-NATO countries actively have programmes in place for acquiring weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivery of such weapons, is there not an urgent need for the RAF to acquire a stand-off missile with a dual capability, both nuclear and conventional?
§ Mr. Hanley
I agree with my hon. Friend that under both "Options for Change" and Prospect there has indeed been a restructuring and reduction of our front-line forces. I accept that as a result of "Options for Change" 15 front-line squadrons will have been withdrawn from service by 1995, when the programme comes to an end. That has been calculated by reference to our need for front-line offensive forces, to the reduced threat from the former Soviet Union, and to the fact that the cold war is over. It has been carefully calculated according to our defence needs—
§ Mr. Hanley
I hear my hon. Friend murmuring that the reductions were demanded by the Treasury. I can assure him that that is not so. I am proud to be able to say that we have calculated our needs according to our defence requirements.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
As well as the Tornado squadrons being reduced, is it not clear that the phasing out of the Buccaneer will mean that Tornado squadrons, in smaller numbers, will have to accept an additional role? Does the Minister not feel that if Tornado squadrons are to take on the role of the Buccaneer the reductions should be reconsidered?
§ Mr. Hanley
The withdrawal of the Buccaneer has been decided upon for perfectly sensible strategic reasons. There is no reason on earth to believe that at this moment we, in conjunction with our allies—any operation within the area of our NATO responsibilities is of course likely to be undertaken in conjunction with our allies—cannot make a sizeable contribution to an international force. There is no reason to believe that we cannot carry out our wider defence roles, including the most important role—the defence of our shores—with the aircraft that we have, and the men and women who serve in the RAF.
Therefore, I have no hesitation in making that claim for what we have now. There may be many in the House who wish that we had more, but there are also some who wish that we had less—that was the posture of Labour and Liberal Democrat policy in their overall party conference statements. Perhaps we shall hear more about those as the debate goes on.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
Bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Minister has just said, is he saying that what we have at the moment is the minimum that we require, in terms of front-line forces, to meet our commitments?
§ Mr. Hanley
At this moment, we have a carefully calculated number of aircraft. The White Paper, "Defending our Future", produced last year by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence explains our commitments and how we meet them with our existing forces.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
As it sounds as though the 40 Tornados already in store are to be joined by a rather larger number, does it not behove the Minister to look, in relation to the defence procurement industry, at future needs bearing in mind the reduced demand for fighter aircraft from our armed forces and the need for our highly technically capable industry to develop alternative products and means of employment? Should not the Government be doing something about that because market forces clearly will not make any provision?
§ Mr. Hanley
If Labour party policy, approved by almost an 80 per cent. majority at last year's Labour party conference as it was approved in the five years before that, were to be introduced, it would slash our defence industry. The amount of money which would have to be taken out of the defence budget would be equal to the whole budget for the Army, the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy or the whole of the defence industry. Some 500,000 people could lose their jobs if Labour's plans were introduced.
§ Mr. Hanley
As a direct answer to the hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that our policy would not do that to the defence industry.
Certainly some defence companies are reducing in size as the need for our defence forces reduces. However, very substantial contracts are keeping the defence industry going and ensuring that our research and development is of the highest quality. I remind the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that defence industry exports last year amounted to £5 billion. That was 20 per cent. of world sales and was a record amount for the United Kingdom. Instead of the doom and gloom referred to by the hon. Member for Bradford, South, I believe that the story is one of success and expansion.
As well as a continuing presence in the Adriatic theatre, the United Kingdom remains committed to providing aircraft to enforce both the northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq. Tornado GR1 s drawn from bases in the United Kingdom and Germany have now flown nearly 1,500 operational sorties in the surveillance role over southern Iraq. In the north, Harrier GR7s, which replaced the Jaguars originally assigned to the task, have flown more than 1,000 reconnaissance missions in support of the United Nations operation over northern Iraq.
Of course we should not forget that crucial to the success of all those operations are the perhaps less glamorous tasks performed by the air transport and air-to-air refuelling forces. I need hardly remind the House of the extent to which the RAF's ability to react effectively to the full range of potential tasks depends on the skill and professionalism of those personnel. In all those operations—
§ Mr. Hanley
I have answered a number of interventions. I will take a few more interventions, but I would like to make progress.
§ Mr. Ainger
On the Minister's point about trying to match resources with perceived need and demand, will he explain why, in respect of search and rescue where the perceived need is increasing, the Government plan to reduce resources from 16 RAF aircraft devoted to search and rescue in 1992 to 12 aircraft in 1996?
§ Mr. Hanley
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that our capability is increasing. If we have better helicopters carrying out the task, perhaps we do not need as many bases. Operationally, we believe that we will be covering the existing area as efficiently and even better. The hon. Gentleman may be referring particularly to RAF Brawdy. The proposal to move the search and rescue facility from RAF Brawdy to RAF Chivenor has been taken for operational and other reasons.
In all those operations, it continues to be the speed of response, flexibility and relative ease with which aircraft can be deployed that so often enables the RAF to be in the forefront in its ability to respond to international crises or to requests for help. Indeed, in the past few months, it has helped in Somalia, Guatemala and the Lebanon.
So that we are able to meet the challenges of the future, we remain committed to a Royal Air Force which is well equipped. I have said that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will wish to say more about the future equipment programme. He will show how that reflects the changes in the strategic environment which have taken place in the past few years. Although the direct threat to the United Kingdom has decreased, uncertainties still remain, and, as events in the former Yugoslavia have demonstrated, we must stay sufficiently flexible to react to any new threats to our security and to more general threats.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
The hon. Gentleman is a Minister of State. I understand that the hon. Gentleman to his left is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Forgive me, I got that wrong. However, from what the Minister was saying, I understand that, as Minister of State, he has some responsibility for defence sales. [HON. MEMBERS: "No. Wrong again."] He does not have that responsibility then. We now know that he has no responsibility for procurement or defence sales.
Having clearly been made aware of what is going on at the Scott inquiry, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could tell us whether, in view of the ethos of secrecy which pervaded his Department in the late 1980s, outside the two aspects to which I referred, and in the light of what has come out of the inquiry, changes are being made in the way in which Ministers go about revealing to the wider public what is happening.
§ Mr. Hanley
Clearly the hon. Gentleman is not aware—the information is not secret—that I am the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) is the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. We both serve loyally our right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is seated further to my left. My hon. Friend is responsible for defence procurement, which includes defence sales. My area of operation is responsibility for the worldwide operations of the armed forces. They are the 441 best possible advertisement—both them and their equipment—for defence sales worldwide. Therefore, their capability is vital.
As for the rest of the hon. Gentleman's question, that matter is secret—but I will tell him later on, if he wants.
At this stage—I do not want to pre-empt anything that my hon. Friend may say later—the scale and nature of the forward equipment programme clearly demonstrates the Government's intention to retain all the capabilities that the RAF needs if it is to continue to play the full role that will be necessary to meet the challenges that this uncertain world presents. At a time of public expenditure stringency, it is essential that we achieve the greatest possible defence output from available resources.
As you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has established a major study entitled "Front Line First", under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Minister of State. That study is a radical and searching scrutiny of defence support functions. The prime aim of the study is to find savings so that we can best preserve our front-line capabilities. That must be the most important aim. The study is progressing well, and we have received more than 3,000 efficiency suggestions from all aspects and levels of the Ministry and the services. We have received a substantial number from the Royal Air Force as well as from the other services.
The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) seems surprised by that figure—surprised that people are being so constructive in the initiative. Some suggestions are, of course, being very seriously considered, some might not be relevant to the current studies, but the vast majority show not only the quality of the staff, both military and civilian, but that they are thinking hard about their responsibility for providing the United Kingdom's defence for the future. That certainly demonstrates their commitment to ensuring that the organisation in which they work and to which they dedicate their lives needs to adapt to meet the needs of the 21st century.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
I admit that I was somewhat bemused. Can the Minister tell the House when it was not the Government's policy to put the front line first?
§ Mr. Hanley
As the hon. Gentleman said, "front line first" has always been our policy: successive Governments have concentrated on the front line. The new initiative will involve our examining every single area of our defence estate to ensure that the funds available for the years ahead are fully committed in the most important area, which is our front line capability, and that we do not waste a single penny on anything else. That surely must be sensible.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
The Minister talked about the co-operation of the staff, many of whom are civilians. Would he not see more co-operation from the staff if he made the reports public so that they could debate the conclusions?
§ Mr. Hanley
The reports are management reports. From the suggestions in them will come policies and from those policies will come changes in the way in which we provide support. I should emphasise that we already take 442 our staff with us and keep them informed—as a matter of good management ethics and because we believe that the Ministry of Defence is an excellent employer.
The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) will not be aware of the situation at RAF Carlisle. Within two days of making an announcement, I invited representatives of the trade union side to come to see me, which they did, accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Maclean), the Minister of State, Home Office. Following our discussions, I extended the consultation period by more than a month. I have offered two meetings, at which the trade unions will receive full information about the decisions that have led to our proposal.
So we are, indeed, keeping our staff fully informed. Some information is bound to be commercially confidential and it is important that only the information relevant to a particular matter is dealt with, but I believe that we are doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman requires of us.
We should not let the new initiative overshadow much of the hard work that has already been done to make the services and the Ministry of Defence leaner and more efficient—all of which is fully consistent with the aims of "Front Line First". The RAF has played a leading role in that work. Let me take the opportunity to outline some of the respects in which the RAF has made and continues to make considerable progress, showing an imagination and initiative that I do not find at all surprising.
As explained in last year's "Statement on the Defence Estimates", from 1 April a new RAF logistics command will take over the functions of the current organisation of the Air Member for Supply and Organisation, and part of RAF Support Command, and will be located at Brampton/Wyton. A new RAF Personnel and Training Command, to be located at RAF Innsworth, will absorb the functions of the organisation of the Air Member for Personnel and parts of RAF Support Command, bringing together recruitment, training and personnel management functions. We are confident that the creation of those two separate commands will make for a more effective RAF support organisation and make the best use of the defence budget.
The existing policy of rationalising the RAF estate in order to concentrate assets was given added impetus by "Options for Change" and has continued to be a major consideration in the years since the initial post-cold war appraisal. The original "Options for Change" announcements, made in July 1990, identified five RAF stations in the United Kingdom and two in Germany that were to be closed. Studies since then have identified further locations that can be made available for disposal or reduced to minor enclaves. Since 1991, 15 stations have been closed. Estate rationalisation initiatives have made and will continue to make a significant contribution to the drive to provide a slimmer service to meet the changed international situation.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
When the Minister examines the future of Royal Air Force bases, will he pay due regard to the importance of maintaining a sufficient number of usable airfields, which could be required in time of expansion, emergency or war? It is essential for the successful conduct of air operations that our air assets should be satisfactorily dispersed. If the Minister proposes to close stations, will he please close 443 those where there is no runway or airfield and transfer facilities that need to be transferred as a consequence of closures to stations with airfields, in order to keep them open?
§ Mr. Hanley
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. Of course, we are aware of the need to keep spare runways in good condition for use in an emergency. A care and maintenance regime is in force on several bases. It is clearly important to meet not only our own requirements but those of NATO. I shall certainly examine what my hon. Friend has suggested.
§ Mr. Hanley
The hon. Gentleman's experience in these matters is well known. Obviously, our first requirement when we remove a particular RAF unit from, say, an RAF base is to find an alternative defence use for it. If a use could not be found, we would negotiate with local councils and planning authorities as to the best use for the site. I assure the hon. Gentleman that where we use an RAF base for which there is no longer a Royal Air Force need, say, to accommodate an Army battalion, we do so merely because otherwise we should have to put that battalion in a place that might be more expensive or build new accommodation. The problem arises particularly with the draw-down of forces from Germany, Belize and Hong Kong.
There has been a great need, particularly with the draw-down from Germany, to find alternative accommodation. Therefore, RAF bases, with their excellent accommodation and housing, have been used fairly regularly. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we seek to use the estate efficiently and effectively. Our policy is that, if there is no defence need, we sell the site to the broader community.
In accordance with the change in the front line outlined in the White Paper, the RAF has continued to examine the possibilities for rationalisation, particularly in the support area. That has resulted in recent proposals on the rationalisation of equipment supply depots, avionics and communications and flying training. Those proposals are all currently the subject of consultation with the trade unions and other interested parties.
A study of equipment supply depots recommended that the focus of the technical storage function should be at RAF Stafford. That decision relates to the proposal to close RAF Carlisle by 31 March 1997, to which the hon. Member for Carlisle referred. It also relates to the progressive run-down of RAF Quedgeley and its ultimate closure by 31 March 1998. RAF Stafford is the most cost-effective option for the task because of its greater warehouse capacity and lower upgrade costs. The proposals will save some £85 million over 10 years—a considerable figure. We shall, of course, make every effort to minimise or, if at all possible, avoid redundancies among the civilian staff who have served us so well over the years.
§ Mr. Martlew
I did not mean to interrupt the Minister again, but he implied that the decision on RAF Carlisle and 444 RAF Quedgeley had been taken. Is it not the case that we are in the middle of a consultation period? I wish that the Minister would make it clear that no final decision has yet been taken.
§ Mr. Hanley
We have made a proposal based on carefully calculated information and data. We have put that proposal out for consultation. That does not mean that the decision is absolutely final. It means that we are showing that we have confidence in our proposals. We are allowing those who wish to comment to do so and to see not only me but officials personally to discuss the matter. As I said, I have extended the consultation period by four weeks so that we can ensure that the meetings occur. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will come to the meeting that I shall have at Carlisle in March.
§ Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester)
If my hon. Friend has confidence in his Department's proposals, he presumably also wishes that those affected by the decision should have confidence in the basis on which he has made them. Will he, therefore, give the House an undertaking that all the information that he uses to reach his decisions will be made available to those who are affected by them?
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend has been assiduous in representing the interests of his constituents who are affected by the decision on RAF Quedgeley. I am grateful to him for bringing a delegation to me only this week. However, I must say to him that "management in confidence" and "commercial in confidence" mean just that. We cannot supply every piece of information that my hon. Friend might require, but we can provide sufficient information to allow people to decide whether we have made the right decision. The decisions will be tested by the accounting officer at the Ministry of Defence and I am sure that we shall not be found wanting.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The Minister has just raised an issue that takes my mind back to a report that the Public Accounts Committee made on the Castle Donington fire. A large amount of unduplicated defence equipment was stored at a single location. Are Ministers saying that there will be one depot for all this RAF equipment, which will be unduplicated? That would mean that if there was a repeat of the incident at Castle Donington, we could wipe out the spare parts which might be needed in an emergency. Is that what is likely to happen?
§ Mr. Hanley
If the hon. Gentleman was more aware of the pattern of stores holding that prevails in the modern world—everything is not held centrally—perhaps he would have more confidence. It is clearly right that we should collocate on one site and gain economies of scale, for a reduced size of stores holding.
§ Mr. Hanley
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman admits that that is a sensible move. He may not be aware that, when the Donington conflagration occurred, I was one of the Members of Parliament who complained vociferously about it. I believed that the security was totally inadequate. The amount of spares carried now is much smaller. As a result of other management initiatives and quicker turn-round of the requirement for spares, the amount of spares carried as a whole is smaller.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The amount of spares as a whole may be smaller, but the point is that if one needs a vital component in an emergency and it is not available on another site because it is not duplicated, the equipment will be non-operational whatever the management changes that have been made to provide greater efficiency. Surely that is dangerous in terms of national defence policy.
§ Mr. Hanley
Under the hon. Gentleman's policy, we would have two sets of Crown jewels in case one was damaged. We need to keep the best security if we keep expensive equipment at one site. We believe that we are carrying out the changes. The "Front Line First" studies will continue to examine that matter.
The review of avionics and communication electronics has recommended that the ground radio servicing centre should relocate from RAF North Luffenham No. 30 maintenance unit at RAF Sealand.
§ Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)
Does my hon. Friend accept that, if RAF North Luffenham closes, thought must be given to how the large area on which it is based will be used afterwards? North Luffenham is in an idyllic part of rural Rutland and it must be allowed to preserve its identity. Will he give an assurance that thought will be given even now to how the land might be disposed of, how business might be brought in and, for example, how trees and shrubs might be planted? Will he undertake to work with Rutland district council to ensure that we have an imaginative transition to civilian use?
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend is right that there would be uncertainty in the proposals if we had not said that the RAF North Luffenham site would be closed by 1 October 1996. Other units currently located there will be relocated elsewhere. Indeed, the Ministry will save about £15 million over 10 years. However, we shall co-operate fully with the local council and the planning authorities—that is always our intention—and, with the guidance of my hon. Friend and of the planning authorities, shall ensure that people's time with the RAF is remembered with happiness rather than with the misery that many Opposition Members have expressed today.
A wide-ranging review of RAF maintenance group as a whole is currently being undertaken. This should identify a more cost-effective location for the ground radio servicing centre. So far as Sealand is concerned, there are still decisions to be made, but we are proceeding on the basis of the assumption that North Luffenham will close. A new RAF Personnel and Training Command will be created at the same time.
The third major study—the one on the future of RAF flying training—has recently reported a first stage of rationalisation. It has recommended that fast jet advanced flying training should be rationalised from the current two stations—RAF Chivenor and RAF Valley—into just RAF Valley. Chivenor would cease flying from 1 October 1994 and would be put on a care-and-maintenance basis from 1 October 1995. This proposal, which is out to consultation, would save £130 million, at net present value, over a period of 10 years.
§ Mr. Ainger
Is the Minister aware that today is the 51st anniversary of the Royal Air Force mountain rescue service? I should like to refer to the reorganisation of flight training along the west coast. The mountain rescue team that is currently covering the Snowdonia range is 446 extremely concerned that, as a result of the proposed transfer of Flight 202 from Brawdy to Chivenor, which, as the Minister has announced, is due to close, it will not be able to respond quickly enough when climbers and walkers fall and, because of severe injury, face hypothermia.
§ Mr. Hanley
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the search and rescue teams, which do a tremendous job around the country. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the decision to move this service from Brawdy to Chivenor was made on logistical grounds. It is an entirely sensible move. The hon. Gentleman may, for constituency reasons, regret it very much—though he has not today welcomed the move of the Royal Welch Fusiliers to Brawdy, which is an example of the best use of facilities—but every silver lining has a cloud.
I was dealing a moment ago with the question of flying training and the move from Chivenor to Valley. Further work on the pattern of flying training is being done to determine whether there is scope for more rationalisation of flying training.
All the matters that I have mentioned involve difficult and painful decisions. We have carried out our appraisals to secure cost-effective solutions for the taxpayer while meeting the changed requirements in the new defence environment. As I have stressed to Opposition Front Bench Members, we are in full consultation with the trade unions. I have met hon. Members from both sides of the House whose constituencies are affected, as well as representatives of local authorities. It is important that the need for these changes be understood.
Market testing is another recent initiative which the RAF has pursued with great vigour and success. Current savings from the RAF's market testing programme are positive and encouraging. The achievement of the Royal Air Force in meeting the challenge of its market testing targets and time scales is perhaps best illustrated in a snapshot of recently completed market tests. Savings of more than £8 million in annual support costs were realised through market testing between 1992 and 1993. The activities in respect of which savings were made formerly cost the public more than £22.5 million. They range from the elementary flying training school at RAF Topcliffe, where training for ab initio pilots entering the RAF and the Royal Navy is undertaken, to the engineering maintenance and supply support of training aircraft at RAF Scampton.
The RAF is also adopting new working practices, one of which is known as support chain management—SCM. Under SCM it is possible to detect previously hidden inefficiencies caused by bottlenecks in the flow of information or material. Within the RAF, SCM will move the service away from its traditional dependence on depot stocks, which are costly to maintain, and will introduce more responsive and flexible supply management. SCM will also complement the RAF logistics information technology strategy, which aims to introduce an integrated system serving the whole logistics community. Together, they should generate net savings, in spares and repair costs, of at least £500 million.
The "Front Line First" study is, of course, looking again at all these rationalisations and initiatives in the support area with a view to seeing whether even greater reductions in costs can be achieved. But, as I hope I have demonstrated, the RAF is now engaged in making many of the fundamental changes that are necessary if it is to be in the best possible shape to meet the varied challenges that 447 will face us all in the coming years. The changes in its organisation could not, of course, be sustained if it were not for the professionalism displayed by its men and women, together with—and this is so often forgotten—the support of the families who remain at home.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Can my hon. Friend say whether it is still Her Majesty's Government's policy that members of the armed forces—men and women—must be ready to undertake any duty on behalf of the Crown, in peace or in war? If a member of the Women's Royal Air Force becomes pregnant, she is paid off to the tune of several tens of thousands of pounds. Is this an appropriate use of taxpayers' money?
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend raises an issue that has caused some concern recently. A situation that existed for a time has now been overtaken by events and by changed contracts of employment. I believe that the changes took place in 1990. The situation is of a finite nature. The vast majority of the women involved settled their claims quickly and efficiently, although some are taking a long time in their efforts to secure very large sums. I have to admit that, whatever their rights may be, and whatever compensation is decided legally, this has given offence to certain people. However, as I have indicated, I hope that it has been changed by events.
There is a great deal of uncertainty in the hearts and minds of the families, but I am tremendously impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm that both civilian and service personnel—at headquarters, at other establishments and in the field—have demonstrated.
§ Sir Harold Walker (Doncaster, Central)
The Minister has quite properly paid tribute to the professionalism of the men and women of the Royal Air Force. I hope that he has in mind the professionalism of and the service given by those who preceded the present generation. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware that 1994 is the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the jet fighter aircraft—the Meteor having gone into service with the South Yorkshire Squadron 616, flying out of Doncaster in 1944. What does the Minister intend to do to commemorate that significant event?
§ Mr. Hanley
I am one of those who wrote to the Royal Mail asking that a stamp be issued to commemorate the event. In addition, I was in south Yorkshire this morning, and I pay tribute to the RAF—in particular, 33 Squadron—for getting me back in time for this debate.
The entire Ministry of Defence team, under the Secretary of State, is impressed by the professionalism and the stoic good humour of the people we meet as we travel around. It is a great credit to the RAF that it is approaching the hurdles—many of them financial—with the skill and determination that it has displayed so often. This attitude continues in many places around the world. I appreciate that current operations in some areas are placing heavy demands on personnel, but their enthusiasm and attention to duty is inspirational.
With the 75th anniversary of the RAF and the 50th anniversary of the jet aircraft, it Is appropriate and it gives me great pleasure to be able to announce to the House that Her Majesty the Queen has graciously approved the introduction of a medal to recognise aggregated campaign service since 14 August 1969 in those theatres where the General Service medal (1962), with clasp, has been 448 awarded. The medal will be known as the Accumulated Campaign Service medal and it recognises 36 months or more of service, which qualify for a clasp or clasps to the General Service medal (1962).
The medal is for services in awkward and difficult theatres of operation in which our service men and women work around the world. I am delighted that that service will now be formally recognised. The details of the award are set out in a Command Paper, which was presented to the House earlier today by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, a copy of which has been placed in the Library. The regulations for the award of the medal are different for each force, because the qualifying periods are different for each of the forces. They are slightly complicated, but they are available to hon. Members in the Library.
I am sincerely grateful to the men and women of the RAF who continue to serve their country with such distinction and courage. I am also grateful to the civilians who help them out in the field and to the civil servants at the Ministry of Defence, whose efforts often go unsung. I assure them that they are all worthy upholders of the traditions of their proud service, which has lasted for the past 75 years.
§ 5.1 pm
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the announcement about the new medal, which is perhaps overdue. I should also like to associate myself with the final words of the Minister, but I am not sure about the parts in between.
I pay tribute to the men and women of the RAF who have continued to serve the country loyally in the year since the previous debate on the RAF. In 1993, in addition to their continuing role of defending the United Kingdom, RAF personnel have assisted efforts in Sarajevo aimed at lifting the siege so as to ensure that the local people are not starved into submission. They have assisted the United Nations by policing the no-fly zone in Bosnia and undertaking the early-warning monitoring role over Hungary and the Adriatic. Aircrews have also done a magnificent job in assisting the rescue efforts in Bosnia and the Adriatic.
The RAF is also policing the no-fly zone in southern Iraq to deter the Iraqi air force from attempting the genocide of the marsh Arabs. It continues to protect the Kurdish people of northern Iraq. It also continues to provide security cover in the Falklands, Hong Kong and other outposts around the world, while playing a major part in assisting the security forces in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that millions of people throughout the world have reason to be thankful for the skills and dedication of the RAF.
We must also remember the thousands of MOD civilian workers and the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the defence industry, who play a vital role in our defences.
In many ways this has been a good year for the RAF, but as Charles Dickens wrote:It was the best of times, it was the worst of times".The reason for that is the shabby way in which the forces, and in particular the RAF, have been treated by the Government. I can recall no other occasion in recent history when there has been such a lack of confidence in the commitment of a British Government to maintain credible armed forces.
449 As a result of "Options for Change", the RAF has suffered the loss of 15 squadrons, a 33 per cent. reduction in the number of combat aircraft and a reduction in the number of service personnel from 91,000 in 1989 to 77,000 in 1993. "Options for Change" anticipates that, by 1995, that number will be down to 70,000. Rumours are already circulating around the RAF, however, that even greater cuts will be made. I know that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who will reply to the debate, is not responsible for manpower, but perhaps he can comment on it.
§ Mr. Mans
The hon. Gentleman has accurately recorded the changes that have taken place in the past few years. I hope that he will spell out exactly Labour party policy towards manpower, equipment and RAF commitments across the world. We will then be able to measure more accurately whether Opposition rhetoric is matched by facts.
§ Mr. Martlew
That is fine by me. I will return to that issue later. The short answer is that—[Laughter.] Hon. Members should not start laughing. The Labour party will consider our overseas commitments and the necessary role for the forces, including the RAF. We will then decide, subject to a full defence review, what we need to meet those commitments. We shall provide the money to ensure that they are met.
The Government have failed to carry out a defence review, but they have continued to make cuts in the forces, like a blind man. They have not reduced our defence commitments, but they have cut the personnel, which has put an extra strain on service men and women. Conservative Members are aware of that. I am sure that, before the debate is over, we will hear a call for a defence review from many Conservative Members.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
The hon. Gentleman will know that I am one of those who has called for a defence review, and I have been doing so for some time. I want to be absolutely clear about what the hon. Gentleman said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans). Am I correct to assume that, at the end of that review, the Labour party will match commitments with resources? Can we therefore assume that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will not be bound by several recent Labour party conference motions?
§ Mr. Martlew
We shall be bound by our manifesto commitment that we will fund whatever defence requirements were needed.
The Government have broken their promises to the RAF on many occasions, not least with regard to the RAF's continuing nuclear role. During the debate on the defence estimates, the Secretary of State announced that the tactical air-to-surface missile, TASM, would be cancelled. We welcomed that decision, but the RAF did not. I spoke to several senior officers before that debate and they did not believe that the Government would leave the RAF without a nuclear role in the next century. That is exactly what they have done.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)
The hon. Gentleman has made a most important policy statement about the Labour party's defence policy. May I ask him to clarify it? Is he now 450 saying he would make funds available for any future defence commitments entered into by the Labour party, in defiance of the binding resolution—passed by 79 per cent. of the voters at the Labour party conference—in composite motion No. 49, the effect of which would be to reduce Britain's defence spending by £7.5 billion? That is equivalent to wiping out the entire spending on one of our three services. Is he overruling the motion that his own conference passed by a binding majority of more than two thirds, 79 per cent., of the voters at that conference?
§ Mr. Martlew
The Government should remember that they have already made massive cuts in defence spending. It does not sit well on the Minister's shoulders to talk about other parties cutting defence expenditure. We made a commitment at the election to the electorate that we would provide the necessary resources to protect the United Kingdom. It is obviously dawning on the British electorate that that cannot be said of the Government, because the most recent opinion poll on the subject, which asked people in whose hands the defence of Britain would be safest, revealed that the majority believed that it would be safest in the hands of the Labour party. That is some reference not only to the good work of my hon. Friends but to the dismal performance of Ministers.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
The hon. Gentleman talked about the defence of the realm being safe in somebody's hands. Is the base at RAF Carlisle safe in the Labour party's hands? Would it be kept open if the Labour party were to form the Government?
§ Mr. Martlew
The point is that it is not safe in the Government's hands. The Minister said today from the Dispatch Box that he intends to ignore consultations. It is a disgrace for Conservative Members to make political capital out of 850 people's jobs.[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) will remain seated.
Conservative Members do not want to hear about the other broken promises, including those on air bases. However, the Government said that they have closed 14 air bases. That has been done with scant regard to consultation with the people who work there and even less regard to the effect of the closure on the local economy. It seems strange that the majority of the bases that have been closed are in the north, in what could be called the Celtic region of the country, and that those that are kept open are around the south of England.
§ Mr. Martlew
The Government have broken their promises on pay and conditions for service people. They said that they would allow a wage increase last year of only 1.5 per cent. If we believe the Chancellor of the Exchequer, they will not receive any pay increase this year.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but I think that I should draw his attention to a comment made from a sedentary position by a former Minister on the Government Back Benches. When my hon. Friend referred to the fact that the Government kept closing bases in the north but not those in the south, that former Minister said, "A very good thing." Does not that show that there is a problem in defence policy of bias against the north of England?
§ Mr. Martlew
There is a feeling that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) was only reiterating what Government Front-Bench Members believe.
§ Mr. Nicholls
It may not have escaped the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has absolutely no sense of humour. If he had ever doubted that, he will appreciate it now.
§ Mr. Martlew
I do not find the loss of 850 jobs, wherever they occur, a laughing matter. I disagree with the hon. Member for Teignbridge on that point.
The Government's total mismanagement has meant that they have had to pay £7 million in compensation to women who were unfairly dismissed because they were pregnant. I shall return to that matter. As the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is to wind up the debate, shall mention one or two items on that subject as well.
Eurofighter 2000 is a very important project both in military and industrial terms. It is a scandal that the Government have allowed the timetable for that programme to slip by two years. I have been pressing for it to get back on stream as it is essential, especially to people working in the north-west. No one hopes more than me that Eurofighter 2000 will fly in April this year. Events surrounding the Eurohelicopter 101 are an absolute scandal. We have waited eight years for that project and the Minister, in reply to me during previous Defence questions, could not give a date for when the project was likely to come about.
The Government have treated the RAF badly over the past year. Morale in the RAF is low. It is so bad that last November Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, Chief of the Air Staff, launched an unprecedented public attack on the Government, saying that Treasury Ministers had campaigned deliberately to discredit the RAF.
§ Mr. Mans
I was in the audience when the Air Chief Marshal made that speech and I assure the hon. Gentleman that his remarks were directed not at any Treasury Minister, but elsewhere. If he were to read the text of the speech, he wound understand that. On that basis, I hope that he will withdraw his last remark.
§ Mr. Martlew
The problem is that the speech is classified: We rang the Air Chief Marshal's office and he referred us to the Secretary of State. We rang the Secretary of State's office and he refused to give us the report of the speech, which has never been published. If the Secretary of State were to intervene now and say that he will put a copy of it in the Library, I should be delighted.
§ Mr. Martlew
I am waiting for the Secretary of State to intervene.
We have not seen a copy of the Air Chief Marshal's speech. We go by the press reports. We have been told by the Secretary of State that we cannot have a copy of that speech and we msut presume, therefore, that it is classified.
§ Mr. Walker
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), I attended that open meeting, which took place at the Royal Aeronautical Society. At no point in his speech did the Chief of the Air Staff say specifically that anyone in the Government was spreading damaging information about the RAF. He did say that he and the RAF 452 knew who had been putting out that information. That is not the same as what the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said.
§ Mr. Martlew
I would be more convinced by the hon. Gentleman's argument if the Secretary of State had not made the Chief of the Air Staff write a letter of apology to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.The Guardian carried the headline:Air Chief says sorry to Portillo".If the Chief of the Air Staff did not say anything, why did he have to apologise?
§ Mr. Hanley
I should like to help the hon. Gentleman with a little matter that he mentioned earlier. He is clearly speaking with prejudice or in ignorance—or both. In either case, it is breathtaking. Of the last 15 base closures, two were in Germany, 10 were located under a line south of Birmingham and only three were in the north. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is wrong and I hope that that helps to clarify the position.
§ Mr. Martlew
I am sure that, if one considers the proportion of job losses and the proportion of bases to the area, one will find that what I said was correct.
May I now get to the meat of my speech? Obviously, hon. Members have enjoyed the starter, but perhaps we can get on to the main course. There has not been a great deal of disagreement between the Opposition and Government Front-Bench Members on Bosnia. I am aware that Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House have differing views. From my last visit to Bosnia in the autumn, I came away convinced that it was suffering a human tragedy and a civil war, and that the United Nations, or any other outside organisation, should not get involved on one side or another. It would be disastrous if we were seen to be taking sides.
The present role of developing humanitarian aid and policing the no-fly zone has made a considerable contribution in reducing the number of innocent casualties. I am critical, however—this is where there is some discord—of recent statements made by the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence, who appear to be threatening to pull out British forces unilaterally. I have no doubt that that would lead to a considerable loss of innocent lives. I wish that we could give the commitment to the United Nations that we would remain in Bosnia as long as necessary and that, if and when a firm peace agreement is signed, we would stay to police it and, if necessary, make extra forces available.
At this time, we should be telling the United Nations what forces we shall have available. I hope that we can get away from the idea that we should keep on pretending that we may pull our people out. It does no good to the morale of our people on the ground and I am sure that the innocent people in Bosnia are not happy about that scenario.
I spoke earlier about service pay, but no Conservative Member sought to intervene. They did not seem to be bothered too much that service pay is being cut in real terms. Last year, the Government enforced a pay increase of 1.5 per cent. on all service personnel. That was equal to a cut in take-home pay of up to 2 per cent. because members of the armed forces are not normally mortgage holders and did not benefit from the dramatic drop in interest rates. As a result, they lost more than anybody else.
In November, the Chancellor told them that they would get no increase whatever unless it was earned by 453 productivity. The mind boggles. How does one measure the productivity of an RAF fighter pilot or an infantry man? One measure that could be applied is the reduction of 15 squadrons and a cut of 22 per cent. in RAF service personnel. In view of that and of the fact that few roles are being reduced, it could be argued that they are entitled to a 22 or 33 per cent. increase.
I had hoped that the Minister would say that the armed forces were to receive a pay increase this year. It has been rumoured in the press that senior officers will get a pay award of 2.8 per cent. That does not seem out of line, especially as Members of Parliament got 2.9 per cent. However, it would be regrettable, and it would be opposed by the Labour party, if senior officers received 2.8 per cent. and other ranks did not. There is no doubt that the pay difference between officers and other ranks has been growing steadily.
A page of the Tory party manifesto had the quaint heading "Taking responsibility for Britain". As the Prime Minister has been to the Scott inquiry, he is probably asking for that heading to be withdrawn so that he can take responsibility for nothing. The Government have broken their pledge because under that heading the manifesto states:Our Services deserve the excellent pay and conditions which we have secured for them and will maintain.The Government failed to carry out that promise last year and I suspect that they will fail again this year.
A Select Committee report in 1991 concluded that the forces were having great difficulty in recruiting skilled technical staff, and in 1991 we were in the teeth of a recession. If there is the recovery for which we all hope, and service pay has not kept pace with the private sector, the forces will not be able to recruit and there will be an exodus and a severe skills shortage. I hope that the Minister will address that issue.
The Minister spoke about the closure of bases—I am sorry that he is not in his place. He said that it had been decided to close RAF Carlisle and RAF Quedgeley. He could have given many other examples of closures. There are great doubts as to whether the transfer of MOD establishments is in the best interests of the country in defence and in money terms. An example of that is the transfer of the MOD establishment in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Great resentment was felt, especially by the work force in that area, because the work went to RAF Wyton and RAF Brampton, which are in the Prime Minister's constituency. I am told that that could not be justified on grounds of cost saving or improvement in the national defences.
There is no doubt that there were major flaws in the way that consultation with the Harrogate work force was carried out. There is a belief in the country, which I do not say that I accept, that the RAF and other services do not like to be based in the north. Therefore, they slant their reports towards recommending the closure of such bases.
If we are not careful, my part of the country will be left with nothing but jets flying low over the Lake District. There will be no jobs. The Government should look at the economic impact of relocating bases.
Harrogate is a good example, and the Minister mentioned RAF Carlisle. I am sure the House would expect me to speak about that and, in doing so, I shall examine how the MOD works. It was rumoured that the 454 decision to close RAF Carlisle would be taken during the equipment supply study in December, and that was confirmed when I phoned the Minister's office. I was told that a decision had been made but that it had not been decided when to announce it.
On 13 December the Government leaked the fact that they would announce a decision the following day on the thermal oxide reprocessing plant in Cumbria. Lo and behold, there was a planted question that day by the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) about the equipment supply study, and he was kind enough to give me a copy of the reply. On the day that the Government announced that the THORP plant was to be opened in Cumbria, they decided to close RAF Carlisle.
Some of us thought that that was a piece of media manipulation. The Government knew that the local and national media would pay attention to the THORP announcement and, of course, they did because that decision had been leaked whereas the one on RAF Carlisle had not. I phoned the Minister's office to find out when I would be informed and I was told that a letter would be placed on the Board at 3 pm. I was at the Board at that time but no letter arrived. By 3.30 there was still no letter and at 3.45 pm I was told by a Lobby correspondent that RAF Carlisle was to close.
At 4.15 pm I met the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary who told me that there had been a mix-up and the letters had not been placed on the Board. I am sorry that the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary is not in his place. I have had a letter explaining the situation and I accept that there was a genuine mistake. However, it is strange that the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who was also to get a letter, sent a fax to RAF Carlisle at 3.30 pm, 45 minutes before the letters arrived. It was obvious that the Government had leaked the information to hon. Members on the basis of their political persuasion. Such happenings occur when a party has been in government too long and no longer has respect for the House.
As the Minister said, it was arranged that the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, would meet union representatives on the Friday. That was announced on the Wednesday, and it was made known to me that I would not be welcome at the meeting. I suppose that is politics. Perhaps it was a little early for them to get the full facts, but the union representatives went to the meeting and were told by the Minister that it seemed a good idea to publish the study and that he would look into it. He also agreed that it would be a good idea for the National Audit Office to study the recommendations, and he said that he would see what could be done.
On 21 December, the unions wrote to the Minister to confirm that, and on 18 January, well through the consultation period, they received a letter from the Minister saying that he would not release the report and would not call in the National Audit Office. That dashed union hopes because they believed that a full study would reveal a good argument for saving RAF Carlisle because over six years £50 million had been spent on it. There was no argument against some job losses, but they believe that they can be cost effective and put a good case to the Government. They may have been naive, but they believed that the Government simply wanted to save money. That belief was shattered by the Minister's letter in January.
The Minister must consider reversing his decision not to make the study available to trade unions or to call in the 455 National Audit Office. It is a disgrace that 800 people in Carlisle will lose their jobs because of a secret report. They were loyal workers throughout the Falklands conflict and the Gulf, and they have been treated very shabbily.
Yesterday, I met trade union representatives from RAF Quedgeley. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) is in his place. They had asked for the report and were devasted when they were told they could not have it. They also thought that it was a good idea that the National Audit Office should examine the findings of the report as they did not believe them to be correct.
As the Minister said, RAF Quedgeley is not earmarked for closure until 1998. The depot had been allowed to tender for furniture repair contracts. It has been successful on three occasions in winning against outside competition repair and maintenance contracts for furniture, yet this month the depot received a letter saying that it would not be able to tender in future. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gloucester will also raise that point, but I must ask the Minister to reconsider his decision.
The Minister made some fairly derogatory comments in answer to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) about women being unfairly dismissed from the forces because they had become pregnant. It is a moral disgrace that has been going on for many years.
The real problem is that the bill is coming home. Until now, according to parliamentary questions, the Government have paid £7,800,000 in compensation to women who were unfairly dismissed. That sum covers 1,679 cases. Two women who took their cases to the tribunal won large sums. One was awarded nearly £200,000, and only this week a Wren was awarded £130,000. There are 3,700 outstanding cases. If we assume that that amount is exceptional and accept the norm as £10,000, that represents a bill of £37 million. If we take the norm as £100,000, the bill will be £370 million and the MOD will be paying out more than Littlewoods.
Where is the money to come from? Is it to come out of the defence budget or from contingency funds? If it were to be spent by local government, no doubt the councillors in charge would have been surcharged. It is a large sum of money and the House needs to know where it is to come from.
The Opposition were pleased when the Secretary of State announced the cancellation of the sub-strategic tactical air-to-surface missile, but there are still outstanding questions to be answered. When will the sub-strategic capability be placed on Trident? If it is to happen in the near future, as people are predicting, why are we keeping the free-fall bomb in service with the RAF until 2006?
Mention has been made of helicopters. Let us go through the disgraceful saga of the Westland helicopter, the EH101. In April 1987, the then Secretary of State announced that he would order 25 EH101 helicopters. In October 1992, after considerable pressure, the President of the Board of Trade visited Westland. In November 1992, Westland presented to the MOD the specifications, price and cost effectiveness. On 20 May 1993, draft specifications were received by the MOD. In July 1993, Westland responded, providing unit prices and support costs. On 27 July 1993, the matter was raised during the Consolidated Fund debate in which the Minister and I took part—I thought that the Government were going to try to win the by-election, but by that time it was obvious that Christchurch was a lost cause anyway.
456 In early October 1993, despite assurances from the Minister that he had had a word with his Dutch counterpart, the Dutch placed an order for a French helicopter. On 13 October 1993, the Secretary of State for Defence visited Westland and on 5 November 1993 the Prime Minister visited Westland. Last week in Defence questions, when I asked when the Government were likely to place an order, the Minister said that he did not know. The Chairman of the Select Committee said that the order would not be placed until after the Budget. However, he did not say what Budget and I hope that the Minister will make an announcement tonight that he will place the helicopter order with Westland. Many jobs depend on it and it is an excellent helicopter.
Another defence procurement issue involves the Eurofighter 2000. There are no stronger supporters of the Eurofighter 2000 than myself and my hon. Friends. There has been some slippage on that, but I shall concentrate on the number of aircraft that we are likely to order. The Government are sticking to their statement that they will order 250. My understanding is that it is to replace the Tornado F-3 and the Jaguar. If I am kind and add the numbers together, there are 140 aircraft—some would say that we do not have 100 Tornados—but are we really talking about placing an order for 250 Eurofighter aircraft to replace 140 Tornados and Jaguars? I hope that we can have some clarification.
§ Mr. Martlew
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I hope that Minister will give us some clarification on the exact figures. It would be wrong to continue to pretend to the industry that the Government are going to order 250 if they know that is not likely.[Interruption.] I understand that I have been speaking for some time. I see that the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has woken up.
§ Mr. Martlew
The hon. Gentleman falls asleep during everyone's speech.
There is a complete breakdown of trust between the armed forces and the Conservative Government. It is best summed up by a report from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 14 January, under the heading:Back to Basics: Portillo on fighting the new British disease of cynicism about institutions".The Minister said:Tonight I am going to talk about one of the greatest threats that have ever confronted the British nation. It does not come from the Soviet Union, nor from…Nuclear weapons, not even from domestic terrorism. It is more insidious and therefore harder to counter and even to defeat. It is not an external threat but an internal one. It comes from amongst us.".That was made two months after Sir Michael Graydon, Chief of Air Staff, said in a speech to the Air League that there had been a deliberate campaign to discredit the RAF and the other services. He added that they knew who had instigated it and why and no doubt a number are the same people who basked in the reflected glory of the Gulf war. The next day's headlines said that Sir Michael was 457 carpeted by the Secretary of State for Defence, and that the air chief "said sorry to Portillo". That is what the quote says. I am not drifting from protocol.
I wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him to confirm whether Sir Michael was referring to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and, if so, would he sack him? Of course, the Prime Minister did not reply. I presume that the letter went across his desk, but he never noticed it. Ten days later I got a reply from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, saying that it was all misplaced media comment. We did ask for that speech but were refused by the Ministers.
§ Mr. Martlew
Obviously, only Conservative Members are invited to the Air League. Perhaps the Air League will take some cognisance of that fact. We would then have had the true picture in the House.
So much for the Chief Secretary fighting those who attack fine British institutions. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that there is no finer British institution than the Royal Air Force. The scandal does not stop there. As though that was not bad enough—a Treasury Minister trying to undermine the armed forces—it must be untenable when advisers to the Secretary of State for Defence are implicated. On 10 November, The Daily Telegraph said:Last night it emerged that an article written by Mr. David Hart, right-wing adviser to Mr. Rifkind, may have triggered off a recent press report which claimed there are too many generals, admirals and air marshals and also making unfavourable comparisons between the RAF and the Israeli Air Force.That was by an adviser to the Secretary of State. What did the Secretary of State do? Did he get him in and carpet him? Did he sack him? Did he get him to write an apology to the air marshal? Not a bit. He is still advising the Secretary of State. He is still allowed to spread his poison.
§ Mr. Hardy
Is not that the second example of political failure to defend the armed forces? The armed forces cannot be responsible for fighting a political battle, in a direct sense. The Government allow a savage attack on the history and tradition of the Royal Air Force, as they did at the time of the Harris memorial, and allow repeated and quite ill-informed or mischievous articles comparing the Royal Air Force with the Israeli Air Force, when the comparison is simply preposterous. It is irritating for the services when their political masters sit on their hands instead of speaking up clearly for them.
§ Mr. Martlew
My hon. Friend is right. If the Secretary of State had any decency, he would have sacked his adviser and then taken his resignation to the Prime Minister. I shall quote again from "A Tale of Two Cities". Perhaps he could have said:It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done".That is what we should have done. I have seen the video. Unlike the hon. Member for Harrow, East, I do not have problems with big words. It is time for the Government to resign. The country and its armed forces need a Government who will review foreign policy objectives, then reveal our defence commitments and needs and provide the necessary resources and support to those who are given responsibility for the defence of the nation. What we need is a Labour Government—and Parliamentary Private Secretaries who can deliver letters on time.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
I have not yet intervened in the speeches from the two Front Benches, so I feel unusually virtuous. Having begun to feel, like other Conservative Members, that perhaps some newspapers were right recently and that the Government's classic mid-term unpopularity, which we are going through temporarily, was perhaps slightly more than that and was a deeper trough, and having heard the so-called savage attack of the Labour Front Bench on defence, I do not think that the Government have anything to worry about on this matter, or in any other broad main policy areas.
I have never heard such a feeble speech as that from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). It is preposterous nonsense, first, to suggest that senior service chiefs, rather than politicians, should decide policy matters concerning the size of our armed forces. I have never yet met a general or air marshall who said that his forces should be smaller. We all know that to be the classic truth of defence history. Secondly, as a result of the end of the cold war, the Government would have been rightly criticised if they had not taken important measures of cost reduction and economies in various fields as a result of that changing reality.
For the Labour party suddenly overnight to pretend to be the friend of our defence forces and service men and women is a preposterous piece of nonsense. Most people in the services know that, and therefore we can dismiss its arguments with the contempt that they deserve.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be able to reply later on the subject of the local closure of a base in my constituency. There have been good references in the speeches so far to the debt that we owe the Royal Air Force and its marvellous history and role, which we are celebrating this year as well as next year, and all the things that we owe those men and women who serve in it. I am second to none in adding my words to that.
In my constituency, everybody has been immensely proud to have had for many years two RAF bases—Bentley Priory and Stanmore Park. The Battle of Britain was directed from Bentley Priory. I think that my hon. Friends the Ministers of State for Defence Procurement and for the Armed Forces have visited it. It is an historic and moving site, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), who has also visited it on a number of occasions, knows full well.
All base closures are regrettable, particularly if job losses are involved and if they involve civilians. I do not say that in any anti-service men and women sense, but there is a risk now that the cold war has ended that the number of service jobs will decline. Many people in the defence forces realistically accept that, but the trouble is that we are in a time of high unemployment nationally, so it is a painful thing for anybody to contemplate.
A number of closures have been referred to in the debate. In the case of the impending closure of RAF Stanmore Park, the situation is different. If my hon. Friend the Minister has a chance to refer to it in his winding-up speech, I hope that he will reassure us that there will be no job losses. I believe that the position with the RAF is that redeployment will take place. The affected numbers on that site have already been reduced.
459 As my hon. Friend the Minister and I know, as do others who follow this closely, there will be redeployment to Bentley Priory, whose functions will be augmented by taking some of the Stanmore Park activity. In that case, the local community is not reacting in a sense of traditional dismay at the closure of a much-loved RAF base, although it has a long history and there is considerable pride in it in the area, not least because the RAF personnel there in recent years have been doing a lot of hearts and minds work of a lasting quality—charity work, helping with the local community and helping disabled people. There are many other examples, but I will not go into them because of the time. They have had a close relationship with the local community.
Apart from that, the acceptance of the closure in the area is positive, and slightly wider, too. It makes sense to have the rationalisation of the base closure with RAF Bentley Priory, as it is so close—it is up Stanmore hill. It is a large green belt site, where it is possible to expand some of the facilities. I will refer to that in a moment. There is a welcome for the closure of the site, because its alternative use in future will be exciting for our local community in the borough of Harrow and in Harrow, East.
Apart from five or six acres of open space and recreational ground, the site will be designated for housing, which I hope will be high-quality housing. I have to hand the development brief for RAF Stanmore Park, with which, being a local authority matter, I shall not tax my hon. Friend the Minister of State too much because it would not be his job to respond to such points.
I wish to ask my hon. Friend to reassure me, generally and on the background and the latest developments, about the closure plans of the RAF, MOD and Property Services Agency and to bring us up to date on that and, in particular, individual considerations.
First, I wish to mention the historical background because the closure of RAF Stanmore Park means that that large and attractive site will, at long last, after almost 60 years, be returned to the local community. It was first taken for defence use by the then Air Ministry in 1936 as the war clouds were looming and gathering over Europe and Britain.
In those days, because controls were inadequate, the marvellous old Stanmore Park house on that site was torn down overnight, a famous and notorious occasion, by Ministry of Defence operatives. When the inhabitants of Stanmore, in those days a leafy village of great beauty, woke up the following morning, the whole magic house at Stanmore Park had been torn down virtually without warning. Mercifully, that kind of thing does not happen nowadays.
The local community is gathering back this important site for housing, and that is much to be welcomed. The borough plan has the objective and target of 4,500 houses during the next 10 years, so this will provide an important site for housing in the borough.
In the meantime, the RAF, MOD and PSA have a responsibility, which the Minister of State therefore also enjoys, to ensure that the site, when it is transferred from defence to civilian hands, whatever applicant purchaser eventually ends up with it—it may be more than one entity or development company—is handed over in good order and properly. That is of considerable concern to people in the local community. There is an agreement between the local authority and RAF representatives to preserve trees 460 on the site and to ensure that no damage is done in the realisation, disposal and evacuation of the site, which should take place by November 1995.
Those and other matters, and the dismantling of the existing RAF buildings, some of which are quite large, should be clarified. I should be grateful if the Minister would do that either today, or partly today, because I have not given him prior notice of this, and perhaps in subsequent correspondence if I deem it right to send him a letter, depending on what he has a chance to say in the debate.
Reverberating from the closure of RAF Stanmore Park is the augmentation of facilities at RAF Bentley Priory, which is much to be welcomed. That is a great boost to the morale of RAF personnel on the Bentley Priory site, an important strategic site, now with underground facilities about which, for obvious reasons, I shall not go into detail here. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to deal with the job increases that will occur as a result and the configuration of RAF plans and activities that will be outlined in the expansion of Bentley Priory.
Above all, from the point of view of my constituents, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that the transitional work of augmentation, and the conclusion for that base when it is expanded, does not mean a significant increase in the nuisance effect for local residents. In fact, no increase at all would be acceptable. The residents have been patient. So far, physical facilities on the site have been expanded, including two radio masts whose location and size have resulted in some controversy, and there are other aspects as well.
The site is problematical in that, although there is plenty of acreage, certain pockets are already beginning to look full. For some reason, the RAF seems to be concentrating its new installations and physical buildings on the edges, near the roads and the residential houses that surround that site, rather than further in where they would be less of a nuisance in terms of noise.
Will there be a significant increase in helicopter sites? I accept that they are essential to the RAF's function, but they have already been somewhat of a nuisance, at least to residents and sometimes more widely than that. Therefore, the more that my hon. Friend can reassure me on the closure of RAF Stanmore Park and on the expansion of RAF Bentley Priory—once again, I pay tribute to the RAF for what it has achieved over the years on both sites—the happier I shall be. I shall be in further touch with my hon. Friend, and I shall return later to the debate—I have another engagement—to hear what he has to say about these matters.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
It was my intention to begin by extolling the virtues of single service debates, but when I look around—I do not exclude my party from what I am about to say—those advantages appear to be rather less obvious to all but the 18 or 19 of us who are present at this stage.
The single service debate provides a particular advantage with regard to procurement. It is apposite that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement should reply to the debate. I doubt whether there has ever been a time in the history of the RAF when the procurement decisions that had to be made were more acute and were likely to have longer lasting effect.
461 For example, the Eurofighter 2000 is expected to see service for at least 30 years into the next century. I sometimes think that the procurement decisions are of much greater long-term significance than manpower decisions because, for example, the recruitment and training of fast jet pilots can be much more easily and quickly accomplished than the development or production of a fast jet for them to fly.
Procurement decisions become more and more difficult to reverse because such is the pace of technical advance that, if a particular capability is given up, it is almost impossible to regain it, or regaining it would be possible only at disproportionate cost.
Where a capability is given up and reliance is placed on foreign manufacture, the continued availability of equipment and spares will depend on the political attitudes of the supplying country. Some may remember that, in the immediate post-election period when the debate about the future of the European fighter aircraft, as it was then known, was at its height, some argued for the purchase of the SU27. There is no question but that that is an outstanding aircraft, but one would have to anticipate rather more optimistically what was likely to happen in Russia before one would believe that one could guarantee the spare parts and the equipment that would be necessary if one adopted that aircraft as fulfilling the needs of the RAF.
The reference to Eurofighter 2000 provides an obvious opportunity on which to restate the case for that aircraft. The arguments in favour of it remain as persuasive as ever. It is right that we should maintain the manufacturing capability that Eurofighter 2000 necessarily represents. We must also remember that some of the technology may have a civilian application and be worth while for that. But the primary need is for an agile fighter with which the RAF can fulfil the air defence-ground attack role, particularly when one has regard to the third task which is identified in the defence estimates for the current year.
In future operations outside the United Kingdom, in which we may increasingly be called upon to participate, the RAF's task will be to protect friendly forces against hostile air attack. One thing is certain and that is that there is no shortage of modern combat aircraft on the international market which will make it possible for the air forces in unstable parts of the world to be extremely well equipped.
We know that derivatives of the SU27 and the MiG29 are already under development. It does not take any particular political perception to conclude that, if Russia is anxious, first, to continue a sphere of influence, and, secondly, to acquire hard currency, the uninhibited export of aircraft of that calibre to those who are willing to purchase them is likely to be a policy that Russia will follow. If we expect to be able to participate in international operations—including United Nations operations—the RAF must have an aircraft that is capable of matching its potential opponents. Anything less would create a considerable disadvantage for the aircrew on which we would call.
As the Minister will know, some apprehension is felt about the project. Already, after four speeches, he has been asked to reply to a substantial number of questions, but I hope that, if he cannot deal with the points that I am about 462 to raise in his response this evening, he will be able to do so by means of a letter, or some other method of communication.
Can the Minister tell us the current estimated cost per copy of the aircraft? There is some dispute about that in the technical press. Is it true that there have been cost overruns of as much as DM500 million in the development phase? Following the software difficulties experienced by the Gripen—which, at one stage, was considered to be a candidate for the RAF—what is the up-to-date position with regard to the flight-control software for the Eurofighter? I believe that the predicted flight date is April 1994. Is that still a firm date?
I do not wish to leave the question of procurement without referring to either the Hercules replacement or the support helicopter, both of which have been mentioned today in speeches and interventions. If we are to do more in what might be briefly described as the United Nations area, the greater the out-of-area activity, the greater will be the strain on the transport resources of the RAF.
Marshalls of Cambridge is carrying out a study to determine whether the Hercules should be refurbished or replaced, and it is only right to await the results of that study; however, I would require considerable persuasion to accept that we should wait until the year 2000, or beyond, for the future large aircraft. I say that as one who is on record as arguing—in the House—the case for common defence procurement within Europe. I believe that to continue until the year 2000 without moving to an alternative aircraft would place unnecessary strain on the RAF's transport resources.
§ Mr. Mans
Would not that virtually guarantee that, beyond the year 2000, the RAF will be equipped with an aircraft whose basic airframe was designed in the 1950s? Would not the study do better to compare the costs of the C 130J throughout its life—up to the year 2030, or even 2040—with the costs of refurbishing existing aircraft, enabling them to last until the FLA was available?
§ Mr. Campbell
I do not argue with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said; he has considerable knowledge and experience of these matters. I will say, however, that the Hercules has a reliable and proven design, and—as has been pointed out—British companies such as Westland and Dowty would have an important part to play in the development of the C130J.
Important industrial issues are also involved. We should consider the extent to which Government funding forms a component of the discussion and, indeed, the ultimate decision. I am keeping an open mind, although what I am about to say may contradict that claim: I do not believe that we should wait until the year 2000, given that there is no guarantee that the FLA will actually fly.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
The hon. and learned Gentleman will be relieved to learn that I agree with what he is saying.
I do not think that development costs can be ignored in any future aircraft considerations. No one knows what the costs of developing the new aircraft will be. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the possible overrun on the Eurofighter 2000. All experience of modern military aircraft suggests that considerable extra costs can be incurred during the development phase. Clearly, putting an aircraft "on the shelf' will not involve that problem.
§ Mr. Campbell
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should not pretend that the decision is easy, but I remain convinced that the onus is on those who argue for the FLA. It is up to them to prove beyond reasonable doubt—if I may use a legal phrase—that it is appropriate.
§ Mr. Hardy
May I join the chorus of agreement with the hon. and learned Gentleman's thesis? Surely, if there is to be a delay, we are entitled to hope that, on the frequent flights of the Hercules to Sarajevo airport when dramatic landings must be arranged, pilots and crew will be accompanied by Ministers of the Crown. On many occasions, we would welcome the resultant by-elections, and the reassurance of companionship that such flights would provide.
§ Mr. Campbell
I can do better than that; I can threaten them with the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown).
That leads me quite naturally to the issue of the support helicopter. When its history comes to be written, 1 doubt that it will be regarded as a paradigm of good procurement. The most recent chapter of the story is yet another study of the mix between the Chinook and the EH101. I doubt very much that Lord Younger—as he now is—anticipated the delay that has occurred since his announcement on a date in 1987, which has already been mentioned. I also suspect that little enthusiasm would be expressed in the armed services committee of the Senate or, indeed, in the House of Representatives on Capitol hill about a similar contest between Boeing and Westland.
I hope that the Government will take due account not only of capability but of the national interest that would be served if the EH101 were to predominate in the mix of 25, as opposed to the Chinook.
Let me deal briefly with two other matters connected with procurement. One is the low-level laser-guided bomb; the other is the conventionally armed stand-off missile, which has already been mentioned. The RAF requires those systems, for different reasons. I hope that an early decision can be made, so that firm contracts are available for both.
A further issue arises from the RAF's current operations in Bosnia. I suspect that the matter goes a little beyond the remit of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, but it has raised a number of anxieties. I refer to the means by which authorisation of air strikes in Bosnia would be effected and the time that it would take for permission to be given. I understand that the chain would be something like this. A request would come from forward air controllers on the ground with the troops; that request would go to the air operations co-ordination centre at Kisseljak. From there—with the good will of the commander of the Bosnia-Herzegovina command—it would go to the UNPROFOR commander in Zagreb. It would then go to the United Nations civilian head, also in Zagreb, and from there to the United Nations Secretary-General. That could reasonably be described as a rather extended order of command.
It has been suggested that a recent trial took six hours to produce a reply from New York. One of the outgoing United Nations generals has expressed considerable apprehension. Let me put the point in a domestic context, however. If United Nations forces—by which, of necessity, I mean British forces on the ground—required close air support for their defence, which is not 464 improbable, surely the availability of such support must be much more direct. We must do better than six hours' notice.
The matter may fall well outside the remit of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and I should not expect him to deal with something so technical, but we are entitled to expect the Government to deal with it, not only in the interests of the United Nations but for the sake of protecting our own forces on the ground.
I was pleased that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to RAF operations in the northern and southern exclusion zones of Iraq. Little mention has been made of the aircrew there recently, but they are carrying out an extremely important United Nations mission, and I should not like to bet that they will never see action in either of those theatres. During a debate such as this, it is right to recognise their substantial contribution to the international order.
Once issues of procurement have been dealt with and constituency matters have been raised, it is right to turn our attention to the role that we envisage for the RAF. Until the end of the cold war, the RAF had prepared for two principal tasks: first, the air defence of the United Kingdom over the North sea and, secondly, low-level counter air offensive against airfields of the Warsaw pact. The first task has been greatly reduced and the second has been virtually eliminated, so what do we now envisage as the RAF's role?
Let us approach the matter first from a negative angle. I welcome the announcement, made not in the House but in a speech by the Secretary of State to an outside body, of the abandonment of the tactical air-to-surface missile. I checked when I had first raised the issue in the House and discovered that in June 1990 I made a speech in which I had questioned the need for it and its utility. Once the cold war was over and once NATO's nuclear doctrine became one of minimum deterrence and we had the assertion that nuclear weapons would be used as weapons of the last resort, the need for TASM was removed.
TASM was a system designed for the doctrine of flexible response and the need for it was predicated on the requirement to break up massive tank formations of the Warsaw pact if they streamed across the inner German border. Once Trident is operational, we shall have a tactical capability if we require it. That leads me to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew): what is the justification for continuing with the WE177 after Trident becomes fully operational with the tactical alternative that we know can be provided? Why is it necessary to continue with free-fall bombs to the year 2006—the most recent estimate—if we expect Trident to be in service by the year 2000 and providing the tactical element after 2006?
Another fundamental matter that should be considered is how strong is the justification for a continued RAF presence at its present level in Germany? If we are looking for savings that do not adversely affect capability, should we not now seriously consider reducing not the number of squadrons but the number of squadrons stationed in Germany? They were there to do damage to the countries of the Warsaw pact but, at the NATO summit last week, we were talking about a partnership for peace with virtually all those countries and to some of them we said that NATO membership might not be too far away. In those 465 circumstances, should not we examine with some rigour the justification for the continued stationing of RAF squadrons in Germany?
One thing that emerged from the RAF's experience in the Gulf war was that there was a compelling need for flexibility. Hon. Members with an interest in the matter will remember that low-level operations proved too costly and, as a result, tactics had to be varied. Thereafter, the operations were carried out from medium altitude. To be effective, however, we had to introduce the rather curious marriage between the Buccaneers and the Tornados until the thermal imaging airborne laser designator pods could be fitted to some of the Tornados. When considering the future role of the Royal Air Force, it is essential to build in the necessary flexibility rather than having to overcome obstacles to it once operations have commenced.
On this occasion, it is the convention to pay tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force. I have a particular reason for doing so because, apart from my duties as my party's defence spokesman, RAF Leuchars is located in my constituency where 43 and 111 Squadrons are stationed, although, sadly, that is no longer the case for the Wessex flight of 22 Squadron. That means that I have occasion to meet men and women of all ranks and I continue to be impressed by their qualities and skills. They are brave men and women who do dangerous things as a matter of routine. They are not saints and would not claim to be. At the moment, they seem to show a remarkable realism about their changing environment.
I think that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces spoke of the stoic good humour of the men and women in the RAF. He should understand that there is, nevertheless, greater apprehension than he acknowledged. I do not want to enter into the controversy over what the Commander-in-Chief said at a meeting of the Air League—that has been sufficiently aired for the purposes of this debate—but my contacts with the men and women of the RAF and, indeed, of the other services, lead me to believe that they have great sympathy for what the Commander-in-Chief was reported as having said. That reflects the fact that they are apprehensive about the way in which the RAF's role will develop in the future. It is our duty to pay more than lip service to the qualities of the man and women of the RAF. They deserve well of us, and it is the duty of the House to see that they get it.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
This is the last debate on the Royal Air Force in which I shall speak as a serving member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, not because I want to stop being a member but because I shall reach retirement on 20 February and will be put out to grass and have to hang up my boots, or whatever it is that one does. However, I shall not be hanging up my flying suit because I shall manage to find ways to get into the air.
I enter into the debate with a sad heart because I care very deeply about the Royal Air Force and, in present circumstances, it cannot be described as a happy service. Why do I say that? "Options for Change" was the result of changes that had taken place in the Soviet Union. We all know what those changes were, so I shall not go into detail. 466 "Options for Change" produced what has been described—by others, not by me—as a peace dividend. I am still looking around the world to see where the peace is.
Massive reductions in the RAF's operational capabilities resulted from "Options for Change". Many have already mentioned the massive 40 per cent. reduction in the strike capability and the reduction of about 30 per cent. in the air defence capability. They are massive reductions by any standards and they are linked to the closure of 15 major bases in Germany and the United Kingdom and a huge decrease in personnel. The changes have occurred in a relatively short time and anyone who has had any experience of dramatic changes in business or in the forces will know what impact they can have.
Because of the reductions in assets and personnel, the RAF of today is a substantially reduced force. No one can deny that "Options for Change" has created massive turbulence throughout the service and has greatly sapped morale. It would be wrong to pretend otherwise. Introducing the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the RAF now had a carefully calculated capability, which was adequate to meet the envisaged possible threat. I shall have something to say later about that envisaged possible threat.
I assume that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and his colleagues believe that they are right in what they are doing. I do not share that belief, but, as my hon. Friend does, can he and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement give me a categorical assurance that he and his colleagues acknowledge that the RAF now needs a period of stability? That is needed more than anything.
In the early 1930s, as everyone knows, we experienced a period of peace. We were enjoying the dividends of peace. In 1930, no one had heard of Adolf Hitler, but, by 1940, Adolf Hitler had created a massive military machine—a huge luftwaffe—and had occupied most of Europe. Today, in the former Soviet Union, there exists a military machine with a nuclear and conventional capability that can only be described as horrendous. In Russia, the recent elections have produced a large number of narrow nationalist Members of Parliament and there is just a possibility that the leader of those narrow nationalists could be elected as the next President of Russia. That is a possibility—I do not put it any higher.
What is frightening, however, is that whoever is the next President of Russia will have massive powers that were created by the new constitution that was introduced by the existing President. Even Stalin would have envied the powers that he will achieve constitutionally. The Ukraine has the world's third largest nuclear force. Everyone is aware of the Russian narrow nationalist declaration—the aim of those nationalists to restore to Russia all the territory of the former USSR. That includes the Ukraine. When linked with the re-emergence of narrow right-wing nationalists in Germany—there is a real possibility that Nazis will be elected to the German Parliament this year—can anyone predict who will be in charge in the Kremlin next year or in two years' time, or what the Governments of the Ukraine and Germany, whoever they are, will feel about the circumstances at that time?
Yet we in the United Kingdom and our allies in north America continue to disarm. We continue to claim that the RAF can absorb the reductions imposed by "Options for Change", the reductions that followed "Options for 467 Change" and, worse still, the massive extra reductions that will be brought about, at least in year 3, by the recent Treasury-Ministry of Defence discussions.
Will current changes in the former Soviet Union bring about a new option—a rearmament option? Is that the reality of having a Royal Air Force that is equipped to meet the envisaged need or threat?
Earlier, it was said that one can train people more quickly and effectively than one can purchase the right type of equipment, and, of course, that is true, because the lead time for modern aircraft weapon systems is long. If we are to meet an envisaged threat in five years' time, we have to plan and equip today to meet it. It will be too late if we wait five years to see what happens. Will our children ever forgive us if we walk down the road of our predecessors of the 1930s? I doubt it.
That is why, in this debate, I cannot be upbeat, although I wish that I could be. Nor am I saying that we are being Treasury-led or repeating any of the other glib things that are said. The whole western world is living in a dream land. The world today is more unstable than it was during the cold war. The balance of terror actually gave us peace in Europe. It may not have been a very pleasant thing to contemplate, but the truth of it—the reality—was peace. That is unlikely to be the case in the near future or even in the medium term. We can say with certainty that there will be more territorial disputes and ethnic problems and that throughout the former Soviet Union, there will be continuing problems, carnage and war.
In those circumstances, because of what is happening today in Bosnia, we have glib talks about air strikes. As a former airman, I am always frightened when someone talks glibly about using RAF crews in what are not very carefully thought-out plans. I am reminded of the poor chaps who flew in the battles in 1940 against the bridges in France. Oh yes, they were courageous; oh yes, they went and attacked the bridges. The fact that they did not come back, and that they got Victoria crosses posthumously, seems to have been overlooked and forgotten. Are we asking our people in the RAF to look forward to a similar scenario? I hope not.
Let me discuss possible air strikes in Bosnia. No Member of Parliament would expect our forces on the ground, if circumstances demanded, not to have air support, but that is not what has been glibly spoken about in the corridors of power, at least at a recent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation meeting. People who spoke there were speaking about air strikes against others to deter. That is not quite what I envisage when we talk about air strikes to defend our chaps on the ground. Those are two quite different things. If one is talking about escalation—that is what it really is if one is talking about air strikes—one needs only to think back to what happened in Vietnam to recall the fact that constant escalation of air strikes did not resolve the problem on the ground.
I will not discuss that aspect in any more detail, other than to say that one should be careful about committing one's service men to circumstances and situations unless their actions have been properly thought out and carefully planned. The one thing that the Gulf war demonstrated clearly was that air power, used properly and effectively, with good planning, can bring about circumstances in which there will be light casualties on the ground. Let us, however, consider the resources that were deployed to achieve that—and no one can suggest to me that, wherever we wish to carry out an exercise of that type, we can deploy 468 such resources without the United States being there, both in the air and on the ground. It cannot be done. That is why we should be very careful when we speak about it.
I shall now discuss procurement. Of course, the Royal Air Force must have the Eurofighter 2000 and, of course, it will be required in the numbers that have been envisaged, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) pointed out in an intervention, it is replacing not one aircraft but a number of aircraft.
I too am worried about the problems that we have encountered over helicopter procurement. They should be resolved as soon as possible. Whatever decision is taken, it should be taken soon, because the delay is wrong for Westland, wrong for the RAF and wrong for anyone who has pledged that we will do something. Since 1987, we have failed to do so.
I believe that it was right, during our previous debate, to speak about the RAF and stand-off weapons. Unlike the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), I regret that the RAF will not have a stand-off nuclear capability, for the reasons that I have given about the instability in the former Soviet Union and the massive nuclear capability that will exist there, when we have no idea who will be in charge. It is a short-term, mistaken financial decision which we may live to regret.
I aslo believe that Ministers were right to say that we would continue with a conventional stand-off capability. In this modern age, as the Gulf war demonstrated, it is high-risk to fly at low level over the target. It is just possible that, especially when attacking targets near to each other, when the targets are all lit up, one will find oneself silhouetted against the sky—a sitting target for anyone with even conventional anti-aircraft equipment. Clearly, we want our chaps to have stand-off equipment, and it is right to keep the free-fall WE177 bomb until we have a replacement stand-off weapon.
As for the Hercules replacement, I recognise the concerns and fears. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) will acknowledge that no one has been a stronger advocate of buying British than I, but I am concerned with the situation in the Royal Air Force. I do not apologise for that. My first loyalty has always been, and always will be, to my friends and former colleagues who are serving in the RAF. I say to them that if I have any influence it will be directed towards ensuring that the Hercules replacement is the updated modernised Hercules. That can be bought off the shelf and will not cost anything like the probable cost of other replacements.
In 10 years' time, if we find that world circumstances demand something else—if there is a real threat or even a war going on—we can deal with that at the time. Today and tomorrow, we have to consider what we are likely to be doing with whatever aircraft the RAF has for that type of activity and duty. Today, that is the Hercules. The Hercules is getting long in the tooth, and it must be replaced. I have no hesitation in saying that the solution is to buy the new, modernised, updated version, the C130J. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement hears me say that.
Now I shall talk about the forces with which I have been directly involved—the auxiliaries and reserves. I can tell Ministers that it is bad, even desperate, when one chops and changes around with regulars, but it is calamitous if one does that with volunteers and auxiliaries. Many people do not understand about volunteers—although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. 469 Goodson-Wickes) does. It is one heck of a commitment to go and fly on behalf of the RAF most weekends, as I have done throughout most of my adult life. First, volunteers have to persuade their families that that is a good thing to do. When other people are going out with their families during the lovely summer days, a volunteer disappears and is not seen all weekend. To do that for one year is something, and so is to do it for five years. To do it for 10, 20 or 30 years is quite an achievement. I have been doing it for damn near 40 years—and I am astonished that my wife is still married to me. She is a remarkable lady. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] She is; any woman who is married to me has to be remarkable.
I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that by tinkering and chopping and changing, we kill the faith and confidence that are essential if a chap is to go home at weekends and say to his wife and family, "I am doing a good job for my country; I want to go on doing it." Once that individual is diverted, we shall not get him back. That applies to all territorials and auxiliaries. Those chaps will go off and use their energies elsewhere. Their families will not accept a second dose. In my experience of commanding volunteer units, one cannot get people back once the continuity has been broken, because family pressures will not allow it. There is a tremendous problem if we lose that faith, and we must never forget that when we are dealing with auxiliaries and reserves.
I am sad that we still do not have a proper auxiliary air force of the right sort. I wish that the people who write funny stories about the Israeli air force would remember that Israel is surrounded by enemies. It is not difficult to persuade Israeli employers to let people go away for four or five weeks, and often much longer, every year.
I wonder what British employers would feel if we had to have a conscript air force, largely made up of reservists to be called up at times of hostilities, and we insisted that they did four weeks' training every year. I rather think that there would be a long list of employers complaining; in fact, they would not accept it. That is why we require a volunteer force only, to back up regular forces that, at times of hostility, are capable of holding the line until the auxiliaries and reserves can come into play.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
The hon. Gentleman knows much more about the reserves than I do. Does he see any lessons to be learnt from the United States experience? Are there any parallels to be drawn that we might usefully apply here?
§ Mr. Walker
Yes, I wish that the parallel drawn in the newspapers had been between the Royal Air Force and the United States air force. Then we would not have read all that nonsense and dross that has caused all the problems. The United States air force has a worldwide capability. Of course, it is a massive air force, but, like the RAF, it is subject to worldwide demands. The United States, therefore, requires the necessary structures and organisations to motivate and activate their people in all the different parts of the world.
That calls for a much greater back-up than does the Israeli air force. Israel does not do anything outside its own borders, except in connection with its neighbours, and all activity takes place from bases in Israel. Israel can therefore have a smaller back-up capability. I want to draw 470 attention to the nonsense that has been written, because people are not comparing like with like when they compare our air force with the Israeli air force. I hope that what I have said, and my letter to the newspapers, will deal with that fairy tale being spread by people who know little about real air force matters.
I had an Adjournment debate on the air cadets recently, and I hope that before we make any decisions affecting the air cadets under the programme for financial reductions we shall wait until we have carried out the complete review of all the other activities, including university air squadrons, air force base locations, and so on. If we try to make changes in a haphazard way we may damage the cadets, and we may find that we lose good people. I return to what I have already said about the loss of faith.
If I have a message for my right hon. and hon. Friends in government it is this: they have on their Back Benches a number of hon. Members who will support the Government on defence matters. In many ways, the best people on the Government Back Benches are the people who have a direct involvement and who care. Those individuals would have no difficulty in accepting an increase in expenditure in that one area of Government spending. Many of us feel strongly about balanced budgets, but not at the expense of national security.
I am not making a bid because I am wearing an air force lobby hat, or saying that the RAF should have more money because I love the RAF. I say what I say because I believe that world and European circumstances call for us to be extremely careful and prudent about any future reductions. I do not believe that we can meet the requirement of the third year of reductions without reducing the sharp end of our fighting forces, especially the RAF. I could not and would not support any further reductions in the operational front-line capacity of the Royal Air Force.
§ 6.38 pm
§ Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)
In contrast to the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), I will address a rather narrow issue. However, we all recognise his concern, interest and depth of knowledge in relation to the RAF.
I want to raise an issue which, since the Government set out their plans in "Options for Change", has been a cause of great concern in my constituency, throughout Wales and even in the Republic of Ireland. A range of wider issues are raised about the way in which the Ministry of Defence has managed the RAF's transition since the end of the cold war. A petition of 20,000 signatures in respect of the issue has been presented to the House and it has been raised by Members of the Dail. The issue concerns the closure of RAF Brawdy and the MOD's intention to transfer Brawdy's search and rescue facilities to north Devon.
Several defence bases in my constituency have been closed or announcements have been made to close them. The Milford mine depot has gone with the loss of 250 jobs. Royal Navy armaments depot Trecwn is to close in April 1996, with the loss of 500 jobs. There has been an announcement about Brawdy and the United States naval facility, which is located with RAF Brawdy, is to close in September 1995. However, in addition to the economic problems that we face, the most worrying point is the transfer of search-and-rescue flight B 202 squadron to north Devon.
471 In August 1992, tactical weapons training at RAF Brawdy ended and about 80 civilian jobs were lost;700 service men, with their £12 million worth of income, were transferred elsewhere. The local economy lost millions of pounds more as the operating expenditure of the base rapidly dwindled. The effect was felt immediately in Haverford west, the nearest town to the base. One hundred and one people joined the dole in August 1992, when the base closed.
That was obviously a large rise in the number of unemployed people in a town with a significant tourist area adjacent to it. The fact that a significant number of people joined the dole queue at the height of the tourist season was a symptom of the economic impact on the local economy of the closure and the ending of flight training at Brawdy.
Sadly, that effect continues to be felt. Unemployment in my constituency is still rising against the national trend. In August 1992, 4,695 people were unemployed in my constituency. Last month, 5,632 were unemployed. That is a very significant increase. When the United States Navy leaves Pembrokeshire in September 1995, 70 more civilian jobs will be lost and, perhaps more importantly, the spending power of 450 American service personnel and their families will disappear.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced late last year that the Royal Welch Fusiliers will use RAF Brawdy as temporary accommodation from August 1994 and that the base is being considered for future use as a long-term barracks plot. I welcome that commitment which, initially. will go some way towards putting urgently needed money back into the Pembrokeshire economy with the transfer of those 600 Welsh soldiers and their families to Brawdy this summer.
I was rather disappointed when the Minister said that I had not welcomed the fact that the Royal Welch Fusiliers were to be transferred to Brawdy. He knows very well that I have welcomed them. I wrote to him congratulating him on his decision in which he had considerable personal involvement. However, I urge Ministers to do their utmost to find a long-term use for the accommodation at Brawdy, because Pembrokeshire still desperately needs a long-term commitment in that direction and the income which that will provide.
I remain extremely concerned about the way in which the MOD has managed the affair. I am particularly concerned about the closely related issue of search and rescue. It might be helpful to the House if I explain the background. Prior to the redeployment of search and rescue announced in October 1992, the RAF operated 10 Sea King and six Wessex search and rescue helicopters from nine bases around the British coast. The Royal Navy has five helicopters at its three bases. In October 1992, the MOD said that the RAF operational fleet would be reduced to 12 aircraft, all Sea Kings, operating from six bases. The Navy's fleet was to remain unchanged.
Those changes began to be implemented in April 1993 when the Wessex flight at RAF Leuchars was withdrawn. By the middle of 1994, the flight at Manston in Kent is due to transfer to Wattisham in Suffolk while the flight at Coltishall in Norfolk is to be withdrawn. In July, Brawdy's Sea Kings will be transferred to RAF Chivenor in north Devon.
As a result of those changes, by the end of July 1994, four fewer aircraft will be operating from three fewer bases. However, we should be concerned not simply about the reduction in numbers. It is undoubtedly true that the 472 Sea King, with its auto-hover, all-weather and night flying capabilities, is superior to the Wessex. However, the advantages of the Sea King over the Wessex have been somewhat exaggerated in the MOD's open government document to disguise the consequences of cutting the fleet size.
The really worrying aspect of the changes is the way in which the aircraft are to be distributed. Moving the flight from Manston to Wattisham will lead to a significant deterioration in search-and-rescue cover in the east of the English channel, particularly in the Dover straits which are the busiest shipping lanes in the world—[Interruption.] I am aware that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has a personal interest in the matter so perhaps he will listen even more attentively to my comments.
We have been able to highlight the fact that the Dover straits will be outside the one-hour daytime response time designated as a requirement for search and rescue. When we consider that the Dover straits are the busiest shipping lanes in the world with literally millions of ferry passengers crossing the area, and we are expecting search and rescue to cover that area at the extent of its operational limit but certainly of its response time, I believe that serious questions must be asked.
The transfer of Brawdy's flight to Chivenor is a reckless decision which, in the opinion of every search and rescue professional I have spoken to—including lifeboat men, firemen, off-the-record coastguards and even the men who have flown the aircraft, including the former flight commander of flight 202—will undoubtedly cost lives because of the extra time that it will take to reach incidents off the west coast and in the St. George's channel. Michael Boulding, the former flight commander of the Sea King flight at Brawdy, has publicly described the decision as criminal.
The fact that the decision is a dangerous mistake becomes clear when one looks at the MOD's maps. A working party set up by the MOD in 1986 established a set of criteria for search and rescue services. It stated that a helicopter must be able to reach any point within 40 nautical miles of the coast within one hour by daylight and anywhere within 100 nautical miles of the coast within two hours by night or in bad weather.
When it announced the deployment in October 1992, in the defence open government document called "The Future Provision of Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Helicopters", the Ministry of Defence published maps with circles around each base showing how far helicopters could fly within one hour and within two hours. It is clear from those maps that, following the redeployment, the working group's criteria will not be met in significant areas in the English channel, to which I have referred, and off the Welsh coast. Even when they are met, it will take longer than previously for a helicopter to reach the scene of an incident, so, without doubt, there will be a deterioration in cover. Lives will undoubtedly be lost as a result, despite the unquestionable courage and professionalism of the men who fly the aircraft.
I give a practical example. In October, the coastguard organised a desk-top exercise called Paper Tiger to test the effectiveness of all emergency services in responding to an offshore incident. That exercise compares with an actual incident which took place on the night of 9 April 1990, which involved a Sea King from RAF Brawdy airlifting a team of firefighters to a fire on board the cross-Irish sea 473 ferry the Norrona and in which, sadly, a man died and approximately 20 people suffered severely from burns and smoke inhalation.
That incident took place 25 miles off the Pembrokeshire coast, in the very area which the Government have accepted will be outside the one-hour response time and yet within British waters. The incident happened at 1 am. The aircraft was on the scene, after picking up a firefighting crew, within 58 minutes, less than half the time allowed under the working group criteria for night missions. The criteria state that they should arrive within two hours.
On 23 October, the desk-top exercise took place. It was carried out in daylight conditions, in which a helicopter, in theory from Chivenor, airlifted firemen to a similar ferry fire in the identical position as the incident in 1990. That flight and organisation, took not the 58 minutes as in 1990 but 70 minutes—12 minutes longer than the helicopter from Brawdy took and 10 minutes longer than the time allowed in the daylight criteria that were set down by the working party.
If the Ministry of Defence had properly thought through the consequences of its plans, it would have seen how dangerous they were. But, I am afraid, all the evidence is that neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Department of Transport, which is ultimtely responsible for civilian search and rescue, have taken into account all the relevant factors.
The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), who was then Minister for the Armed Forces, in reply to a parliamentary question on 2 November 1992, admitted to me that the Ministry of Defence had made no assessment of the need for civilian search and rescue before deciding to end operations at RAF Brawdy. That point is absolutely crucial. As hon. Members will know, the vast majority of search and rescue missions are to help civilians. On average, 90 per cent. of incidents that are responded to by RAF search-and-rescue helicopters are civilian. Only about 10 per cent. are military.
The argument of the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Transport throughout has been that the working group criteria will be met despite the redeployment. As I have already demonstrated, that is not entirely true, particularly in relation to the St. George's channel and the Dover straits. Even if it were true, it would conceal a serious decline in search-and-rescue cover.
The Ministry of Defence failed to carry out a proper assessment of risk, but I was able, by tabling a large number of parliamentary questions, to carry out my own assessment of the likely demand for search-and-rescue services off the Welsh coast by using the risk factors of the Ministry's own working group. It showed conclusively that the risk of incidents is increasing at the very time when the number of helicopters that are available to respond is being reduced.
Brawdy's helicopters flew 98 missions in 1979, of which 89 were civilian. In 1992, flight 202 flew 158 missions, of which 151 were civilian. That represents an increase of 61 per cent. between 1979 and 1992. Over that period, there were also large increases at RAF Valley and RAF Chivenor, both of which will cover the area currently from RAF Brawdy.
§ Mr. Mans
The hon. Gentleman has made a significant point. He said that the vast majority of search-and-rescue 474 helicopter missions are for civilian use. Bearing in mind that the primary purpose of them is to rescue service personnel, should we keep those helicopters at Brawdy specifically for civilian purposes? Does the hon. Gentleman expect extra money to be made available outside the defence vote for that purpose to be carried out?
§ Mr. Ainger
I will come to that point, but I am grateful for that intervention. It is irrelevant who pays, whether it is the Department of Transport or the Ministry of Defence. At the end of the day, the taxpayer pays the bill. The figures that I have produced—I have far more if the hon. Gentleman wishes to see them—show that the vast bulk of incidents are civilian. I accept that, like most other countries, we should have a civilian search-and-rescue service, perhaps provided under the aegis of the coastguard and paid for by the Department of Transport, not the Ministry of Defence. After all, that Ministry currently faces the largest cuts in its budget. It is unfair to the civilian population, who pay for that service through their taxes, for it to be significantly cut.
There were similar increases at RAF Valley and RAF Chivenor and throughout all search-and-rescue bases around our coasts, but, following the announcement in 1992, we have fewer helicopters, which are badly distributed in relation to risk.
There is widespread concern about the plans. As I mentioned in an intervention on the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, today is the 51st anniversary of the RAF mountain rescue service. It was very disturbing over the past few days to hear that, as that distinguished service goes into its second half century, members of the Snowdonia mountain rescue team have expressed great fears that aircraft from RAF Valley, which are currently Wessex and which routinely provide vital back-up, might take longer to reach incidents, because, after July 1994, there will be a greater chance that the Wessex aircraft will be required to cover the southern part of the Irish sea and Cardigan bay, which is currently covered by RAF Brawdy.
The other issue is that, from an RAF point of view, down the west coast from Valley, down the Welsh coast and down to the north coast of Devon, there are currently six helicopters which, after July 1994, will be reduced to four.
It is not just numbers that matter: we need to consider distribution—where those helicopter flights are based. The MOD's own maps, which were reproduced in the October 1992 defence open government document, show that if search and rescue were withdrawn from RAF Chivenor and retained at Brawdy, the working group criteria would still be entirely met—in fact, exceeded—because Chivenor's coverage area is entirely overlapped by those of Brawdy and of the Royal Navy bases at Portland and Culdrose.
The same was true of Leuchars, whose coverage area was entirely overlapped by those of Lossiemouth, Prestwick and Boulmar. The MOD used that as part of its justification for withdrawing the Leuchars flight, but failed to see that the same argument applied in the south-west of England.
A simple glance at the maps tells us that if we are to have only two RAF bases covering Wales and the west of England, plus the two Navy bases at Culdrose and Portland, the logical arrangement is to use Valley and Brawdy rather than Valley and Chivenor.
Over the past two years, the MOD has demonstrated illogicality verging on the bizarre. In the defence open 475 government document of October 1992, the Ministry of Defence said that the arguments for using Brawdy of Chivenor were "finely balanced". It claimed that neither base was better than the other from an operational point of view. Paragraph 27 of the document stated:A key factor was that military fast jet flying training recently ceased at RAF 13rawdy"—that was in August 1992—and is now concentrated at RAF Chivenor and RAF Valley"—that was certainly true in October 1992.RAF Chivenor therefore has a more assured long-term future than Brawdy, as well as the infrastructure needed to support search and rescue operations.One year later—on 11 November 1993—the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who is unfortunately not with us at the moment, announced that the Royal Welch Fusiliers would be stationed at Brawdy. So use will be made of RAF Brawdy and it will have all the basic support services.
People in Pembrokeshire—indeed, throughout Wales—were shocked when, on 7 December, the Minister announced that flight training would end at RAF Chivenor from 1 October this year. At the same time, he wrote to me saying that the transfer of Brawdy's Sea Kings would still go ahead in July this year. This time, however, he claimed that Chivenor had particular operational advantages. The House will remember that in October 1992 the Government had told us that the arguments were finely balanced and the key factor identified by the MOD was that RAF Chivenor had a future, but RAF Brawdy did not. We then learnt that RAF Brawdy had a future after all, because the Royal Welch Fusiliers were to be based there—and alternative uses are also being considered—while Chivenor has lost its future and is to be mothballed. The arguments advanced in October 1992 suddenly do not matter, and it is now argued that Chivenor has operational advantages.
Having studied the matter in great depth, I must say that that is clearly nonsensical, even from a military point of view. Training aircraft from RAF Valley will now fly across north Wales to mid-Wales to refuel at St. Athan before crossing south Wales to the Pembrey range in west Wales to train. So military flying will now be concentrated in Wales, as much of it is already—especially low flying—and there will be far less activity near Chivenor, which is presumably the justification that the MOD now seeks to advance for its decision.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces told me in a letter dated 6 December that there is no cost advantage in preferring Chivenor to Brawdy. I still await answers to questions about detailed costings, but it seems to me likely, now that Brawdy is to be used by the Army, that it would be more cost-effective to station search and rescue there. After all, it will have support services, whereas Chivenor will have been mothballed. I have been told that once RAF Chivenor has been mothballed, the cost of providing support services could total £937,000.
There is a basic incoherence in the MOD's actions. It said in the open government document that search and rescue flightsare stationed around the coast of Great Britain to provide a rapid response in the busiest areas of military activity, but the deployments also take account of agreed criteria for civil coverage.It is clear that that principle has not been adhered to in any meaningful sense in this case.
476 The relationship between civil and military search and rescue needs to be rethought anyway, because of the huge preponderance of civil incidents. Search and rescue is, in effect, a civil service and not a military one. The Department of Transport has nominal responsibility for ensuring an adequate level of civil coverage, but, in this case, it seems to have meekly accepted everything that the MOD has told it.
The MOD said that search and rescue should transfer to Chivenor because it had a more assured long-term future. Just 18 months later, it announced the closure of Chivenor. It has admitted that there is no financial advantage in preferring Chivenor to Brawdy but is pressing ahead with the transfer at a time when it is struggling to find cash for the front line.
What kind of policy making is that? It is irrational, inconsistent and deeply flawed. The result is that neither the military nor the civilian population will have the search-and-rescue cover that it needs, which could be provided at no extra cost simply by reversing this life-threatening decision. I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to reconsider the distribution of search-andrescue bases, not to transfer search and rescue from Brawdy to Chivenor in July 1994 and to wait to make a final decision until at least 1996 when Valley is supposed to receive Sea Kings—it currently operates with Wessex.
I do not believe that I am scaremongering. I have talked to ferry companies, to lifeboat men, to the chief fire officer of Dyfed county council and off the record to coastguards. All of them said, with the former flight commander, that the decision will cost lives unnecessarily. I urge the Minister to think again.
§ 7.6 pm
§ Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester)
I should like to talk about support services, which, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said in his opening remarks, are subject to rationalisation proposals. I do so because of the proposal to run down and close RAF Quedgeley in my constituency—to close the repair function there by the end of March 1994, which is 10 weeks away, and to run down the stores and accommodation function by 1998 at the latest.
I was glad to hear my hon. Friend emphasise, in his opening remarks and in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), that these are only proposals. I hope that they will remain no more than proposals until they have been given full and proper consideration, with full access given to everyone concerned to all the information on the basis of which the proposals have been made. I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish his eventual decision to command some respect. I do not think that he can expect it to command respect if he has not shown the workings of his arithmetic—the data that have led him to his decision. I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Carlisle on this, and urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give full access to all the reports and all the other information. It is vital that everyone should be able to see clearly how the decision is arrived at—the basis on which it is made.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces knows very well that the proposal for Quedgeley comes as a further serious blow to the economy of Gloucester. It comes on top of the decision to amalgamate the Glorious Gloucesters, which in itself was something of 477 an affront to a very fine regiment and certainly an affront to the city of Gloucester. The proposal also comes against the background of a large number of job losses in Gloucestershire resulting from the general wind-down in defence. One accepts that those factors apply across the country and, indeed, across Europe. None the less, they carry with them, on account of the job losses, serious human consequences which need to be taken into account.
The proposals for Quedgeley are as follows: the stores are to be centralised at Stafford and the repair work is to be taken over by eight regional contractors. Those regional contractors are already in place. It is on that specific point that I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that he is being less than fair to the work force at Quedgeley. I should like to explain why.
On the whole, the introduction of private sector disciplines into many areas of public life is desirable. In general, I am a strong supporter of privatisation. I see great merit in market testing and other ways in which private sector competition and competitive influences can be brought to bear on the public sector. However, a change from the public sector to the private sector often—indeed, in most cases—proceeds from a position of weakness. It proceeds because there is some defect in the service or product provided. The service or product may be poor, wrongly priced or badly delivered and the impact of competition is necessary to improve it. That principle simply does not apply in the case of RAF Quedgeley. Everyone knows—I think that it is beyond dispute—that the service and the products that have been provided by Quedgeley over the years have been first class. I am not aware that my hon. Friend the Minister disagrees with that point.
Often, an alternative reason for introducing some private sector disciplines is price. The services or products are not being offered at a competitive level and can be bettered elsewhere. Once again, price comparisons have almost always been to the advantage of RAF Quedgeley. They have shown that it is capable of producing what it has to deliver at an extremely competitive price compared with that of virtually any other source.
Another possibility—this applies particularly to market testing—is that the change from public to private sector is necessary to verify that the existing source of supply is satisfactory and cannot be bettered. That is the principle behind market testing. Yet there is not much point in engaging in market testing unless one intends to take notice of the results that the market tests produce.
All the characteristics that I have described have been conspicuously absent in the case of RAF Quedgeley. That is what makes my hon. Friend the Minister's decision and the way in which he appears to be arriving at it look extremely unfair. If RAF Quedgeley's activities are to be brought to an end, it would be possible to do it fairly and so that everyone could see precisely why the decision had been reached. Instead, it seems that the decision will be coming very soon and we have not heard the rationale behind it. We are not being given the full explanation on why it has been reached.
No proper comparisons have been made between bids from the private sector for repair work and those which could have been made by RAF Quedgeley. RAF Quedgeley has not been given an opportunity to be 478 considered as a regional centre. When the eight regional centres were set up, RAF Quedgeley was not even invited to say what it could do. The preconception seemed to be directly in favour of the private sector. If, as I understand it, the aim is to use competition in the private sector to achieve the best possible value for the taxpayer, it is hard to see why RAF Quedgeley should be excluded from the procedures.
Where is the common sense in introducing competitive bidding if the Government deliberately exclude one possible bidder which, on the basis of long experience, could be expected to put in a good bid? Where is the common sense if one decides, for what appear to be doctrinal reasons, that a potential bidder should be excluded from the entire process?
I have had several meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I am grateful to him for the time that he has given me, for answering the many letters that I have written, answering the many questions that I have asked and seeing a delegation from RAF Quedgeley only this week. I am also grateful to him for the undertaking that he gave that representatives from the Ministry of Defence will visit RAF Quedgeley during February to give some further explanation of the rationale behind their proposals.
I remind my hon. Friend the Minister of the history of RAF Quedgeley in winning bids against competition when it has been invited to bid, in delivering its services on time and in providing quality service and reliability, and doing it all against a background of loyalty to the RAF and the rest of our forces that it is there to support. On that basis, I find it extremely difficult to see the good sense, or any sense, in excluding RAF Quedgeley as a potential supplier and placing faith in untried and untested sources to deliver what will need to be a continuous and reliable service.
I place emphasis on the word "continuous". When bids have been invited, it has so often been seen that a private sector source comes in with a competitively priced bid and promises a great deal, but in the event the delivery is not up to the promise or expectation. When one is dealing with the supply of resources and services to the Army, Air Force and Navy, it is essential that there is continuity and reliability of supply. It must be sustained.
I cannot help being driven to the conclusion that it is the intention of the Ministry of Defence to withdraw from such activities completely. It proposes to end the repair function, then end the stores function at Quedgeley, end the stores function at Carlisle and centralise at Stafford. I cannot help feeling that if the principle of bringing in the private sector is adhered to and carried to its logical conclusion, in time the service at Stafford will be terminated as well. That cannot be in the best interests of our armed forces. The Ministry of Defence appears to believe that it is possible to turn its supply of services and products on and off just as it wants to. That is perfectly reasonable so long as it appreciates that, while the Ministry of Defence can turn its requests for supply off and on just when it wants to, so the private sector can also turn on and off its willingness and capacity to supply just when it wishes to do so.
When the MOD examines the principal functions of Quedgeley, it may think that there is overcapacity in the furniture repair and stores sector. The Ministry of Defence may think that there are many opportunities to obtain competitive bids from the private sector for that function. 479 It should not overlook the fact that the prevailing economic circumstances in that sector will not necessarily last for ever.
It may find that the private sector is not as reliable a supplier as, in the short term, it appears to be. No doubt it will say that a private sector supplier is bound by a contract. The purpose of a contract is to preserve a purchaser's rights if something goes wrong. Of course, it provides safeguards for the supplier too, but it is the purchaser's rights about which the Ministry of Defence is concerned.
The existence of such a contract presupposes that, without it, supply might be interrupted at some stage. The truth is that, even with a contract, supply can be interrupted. Indeed, it is almost impossible to expect every private sector supplier invited to provide goods or services to the forces to perform without mishap.
It seems to me that the Ministry seeks to exchange a proven, reliable, competitive and loyal source of supply for one that may well be unproven, will not necessarily be reliable and will certainly be capable of becoming uncompetitive. When one is dealing with the vital function of providing supplies to our services, that risk should not be taken.
At one of our meetings, my hon. Friend the Minister advised me that immediate savings could be derived by running down RAF Quedgeley. He has yet to furnish me with the financial facts, although I am grateful for his undertaking that he will do so to the greatest possible extent without divulging secret information. I hope that information will be provided in such a way that everyone can see how he has arrived at his decisions.
I am grateful for the confirmation by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces that his arithmetic is based on an examination of the trading position, that he sees as a case for taking this action on grounds other than the results of an assessment of potential asset realisation at Quedgeley. Locally, there is a very strong feeling that the question of selling the land occupied by RAF Quedgeley has entered into the calculations. My hon. Friend has assured me that that is not correct—that, on the basis of trading criteria alone, the figures are compelling. I accept what he has said, but I should be very surprised if, at some stage of the calculations, an eye were not focused on what is perceived to be asset realisation potential.
I have asked my hon. Friend previously, and I now ask him again, to recognise that there are insuperable difficulties in the way of any development of the land at Quedgeley. He has only to get his professional advisers to consult Gloucester city council and Stroud district council to realise what great obstacles lie in the way of further development in that area. Indeed, he does not have to go that far—he could simply visit Quedgeley himself and speak to some of the residents. I hope, therefore, that that factor does not in any way enter into his calculations.
My hon. Friend has said that all these developments are the result of a general running down in defence capability. He points to "Options for Change" and to the draw-down from Germany. It is very clear that, for reasons my hon. Friend explained in a recent letter to me, the Ministry of Defence wants to get out of such activities as furniture repairing. My hon. Friend's letter says that furniture repair isdemonstrably a task which need not be carried out on MOD premises.480 I do not dispute that that activity might have to be run down if all the information available to my hon. Friend points inexorably in that direction. However, in respect of the storage and accommodation functions fulfilled by Quedgeley, there is still time between 1994 and 1998. The Ministry must, at all costs, avoid a situation in which Quedgeley loses the role that it is supposed to play and becomes totally unviable long before 1998. That, in itself, could be used as a reason for not reconsidering the decision. Nobody wants Quedgeley to become a sort of ghost station.
It seems to me that if work has to be phased out, it would be reasonable for a certain amount—enough to keep the base viable—to be sustained for the next four years. That would enable Quedgeley not only to supply the RAF but to build up an alternative customer base—if necessary, outside the armed forces. If it were to demonstrate that it was viable, and I believe that it would, there would be an opportunity to pursue one of the other possibilities, which, at the moment, is regarded as being only theoretical. I refer to privatisation. If that route were followed, RAF Quedgeley could become a going concern with a multiplicity of customers.
It seems to me that another alternative to closing the station is to explore the possibility of a management buy-out. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, in one of his letters, does not rule out that possibility. He is prepared to be amenable to suggestions. I see no reason why RAF Quedgeley, even if one were to go for privatisation or for a management buy-out, and working on the assumption that it will be there for four years—I hope that it will be longer—should not, in the interim, be permitted to bid for current and future private sector work. I cannot understand any objection to that course. Such an approach would certainly cushion the immediate impact of job losses. It would also make a good deal of financial sense and would reward loyalty.
I should like, in conclusion, to turn to a matter that is primarily the concern of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who will reply to the debate. I refer to Dowty Aerospace, where many of my constituents work. Dowty has a major interest in the new C130J Hercules programme. That aircraft is being offered by Dowty and 17 other British companies to meet the RAF's requirement for a replacement for half its existing fleet of C130K Hercules transporters. Dowty will provide the six-bladed propeller system for the C130J Hercules, and, in doing so, will displace the American manufacturer Hamilton Standard, which has been supplying propellers for Hercules aircraft for 40 years.
The C130J programme, if selected in preference to the refurbishment option for the first tranche of the Hercules rolling replacement programme, will create many new high-technology jobs in Gloucestershire and will bring a significant boost to the area's economy within a very short time.
An early decision to replace the first half of the RAF's present C130K Hercules fleet would allow Dowty to capitalise on the 25 years' research and development that went into the development of the C130J all-composite propeller. It would also mean that Dowty would become the world's leading manufacturer of composite propellers within the next five years.
I agree with the MOD officials who gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence in December that the RAF's 481 transport fleet needs urgent attention to ensure that it can continue to carry out its current humanitarian and operational tasks. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to take a decision on the Hercules replacement as soon as he reasonably can.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
I hope that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) will not think me discourteous, but as I listened to the first part of his speech I was tempted to intervene to say that many Conservative Members always seem to express enthusiastic support, in principle, for market testing until it reaches their constituencies. The hon. Gentleman, however, then went on to make a powerful argument, and he was perfectly right to serve his constituency interests with regard to RAF Quedgeley and the purchase of propellers for the replacement Hercules.
I should have liked to have followed the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). I have known him a long time, but I did not realise that he was about to surrender his reserve commission for a pensioner's bus pass. I did not realise that he had reached that age, but I hope that he has received great gratitude for the long service that he has given. I endorse his call for some consideration to be given to the air cadets.
Over the past two years, we have become somewhat reassured about the future of the European fighter aircraft. It now also seems possible that a new type of Hercules and new helicopters will be purchased, so, today, there may be more cause to concentrate on personnel matters rather than procurement.
I would be discourteous to the House if I spoke at length, because I have informed my hon. Friends and the Minister that I must leave before the debate is concluded to attend the cremation, early tomorrow morning, of our former colleague, Jimmy Boyce, in south Yorkshire. I felt that I should keep to my wish to speak in the debate, but I will not trespass unduly on the time available.
Manufacturers are keen on the RAF purchasing the C130J, not because it would purchase such a large number, but because they recognise that the RAF commands enormous international prestige. If they can show that the RAF is buying that aircraft, they are likely to receive many other orders. Those potential orders are important, because, as the hon. Member for Gloucester said, a substantial number of British manufacturers would get orders. One sixth of the value of several hundred aircraft is rather more valuable than finding the cost to buy only 30.
The need for the Hercules replacement is essential and acute. I was not being entirely frivolous when I suggested earlier that, if the Government do not place such an order, Ministers should experience the dramatic landings at Sarajevo, because sometimes they are rather frightening to those in the aircraft.
The Minister has heard me talk on many occasions about the ageing Wessex helicopter, which entered squadron service in 1964. I trust that its replacement will not be too long delayed and I hope that it will have heavy-lift capacity. The development of the Air Mobile Brigade at former RAF station Wattisham suggests that heavier lift capacity should be more readily available.
482 In an intervention, I referred to the number of former RAF stations that had been taken over by the Army. The Air Force is skilled at operating a dual-use station, but the Army never seems to think about carrying out two functions at one station. The RAF has learnt prudence, economy, thrift and management more thoroughly than the Army, but unfortunately it may bear extra burdens because it has demonstrated those skills.
I listened intently when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that he had visited south Yorkshire today. I like Ministers to visit only if they come to assist us to deal with our economic problems. I look forward to learning why the Minister visited the region this morning.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be aware that RAF Finningley is in south Yorkshire. It is an important base and a number of my constituents and people within the Rotherham area work there, although it is near Doncaster. Navigators and other non-pilot aircrew are trained at Finningley. I learned the other day that the new Hercules C130J, with its splendid cockpit, will have a reduced aircrew of just two pilots. Since Finningley does not train pilots, that announcement made me a little anxious. I made a number of inquiries, and one or two hon. Members who are present now were also present when I made them.
The new Hercules will have significant defence systems. When it is being flown in a war zone, however, in an area of great danger, the two pilots may be hard pressed flying it. There would be a need for a back-seat weapons systems navigator. I hope that the Government are not looking at the new Hercules as a way of getting rid of back-seat non-pilot aircrew, because they could be usefully employed in a war zone flight. RAF Finningley would feel no sense of embarrassment in training those people because there must be a role for non-pilot aircrew for a long time to come. I hope that the Minister will not suggest that we do not need such aircrew, because a long time ago someone suggested that it would soon be possible to manage without pilots. That was a terrible mistake as well.
Finningley is important to us. I hope that the station commander, Group Captain Wilby, will not mind if I suggest that the Minister should acquaint himself with the station. He would find out that it holds wonderful air displays every September—they are the best attended air displays in the country. People visit the station and it does enormous good for the charitable cause that it supports.
The RAF does not exist, however, to serve charitable causes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker) said, it exists to defend the realm. I note that the hon. Member for Tayside, North is in his place again. I hope that I was not uncomplimentary to him in his absence. I agree with him that we need to maintain the capacity to defend the realm in an uncertain world.
In addition to all the other dangers in the world caused by rapidly changing circumstances, an appalling conflict is being waged in Europe. We must also deal with the emergence of a raving lunatic in the Moscow Parliament. I therefore hope that the Government will exercise prudence and that those cuts which impinge more severely on the Air Force than on other services will be considered carefully.
I have seen some dreadful newspaper reports, which are not responded to as quickly as they should be. One suggested that the Red Arrows team was being disbanded. That team gives delight to many people at air displays. Surely the Minister recognises that one of the most 483 successful commercial ventures in British aviation history is the Hawk. It has been sold in large numbers and I certainly believe that, whenever there is a chance of an order and the Red Arrows fly, they help to get it. The Hawk has provided thousands of jobs to the aerospace industry.
The Red Arrows team is an extremely economic formation. It employs no more than 80 people in its unit based at Scampton. That tiny team of people gives us an important commercial advantage. As it helps to create thousands of aerospace jobs, it is an economic exercise, and the pilots and ground staff have to be employed anyway. In addition, the team maintains Britain's reputation of having the highest quality, if not necessarily the largest, air force in western Europe. The Red Arrows is the world's premier display team, and it would be an appalling false economy if it were scrapped with the imprudence that some of us suspect sometimes applies.
Some changes are inevitable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central spoke about the jet engine. Whittle, who invented the jet engine, was an ex-Halton apprentice and was trained in the division established by Lord Trenchard to train bright boys in the advanced technology of the time. The boys who became Trenc:hard's Halton brats would today go to university. It is a different and changing world and we cannot ignore such change.
I fear that there will be unwelcome changes in technical training. I repeat that if the service contracts out some of its technological roles in the maintenance of aircraft and avionics, and the contractor comes to depend on those who have left the service and does not invest in training, there will be a problem. If the RAF bows out of technical training, the country will suffer because over the years the Air Force has trained technicians not only for itself but for high-tech industries. That is because when such people leave the service they work for those industries and help them to survive. It would be dangerous to depend upon short-sighted contracts and careless provision.
§ Mr. Ainger
Is my hon. Friend aware that civil aviation, and especially its repair and maintenance element, totally depends upon RAF-trained personnel? A relative of mine has transferred from the RAF to work for British Airways on maintaining its 747s. If technical maintenance in the RAF were to be reduced, it would have a significant knock-on effect for civil aviation.
§ Mr. Hardy
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The effect that he mentions could lead to problems in maintaining the growth of aviation.
In the national interest, the Minister must look searchingly at any proposed cuts in the training of high-tech RAF personnel. I am not referring to functions such as catering or to many of the jobs that are carried out by civilians in places such as Finningley. The Royal Air Force must have adequate capacity to train the people that it needs to carry out its roles, and it would be most unwise to depend upon contractors who may not train people.
I said that I would deal merely with personnel because much time has already been spent on procurement. Many of those who watch old films seem to imagine that RAF aircrew are all about 20 years old, as they were in the second world war when people were not allowed to fly combat aircraft at ages that would make them relatively junior in today's squadrons. The people who fly the Tornado, the Jaguar and the Hercules aircraft are often in their 30s or 40s and are family men.
484 The Minister has said that there is a period of 19 months between overseas postings. I know RAF people who have had two or three such postings in the past 19 months, and such frequency creates problems. The men will not complain, at least not directly or loudly because they enjoy their job and its challenge and recognise its necessity. But their wives complain, and their children wonder where their father is. A wife has no idea where her husband will be in three, six or 12 months, but she knows that in three months he will not be where he is now. She also knows that he will be somewhere else three months after that, and that such change will continue. That should make us appreciate the strain that is imposed as the Air Force contracts and Government commitments and obligations continue.
Since the contraction began, the Air Force has been dispersed to more places. There was no conflict in Yugoslavia, no aircraft in Turkey and no combat aircraft in the Gulf when the cuts began. All these burdens have been imposed on the backs of a smaller number of people. They will stay in the service, perhaps because at the moment there are not many alternatives in some trades. I worry about what will happen after the next election when we secure the recovery that we are confident of achieving. A longer view must be taken, and it is not being taken now. It is time that it was. I trust that the Minister will recognise that over the past three years excessive and unaccustomed burdens have been unnecessarily placed on people who deserve a little more consideration than they have had.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
I declare an interest because I give political advice to Thorn-EMI Electronics in the defence field, and that is relevant to the debate. One of the pleasures of being called in the latter part of a debate is that one has heard so many good speeches from colleagues that it is possible to make a somewhat shorter contribution than would otherwise be the case.
Labour's Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), understandably defended the constituency interests represented by RAF Carlisle and made two other significant observations. First, he alleged that he had seen a poll which showed that the general public had greater faith in the Labour party for assuring the defence of the realm than they had in the Conservative party. I should not be surprised if the poll is accurate, because, for a long time, many of us have argued that the Conservative party is in danger of losing its traditional constituency, which contains those who have served in the armed forces, are currently serving in them, or who work for the defence industries.
Of course, we believe that this loss of support is a misapprehension on their part, that they misinterpret the policy we are pursuing and do not fully understand the size and effect of the reductions that could be imposed by a socialist Administration or a Lib-Lab Government. Nevertheless, it is a significant erosion of support and we should take note of it. If we do not, it will have serious electoral consequences.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Carlisle spoke about the speech by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon. It was interesting to note the clear sensitivity in certain quarters about what he was saying. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) said, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) well 485 understood—because both were present—Air Chief Marshal Graydon was explaining that it did nobody an good to make facile comparisons between the Israeli air force and the Royal Air Force in view of the worldwide role and varied responsibilities of the RAF compared with the purely regional responsibilities of the Israeli air force. None the less, there is great merit in the Israeli pattern of operation which we should comprehend and act upon at a time of budgetary stringency.
I would urge Her Majesty's Ministers to use the opportunity of a review fundamentally to examine the Air Force which we wish to create for the rest of the decade and into the next century. Of course, the review has already been burdened with a slogan. It is a basic tenet of our political understanding in the Conservative party that slogans have their dangers. I suspect that, "Front line first" will prove yet another dangerous slogan.
If we try to think clearly of the qualities that we are seeking in our Air Force for the next 10 to 15 years, those thoughts may guide us towards the strategic decisions, procurement choices and personnel policies that will be wise and stand the test of time.
Of course, for the United Kingdom, with its geographic position somewhat to the rear of continental Europe, on the flank of the alliance, with security interests in the northern region, the Baltic approaches and the central region of NATO as well as the eastern Atlantic and the territorial seas around the British Isles, air power will aways be a crucial determinant of our security and of our national defence.
As we still have some global responsibilities, and as we take seriously our responsibilities for peacekeeping under the aegis of the United Nations, the qualities of fire power, mobility and flexibility and, I hope, of sustainability and the ability to support operations over a long time, in a well-established, well-trained and well-equipped Air Force will be indispensable for the defence of these islands.
The air defence of the United Kingdom has been run down. From April, when the No. 23 Squadron of F3 Tornados at Leeming is disbanded, we will be down to six air defence squadrons. This is the absolute minimum and probably too few. We have already decided not to replace the medium-range surface-to-air missile, the Bloodhound, which leaves a glaring deficiency in our air defences.
Another potential deficiency looming is the need for an effective theatre ballistic missile defence. Hon. Members will have noticed from the press that the United States Administration is dispatching Patriot missiles for the defence of South Korea.
Given the proliferation of nuclear missiles and nuclear technology and the ease with which dictators such as Saddam Hussein acquired launch vehicles and Scud ballistic missiles, it is surely prudent for the United Kingdom to work towards an anti-ballistic-missile system now.
Furthermore, as a maritime member of the European component of NATO, we need to take seriously the security of the sea lanes across the north Atlantic as a continued national interest. We all know that the Red Fleet is not the power that it was; nevertheless, the Russians are still building modern submarines and we do not know the direction in which Russian policy will evolve.
486 As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tayside, North reminded us so eloquently, we have good grounds to be apprehensive not just through the emergence of the liberal democratic party in Russia today with its nationalistic tendencies, but because of the speeches that are made there, asserting a right to continue suzerainty over the independent sovereign countries, many of them democratic, within what used to be the USSR.
I hope that we will soon address the need to acquire a modern, maritime reconnaissance aeroplane to replace the existing Nimrods in service, or at least to overhaul and refurbish them.
The Royal Air Force will also need to be able to project power and to intervene rapidly, either within continental Europe and the NATO theatre, or under the United Nations or WEU control outside it; or even, if we are to believe the decision of the recent NATO summit, as part of a NATO joint task force operating out of area.
We need a modern transport force and, as many hon. Members have wisely advised the Government, the first tranche of the existing Hercules fleet needs to be replaced now. The replacement already exists. It does not have to be funded by the Government and no RAF development money needs to be invested in it. No fewer than 18 British companies in the C130J programme invested their own shareholders' money in it and consequently stand to benefit not only from the launch of the aircraft by the Royal Air Force, but from third country sales of which we can expect several hundred.
The aeroplane will be more capable, its payload range will be better, its manpower per flying hour will be reduced, and it will be a more economic aeroplane. As some have suggested, refurbishment is no sensible solution.
Likewise, when we consider the need to project power, I remind the Government that it is all very well having modern platforms, and we hope that the European fighter aircraft 2000 will be a success, but we need also modern weapons to go with high performance aircraft.
I ask the Government for an assurance that air staff requirement 1236 for a long-range conventional stand-off weapon will be met soon, as will air staff requirement 1238 for an air-launched intelligent anti-armour weapon in view of the cancellation of multiple-launch rocket system 3, and air staff requirement 1242 for a laser-guided bomb, be it either Paveway 3 or the Lancelot programme.
We are seeking to save money and it is our duty to make sure that the Royal Air Force is not only operationally capable, but an economic force. In that context, I would support remarks made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) who urged the Government to look again at Royal Air Force Germany. If the Russians withdraw by the end of August this year from the eastern part of Germany, we should withdraw from the western part of Germany.
No fewer than 19,000 German civilians work for either the Royal Air Force in Germany or the Army. I would much rather see those German-based squadrons at stations such as Brawdy or Chivenor, which traditionally have been homes to Royal Air Force flying units and have local communities that support the Royal Air Force, than that they be stationed in Germany as an anachronism, a left-over from the cold war.
On the subject of value for money, reverting to the theme of the Israeli air force and the United States air national guard briefly mentioned earlier in the debate, we 487 now have a concept of a sponsored reserve, whereby personnel in firms who work for the Ministry of Defence will have a reserve commitment.
I believe that there is an opportunity to deploy formed units as Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons as part of that sponsored reserve. I shall give some examples. The first is heavy lift cargo airlines which are regularly chartered by the RAF to carry ultraheavy loads—big and bulky cargoes that cannot be lifted by the Hercules. Secondly, if it were decided by Dr. Perry's inquiry that 32 Squadron in my constituency, at RAF Northolt, should be contractorised—heaven forbid—I would urge that it become an auxiliary squadron, the County of Middlesex squadron.
Thirdly, we were told that there would be an electronic warfare and related facilities unit at Middleton St. George-Teesside airport. That, too, could be an auxiliary squadron—perhaps the County of Durham squadron—if Sir John Banham's inquiry would allow it—or the North Riding squadron reformed. There is also the work that is done by pilots who fly training missions to train air traffic controllers at Shawbury. That could be an auxiliary squadron. If we carry the concept further, so could the target towers from RAF Wyton or the pilots from the navigation school at RAF Finningley. There are a number of possibilities along those lines.
We should not forget the Queen's flight. I would not dream, and it would be beyond my remit, to suggest that the captain of the Queen's flight should be anything other than an air officer. The deputy captain, too, should be an officer of great seniority. That should still be the case. Nevertheless, the role of the Queen's flight could be combined with that of 32 Squadron at RAF Northolt. I believe that that would make good sense. What is more, one could reasonably bring the Central Flying School to RAF Cranwell. Barkston Heath has spare capacity. We have already the College of Air Warfare at RAF college, Cranwell. I do not think that my idea would be impossible.
In short, I urgently hope that Her Majesty's Government will not use the opportunity of the review to put in place short-term Treasury-led solutions, because urgent equipment modernisations are required and important changes in personnel policy could be adopted, such as a better and wiser use of reserves. If Her Majesty's Government pursue such a forward-looking policy, they will, as ever, have my full support.
§ 8.2 pm
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I hold a commission in the RAF Reserve as a pilot; I shall say something later about the reserve forces. I am also a member of the council of the Air League and am rather delighted that the league has been given so much publicity tonight, and as a result of the air chief marshal's speech some time ago. I assure the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) that, if he ever requires a copy of a future speech made at the Air League, which is open to many people who want to come and listen, he has only to ask me and I shall use my best endeavours to ensure that he receives one.
§ Mr. Martlew
As the Secretary of State for Defence has refused to give us a copy, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will give me a copy of the air marshal's speech.
§ Mr. Mans
I shall certainly use my best endeavours to do precisely that.
488 I shall now say a few words about the speeches made by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). I agree with much of what they, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), said. I disagree with them on one point, and shall deal with it later. Before I do, I shall make some general observations.
There is no doubt that, with the cold war now over, there was a realisation within the armed services that changes and reductions were inevitable. In the RAF, "Options for Change" was accepted, albeit reluctantly, and personnel generally looked forward to a smaller but better-equipped service once the changes had taken place. Most of all, there was a feeling within the Royal Air Force, perhaps not matched to the same degree in the Army and Navy, that people should get on with the changes as quickly as possible and, having made them, move to greater stability thereafter.
Three years on, things are rather different. Many within the RAF wonder when the disruption will end. The two further reductions in the projected strength of the RAF since the "Options for Change" initiative will mean that the RAF's strike attack and air defence capability will have been reduced by 40 per cent. What has not changed since "Options for Change" are the tasks that the RAF is asked to carry out. Indeed, there is an argument to suggest that they have increased of late. That point was made by a number of Opposition Members and by some of my hon. Friends. In that context, it is worth bearing in mind also the recently published budget of the French defence ministry, which, compared with last year, shows an increase in defence expenditure.
Comparisons are often made between this country's defence requirements and those of France. That should be a clear signal of how the French are seeing the increasingly unstable world in which we live. That should be a clear signal to our Ministry of Defence to look closely at what the French think the threat is in future. It may seem strange that I, or indeed any Conservative Member, should argue in favour of stability. We live in a changing world. If Lady Thatcher achieved nothing else—I believe that she achieved a great deal—she shook this country out of its complacency and made many people understand that, if we are to survive, let alone prosper, in an ever-competitive world, we must accept change and readily throw off old ways and become increasingly adaptable.
The real question is, does that philosophy read across to the armed services? My answer to that question is a mixed one. I sincerely believe that a fairly radical shake-up of the organisation of the armed services is needed. I have said as much many times in the House. I also feel that the climate for such a shake-up was probably better during "Options for Change" than it is now. None the less, I will mention later what I think can be done in the present review "Front Line First". However, alongside that review, I believe that a good case can be made for eventual stability within our armed forces that cannot be made to the same extent outside them.
The case for more stability and more certainty runs something like this. We require our armed service men to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We expect them to react immediately to go virtually anywhere in the world. We expect them to leave their families behind at a moment's notice and, on arrival at their destination, we expect them to be ready quickly for combat. Those 489 expectations, which have in the past been realised, are well illustrated by the way in which our armed forces arrived in Bosnia and how they have performed since.
In the slightly more distant past, within 24 hours of the first Tornado squadron arriving in the Gulf, it was ready for combat. The Foreign Secretary made that point in a different way. He calls our armed services a very important asset which allowed us to punch above our weight in foreign and security matters. Alongside that, I believe that if we are to expect our armed forces to do all that, we should not inflict on them the added burden of not knowing whether they have a job next year, or at least not to have that burden indefinitely.
For example, there were reports of people out on patrol in Bosnia wondering whether they were to be made redundant. Many of those reports were probably exaggerated, but I strongly believe that it is difficult to conceive of pilots and navigators, flying front-line aircraft in a near-combat situation, as is the case in the Gulf at the present time with Tornados flying armed reconnaissance missions over Iran, being able to do their jobs properly if they are wondering all the time whether their squadron will exist in a few months' time. There is a trade-off between stability and the effectiveness of our armed services.
As I have said, change which ultimately results in greater stability is acceptable. Change which appears to be without end is not. Unless we as politicians are prepared to accept a reduction in the overall effectiveness of our armed forces, and through it a reduction in their value for money, we need to understand that significant difference between military and other types of activities within our society.
Much of what I have said could be applied to all three services, but it particularly applies to the RAF, which got on with "Options for Change" as quickly as possible and now very much finds itself in the front line for further cuts.
Before Opposition parties take any encouragement from what I have said, I should add that the confidence of the armed services in the Government, despite the one poll, the origin of which has not been divulged by the hon. Member for Carlisle, remains considerably higher than I can remember it during the previous Labour Government when I was a member of the regular RAF in the mid-1970s. I strongly believe that before the Opposition can draw any advantage from the debate they will have to say much more clearly which commitments, if any, they would get rid of and what size and shape our armed forces would be if they were in power.
The Government are on target to cut expenditure on the armed forces by 25 per cent. in real terms by 1996, but the view—I would argue the realistic view—within the armed services is that the Liberal Democrats and Labour party would cut much further. That lack of certainty in those parties' defence policies means that part of the services' apprehension about continual change applies to them as well.
Bearing in mind what I have said, if we are to provide the sort of armed services in the future that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has mentioned, we need to do three things. First, I support "Front Line First", but it needs to look at the organisation of the armed forces as well as how the existing one can be made to operate more cheaply. I offer a few suggestions.
490 For example, do we really need 10 levels of management within the RAF when we now have, or soon will have, only 70,000 personnel? Those levels of management might have applied when the force was five times the size that it is now, but they seem unduly bureaucratic at the moment. Could we not, to start off with, abolish the rank of air commodore tomorrow for future promotions and do as the Navy does and promote the best group captains straight to air vice marshal?
Do we really need such a large procurement executive when the front line has shrunk as fast as it has? Most of the front-line experience in the Tornado strike attack force is in one, or at the most two, RAF stations. Therefore, could not we speed up the way in which decisions are made about new equipment by asking the relatively few front-line squadron commanders we have left what they need to do the job properly rather than, as happens at present, have many of their wishes modified and delayed by the procurement process and, I submit, made more expensive as well?
Could not we go further in terms of testing and evaluating aircraft? For example, is it necessary to have separate test facilities within the RAF, in places such as Boscombe Down, which in many ways replicate what is done at Warton and, in the case of the Tornado, at Manching in Germany? Should not we try to move industry and the RAF closer together to save money without reducing the effectiveness of our front-line forces in any way?
Is not it expensive to have separate training machines and career profiles for helicopter aircrew and ground crew depending on which service they happen to join? In many cases, they are operating the same helicopters. Surely we should pool at least the training part of that increasingly important military activity.
Finally, a point touched on by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, should not we take a close look at our real estate requirements? I fully take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood about the importance of having a number of runways around the country so that we can disperse our forces and re-arm easily if we need to do so. None the less, there is a lot of real estate which could be disposed of with little, if any, disadvantage to the operational effectiveness of, particularly, the RAF.
Alongside those ideas and others that should be looked at in "Front Line First", the Government need to reiterate their commitment to provide the RAF with better equipment. Eurofighter should fly for the first time in the next two or three months. In answer to a point made by the hon. Member for Carlisle, who tried to suggest that that prototype aircraft was way behind schedule, I would only suggest that he look closely at the way in which other aircraft programmes that preceded Eurofighter have progressed. In virtually every case, there has been a much longer delay than has occurred with the Eurofighter 2000.
§ Mr. Martlew
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but does he accept that there is a two-year delay in having the maiden flight?
§ Mr. Mans
In the 1950s and 1960s, maiden flights were important because there was little computer simulation and little opportunity to test the systems in an aircraft before it flew for the first time. The significance of a new aircraft's first flight today is much less than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as with all aircraft where one flies by wire and is defended on computers—as is the case now, unlike with the previous generation of aircraft—it is important at the simulator stage to find out what could and might go wrong? No one gets any satisfaction from the fact that two other aircraft of this generation have crashed, the F22 and the Gripen, and that could well be because sufficient time was not spent in the simulator.
§ Mr. Mans
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is significant that one of the main reasons for the present delay is the software and the flight control system. All separate systems within that aircraft are being tested on the ground to see how they relate one to the other. That was not done with the F22 and the Gripen, with the result that my hon. Friend described.
Going on from there, I hope that the RAF will soon confirm its order for 250 Eurofighters and seriously consider increasing it beyond that so that it can replace some other types of aircraft, such as the Harrier. I am interested in what the hon. Member for Carlisle said in relation to the Eurofighter. Halfway through his speech, he made some interesting points about the imbalance between the north and the south as regards stations. He tried to give the House the impression that undue weight was given to keeping station in the south open while shutting those in the north. If the hon. Gentleman believes that, he should think carefully about what he said about whether we need 250 Eurofighters. If the Labour party is committing itself to a reduced buy, that will mean a reduced number of jobs in the north of England.
§ Mr. Martlew
The hon. Gentleman distorts what I said. I said that, given Government cuts, there is grave concern in the industry about whether the Government will stick to their commitment to 250.
§ Mr. Mans
I withdraw at least part of what I said if the hon. Gentleman supports the idea of buying 250 aircraft. I consider that to be the minimum number that will be required to fulfil the roles for which the model was designed.
Much has been said about the replacement for the Hercules. I wonder why that is. It may be because Lockheed has managed to tie a good many British companies into the development of the aircraft. I do not deny that the decision is important, but I think that we should take a close look at what Lockheed is saying. It says that there is a market for 400 aircraft, and the RAF wants only 30. It also appears to be saying that the British companies involved in the project will be involved regardless of whether the RAF buys the 30 aircraft. The total value of that RAF order to British companies is £100 million. I think that we should examine the reasons why Lockheed is pushing this aircraft so hard.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assess the options very carefully. Option one is to buy 30 C130Js now; option two is to refurbish the existing fleet of aircraft, enabling them to last as long as a new buy of Hercules aircraft; option three is to carry out a much-reduced refurbishment, which would allow a decision to replace the aircraft at a rather later date. The replacement might well turn out to be the C130J.
The last option would also allow the RAF and the Ministry of Defence to consider alternatives, bearing in mind an answer given on 16 December by my hon. Friend 492 the Minister of State for the Armed Services. He suggested then that the majority of the Hercules fleet was capable of lasting until the year 2007. I do not believe that the decision to buy the C130J need be taken immediately. I believe that the decision should be made at the beginning of next year, when we shall have a much clearer idea of the options following the FLA feasibility study.
At present, it appears that—without that information—we are to commit the RAF to buying an aircraft with a 1950s airframe. More important, for the next 30 or 40 years it will not be possible to take a significant amount of the equipment that the RAF has at present—for instance, the Warrior and Saxon armoured vehicles, multiple-role rocket launchers and, indeed, the complete attack helicopter. We should not be tempted to believe that the C130J is the only aircraft that meets the needs of the RAF, in terms of either cost or capability. In about 12 months' time, we shall be in a much better position to take an informed view. In that connection, I disagree to some extent with what others have said.
I think that we should make a more rapid decision about signing a contract for the EH101 helicopter, whose development stage seems to have been rather long. It is high time that we made up our minds to buy it, now that we have been offered a price that we can afford. I also think that, as well as making radical organisational changes and acquiring better equipment, we should introduce more stability in the RAF. We cannot expect officers and airmen to maintain their current level of commitment if we do not give them that increased stability at some point in the future.
As has been mentioned, an element of the changes introduced by the Ministry of Defence is the probability, or at least the possibility, that the Carlisle supply unit will close. As a north-west Member, I regret that. I understand the need for rationalisation, but I hope that hon. Members other than the hon. Member for Carlisle will recognise the pressure put on the MOD by my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). Along with the hon. Member for Carlisle, they have engaged in consultations with the MOD about the best method of redeployment and about the possibility of using Konver funds from the European Community. I am sure that my hon. Friends would echo what I have said if they were present.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North, I want to make a special plea for the air cadet organisation in connection with the coming review. Although it cannot be described as a front-line organisation, I believe that—as well as serving as a recruiting ground for RAF officers and airmen—it provides a practical and worthwhile pursuit for many young men and women. It teaches them values and consideration for others which will benefit them greatly throughout their lives. If we are to tackle the problems of teenage crime, we should consider the three cadet movements.
Many hon. Members will know of the recent controversy surrounding a teenage criminal in the care of Gloucestershire county council. First, he was sent to an outward bound centre in north Wales; he was then sent on an adventure holiday abroad. The cost amounted to some £2,000 a week. The stated aim was to discourage the teenager from repeating his criminal activities.
What fascinated me were the pursuits in which that young person was asked to engage, to build up his character and develop his self-reliance. To me, they 493 seemed remarkably similar to the pursuits engaged in by many young people who join the cadet forces. Surely many youngsters could be given the opportunity of joining the cadet forces—and, indeed, other youth organisations—to engage in activities that might well discourage them from going down the wrong road and indulging in anti-social behaviour. The cost need be no more than the cost of sending that teenager on holiday—which, as far as we know, did not prove successful. Prevention is better than cure: we should consider the social role of the cadet forces as well as their recruiting role.
Recently, we have heard much talk of traditional values and the moral aspects of society. I have no wish to be drawn into that debate in any detail. Let me say, however, that many people associate "back to basics", or whatever we may choose to call it, not only with better education and more emphasis on law and order but with strong defences. They believe that we should put national security before social security—I think that that has already been mentioned in the debate.
I hold the rather old-fashioned view that service men, both in and out of uniform, are a stabilising force in society. Whether or not we consider military discipline a good thing, it is widely thought to give those who experience it a sense of right and wrong. Service life also provides a sense of community, combined with an above-average ability to organise. The hon. Member for Wentworth spoke of the training carried out in the RAF and other armed forces. Such skills and values should not be underestimated in the wider community.
As the armed services shrink, the assets shrink, too. I am not pleading for more money to be spent on defence, but I am pleading with those who decide how we spend taxpayers' money in general to appreciate the fact that at least part of the savings made in the defence budget are likely to pop up elsewhere as extra expenditure. By that I mean that extra expenditure might be needed for increased social security payments or, perhaps, to deal with increasing crime or higher unemployment or to make up for the fall in volunteers in local government, schools or charitable organisations.
Service life promotes self-reliance and respect for law and order and discourages a dependency culture. Those who promote such values but who have no experience of service life need to take that into account when considering the type of society that Conservatives at least would like to see.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and I went to Germany a year or so ago to plead with the Bundestag for the revival of the European fighter aircraft programme there. It seemed that the programme was a goner, but our powers of persuasion were such that the Germans relented shortly afterwards.
The hon. Gentleman's persuasive powers are much better than his analytical powers or his memory. When I heard him talking about being a pilot in the 1970s and about how the Tory-oriented pilots thought much more highly of the then Conservative Opposition than of the dreadful Labour Government of the time, I kept wondering which halcyon days he meant.
494 Was the hon. Member referring to the affection that the flyers had for the Conservative Government of the 1930s who left us virtually bereft of aircraft? Were the halcyon days of which the flyers of the 1970s were thinking those of the late 1950s when Duncan Sandys was running the Air Force, even though his decisions devastated the force and their consequences took about 20 years to remedy? Or were the flyers looking forward to the RAF's halcyon days under this Government?
The hon. Member for Wyre said that he was not pleading for more money to be spent on defence, but his speech and the speeches of many Conservative Members were catalogues of special pleading for interests that they represent. I suspect that one or two hon. Members are handsomely remunerated for the political or other advice that they provide. We heard a catalogue of demands—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Order. If the hon. Gentleman had an interest, it should have been declared.
§ Mr. George
The hon. Member to whom I am referring declared his interest. I was repeating what had been said and referring to the frustrations of people seeking to promote defence expenditure while simultaneously supporting a Government who have meted out a series of cuts to our defence forces. The hon. Gentleman spoke of recidivism—perhaps there are recidivist Ministers who are constantly cutting defence spending to a level that many people, probably including themselves, regard as dangerous. To argue that the Government should purchase 250 of anything is to whistle in the dark to give oneself a little courage.
Defence expenditure is falling to under 3 per cent. of gross domestic product, so how are we to get the required aircraft, ships or tanks? If the Government can square the circle, I shall be delighted to hear how it is to be done.
§ Mr. George
May I please continue? I am not arguing for a return to the halcyon days of the 1970s when we spent just under 5 per cent. of GDP on defence. Perhaps those days will not come again for some time, but one must be honest and say that if one is prepared to endorse a policy of spending 3 per cent. of GDP on defence, one cannot argue the case for buying 250 of this or 500 of that, because it will never happen. I now give way to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier).
§ Mr. George
As everyone—except, perhaps, the Treasury team—knows, we are living in an exceedingly dangerous and volatile world. If one had said that two or three years ago, one would have been dismissed as an unreconstructed cold war warrior. However, one does not need to be a genius in strategic analysis to be aware of the horrendous developments in Russia. There is a distinct possibility that Zhirinovsky will be to Yeltsin what Yeltsin was to Gorbachev, and the leader of Russia in 12 months' or two years' time.
495 I do not have to apologise to Zhirinovsky if I say that he appears to be certifiable, but he could, at any time, lead a nation that is still in possession of a formidable an-ay of weaponry about which, under the present Russian Administration, I—thankfully—have no anxieties. However, President Yeltsin might gradually accommodate the military, the old Communist party and the fascist—or the Liberal Democratic—party, with the result that the policies of his party might imperceptibly change.
Many of us will have read the speech made last year by the Foreign Minister Kosyrev. It was a spoof speech meant to frighten the west. It suggested what Russian foreign and defence policy might be in the future unless the west woke up and did more to assist the ailing Russian economy. However, a number of his cynical, ironic and semi-humorous remarks are becoming realities. I am not suggesting that we should abandon our treaty commitments or that we should not help President Yeltsin—far from it; we should do more—but we must remember that the situation there could change at any time.
If we are to run down our armed forces and our defence industrial base, we must bear it in mind that the non-existent shipyards cannot be recreated quickly. The firms that manufactured aircraft which have been wiped out cannot recall their workmen and tell them to relearn their skills and start building aircraft again. I accept that we could not sustain spending 5 per cent. of GDP on defence, but nor can we justify spending only 3 per cent. on defence—not on security or economic grounds.
Lopping £5 billion off the defence budget will not be a panacea enabling us to regenerate British industry or our health and social services. Whatever the ills in our society and whatever the reasons for our economy's underperformance, we cannot heap the blame on the defence budget. Lopping the budget will not lead to a dramatic transformation of our society.
We live in a turbulent world. As has already been said, there are many dangers in the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Why should any third-world country spend a vast amount of money developing a ballistic missile capability, together with the necessary weaponry, if it can take the cheap route and develop chemical or biological weapons which are just as lethal as, or, in many cases, even more devastating than, nuclear weapons? We should, therefore, be a little cautious in the present environment.
I am anxiously awaiting the poll that tells us that the population has more faith in the Labour party than in the Conservative Government on defence matters. I should not be surprised if that were the case. My talking to service men and the public in general has merely confirmed what is patently obvious.
If I could distil 20 years of experience in the House into a sentence, it would be as follows. Whatever one expects to happen, the opposite will take place. We are reaching that situation on defence.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
May I put my hon. Friend out of his agony and curiosity? I am sure that he can use these statistics in his constituency if they are relevant. I have here the most recent Gallup Political and Economic Index, for November 1993, which showed a clear Labour lead over the Conservatives in popular perception on defence.
§ Mr. George
That must be a salutary lesson to Conservative Members and I advise the hon. Member for Wyre, who has just spoken, that it would be wise for him to retain his flying skills; he might at some stage require them. I do not say that in any malevolent way. He argued that more people should be imbued with the ethos of the service man. If he goes to the Library and examines the statistics provided by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, he will find that Britain has a smaller percentage of civilian and military personnel engaged in the military than any country in NATO bar Luxembourg, which has an army of 750, and Iceland, which has no armed forces whatever. Perhaps he should give that information to his hon. and right hon. Friends.
I am not a statistician, but I occasionally use statistics. Let us consider the NATO figures—not figures produced by the Labour party—for expenditure on defence, showing the percentage of personnel expenditure, the percentage devoted to equipment expenditure, including RAF expenditure, and the percentage devoted to infrastructure and what is called "operating expenditures". Using that classification of expenditure, which differs from that of the Ministry of Defence, one reaches the startling conclusion, considering the statistics, that, according to an estimate for 1993, Royaume Uni will be spending 13.7 per cent. of its defence budget on equipment.
I repeat that the figures use a different basis for calculating expenditure than does the Ministry of Defence. However, Canada spends 19 per cent. of its defence budget on equipment; Denmark spends almost 18 per cent.; Greece spends 25 per cent.; even Norway spends almost 25 per cent.
It is, therefore, not surprising that we are not going to have our 250 European fighter aircraft. We shall not have the aircraft that we need if the percentage of expenditure, being so low, will not sustain an ordering programme that will remotely meet the requirements of Conservative Members or, more importantly, is remotely commensurate with meeting the requirements of the Air Force in the exceedingly turbulent world that we are entering.
Some Conservative Members might have signed a document arguing for the elimination of the Air Force and its merger with the Army. I believe that there is still a significant role for the RAF if we are prepared to sustain it and adjust it to the requirements of the new world.
The Defence Committee, of which I am a member, has produced several reports in recent years of impact to the RAF. At the moment, we have a session on the Eurofighter 2000, we have a session on RAF commitments and resources and we are considering RAF training, including low flying—all of that in the next two months or so. We shall go to see the Tornado F3 and Jaguar detachments in Italy, as long as the war in the former Yugoslavia continues, which it will, and as long as the Whips permit the Select Committee on Defence to travel. I suspect that the former situation is more likely to continue than the latter, but I have no exact knowledge.
We have to consider many procurement problems. The C130 replacement is obviously important. I can understand why the hon. Member for Wyre, who has, no doubt, British Aerospace establishments either in or near his constituency, deems the British Aerospace solution to be desirable. The Defence Committee is examining that and I have not reached a final conclusion. The RAF appears to want the new Hercules and it might be more desirable to have an 497 aircraft that one can fly in the foreseeable future than what, at the moment, is more than a concept but certainly is not worthy of consideration as a real alternative for the RAF.
Many problems need to be considered. A decision is needed on the Eurofighter, and I hope that the German order is not pared down even further to make the project even more difficult. I believe that we need to hear some more about the problems of contractorisation. It is obvious that we need the EH101, an excellent support helicopter which the Government have been endorsing for some time. Even the Secretary of State, before the Defence Committee, almost argued the case for an order being given, but he did not give the order. I hope that this evening the Minister will announce that an order will be given so that that much-needed helicopter will enter service.
I am anxious that a decision be made on the light support helicopter and I should like to hear of the future, if any, for the RAF Regiment. That issue causes the Defence Committee some concern.
Conservative Members have mentioned the issue of the Bloodhound replacement. It seems to me rather bizarre: one spends a vast amount of money on a new aircraft, the old EFA, and then one does not provide the defence for that expensive equipment. The Bloodhound was almost a second world war system; it was no longer capable of adaptation. When will an announcement be made of a replacement for it?
Another decision that needs to be made fairly soon is whether the RAF acquires an off-shelf Lancelot or chooses the Texas Instruments alternative. I believe that the Air Force requires decisions.
I reiterate, in spite of a little poking of fun at the Government, that there has been—it is something that I welcome, and I have been criticised for it many times—a considerable narrowing of difference between the political parties. The differences are not enormous. We are creating an environment in which we avoid the yah-boo politics that dominated the House during the 1980s, to the detriment of our defence forces.
I hope that we can do what is done in many northern European countries that may not spend much but have something that we do not—basic agreement on defence issues; the parties reach an agreement outside Parliament and are bound by those decisions. Let us argue about domestic politics, but let us agree on the perception of the threat and the risks in the world in which we live. If we can agree about that, perhaps we can largely agree about the armed forces that are required, not only for the defence of our territory, but for the defence of our interests. It is much broader than the defence of our territory. Yes, we can pull one other's legs a little, but basically there will be agreement.
An agreement is now much more feasible for a number of reasons. The Government are reducing defence expenditure to a level which, as I want to amuse the Secretary of State for Defence by saying, would receive the unanimous and enthusiastic support of a Labour party conference. The Labour party's view of defence is rather different from the view that dominated the Labour party three, four, five or six years ago. The Liberal party is taking a view on defence that is robust compared with its view in 498 a previous era. In those circumstances, I very much hope that we can generate, if not unity or unanimity, at least a degree of agreement about security issues.
The RAF has served this country well and there is an enormous role for it to play in the future—perhaps not its traditional role, largely based in Germany, but a different role that must now be afforded it as a result of the changed security environment.
The hon. Member for Wyre has done a runner. Having listened to his speech, I am not surprised.
§ Mr. George
I apologise; the hon. Gentleman had run only a few yards.
When we argued the case for the EFA, we asked the German Members of Parliament, "Can you truly contemplate sending your young men in aircraft to face an adversary that may have aircraft superior to yours?" What Member of Parliament, either still in Parliament or in retirement, wants to have to say, "I am sorry, but way back in the early 1990s I did not think that the world would turn out quite this way"?
Governments are obsessed with planning a week or a month ahead. Let us try to think what might happen five or 10 years ahead. What might the configuration of great powers be then, and what nations will have bought off-the-shelf aircraft that are better than ours from Russia? What will be the new powers and the new alliances? Where will the United States stand? What will the role of European defence be in that great uncertainty?
I ask Conservative Members whether they can continue to argue that the Conservative party and its supporters represent the party of defence when they are running down our defences to such a level that actions such as the Gulf war or the Falklands campaign could not be contemplated. If the need arises and we are unable to commit our forces, hon. Members who have sustained the Government in running down our forces will, upon reflection—in opposition, or flying their aircraft, or running their whelk stalls—have to ask where the responsibility lies. I suspect that some of it will rest on their shoulders.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), but I would listen with more interest were he to make exactly the same speech at next year's Labour party conference. I should be interested to see whether he could get away with it, and whether he would still be alive at the end of it. There is a distinct difference between the defence policies of the Government and the Conservative party, and those of the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party. It is no good the hon. Gentleman offering blandishments to Conservative Members; those differences are as wide as the Grand canyon. It is no good his trying to persuade us that we are one and the same on defence issues.
However, having made those uncharitable remarks to him, I accept that he and I, and his party and mine, are at one in saluting the Royal Air Force, and the part that it has played in securing our defences and in protecting our national interest both at home and abroad. No one who saw on the television, heard on the wireless or read in the press about the exploits of our RAF crews during the Gulf war 499 can honestly do otherwise. I am sure that the hon. Member for Walsall, South will willingly join me in making that salute.
I hope that I shall not be accused of exaggeration or of overstating my case when I say that what the RAF flyers and crews did in 1991 over Iraq, with their unquestioning and unstinting devotion to duty, was on a par with the bravery and quality of service that we saw in our wartime bombers over Germany and our fighter pilots who fought against the odds in the Battle of Britain. This country and this Parliament owe them a debt of gratitude. Certainly I, who reached the dizzy heights of being a clarinet player in the school cadet band—of course, I cannot compare myself to the formation flyers sitting on my left, my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson)—owe them a debt of gratitude. That gratitude should be unequivocal, unreserved and unqualified.
Where do we find the Royal Air Force today? We find it not only in its usual places in the United Kingdom and in Germany, but in Bosnia, taking part in operation Grapple, operation Cheshire and operation Deny Flight, and in Iraq, taking part in the south in operation Jural, and in the north in operation Warden, maintaining the no-fly zones that protect both the marsh Arabs and the innocent Iraqi populations in the north, especially the Kurds.
The current strength and deployment of the Royal Air Force are to be found in the table at annex A on page 89 and at annex D on page 99 of the recent White Paper, "Defending Our Future—Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993". I am sure that the House will be grateful to hear that, for reasons of time, I shall not go through all the figures. I shall simply draw one or two generalised lessons from them.
Broadly, there are now in our RAF fewer aeroplanes, fewer squadrons and fewer people—fewer men and women serving. That is proved both in annex A and in annex D, and, indeed, in paragraph 7.43 on page 84 of the White Paper. I shall refer briefly to paragraphs and 7.41, 7.42 and 7.41 and, faithfully I hope, quote them. I hope that I shall not do an injustice to the draftsmen or to my right hon. and hon. Friends in government who make up the Ministry of Defence team.
Paragraph 7.43 says:The Services are now generally able to attract and retain the skilled and well-motivated men and women they need, although some shortages still remain.If that is true I am glad of it, but I ask whether it is strictly true. It continues:Voluntary wastage is at a record low level. In the 12 months to 1 April 1993, the proportion of officers who left on PVR"—that is, premature voluntary release—fell from 2.9 per cent. to 2 per cent. and the rate of applications fell from 2 per cent. to 1.2 per cent. The proportion of noncommissioned personnel leaving on PVR fell from 6 per cent. to 4.7 per cent. and applications declined from 5.8 per cent. to 4.2 per cent. Total outflow in the 12 months to 1 April 1993 was 33,655.That is a big number, in anybody's arithmetic.
Paragraph 7.43 says:Our current manpower plans are based on a forecast requirement for Service manpower in 1995 totalling around 240,000".The RAF element in that is 70,000. It continues:Beyond 1995 the manpower requirement will be kept under review in the light of changing circumstances, including any new operational commitments. Where developments in technology mean that new weapon systems require less manpower to operate or maintain them, this will need to be reflected.500 I hope that there can be flexibility up as well as down, and if any new developments require additional manpower or equipment I trust that the Minister of Defence will be able to persuade our financial masters in the Treasury that that must be arranged.
Sadly, the defence debate is not often heard. As the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said earlier, the absence of hon. Members during our debate perhaps reflects the sad lack of interest in such issues throughout the country. Although I say "sad lack of interest", there is a constituency out there that is very concerned about our defence industries and about our defence. It is vital that we have such debates a good deal more often than we do at present. I am very pleased to have been called, even at this late stage in the debate, to represent that constituency to some extent.
I do not speak today on behalf of a particular local base, depot or constituency MOD establishment. I trust that I can speak on behalf of the bigger picture and try to explain some of the concerns affecting people of all political persuasions. With such large reductions in defence spending, there is a fear that there is severe overstretch and that the morale of our armed forces personnel is falling. It must be uncontroversial to say that our armed forces are institutions in which Britain has hitherto taken considerable pride.
I regard the defence of the realm as the primary responsibility of Government. Again, I trust that that is not a controversial remark. The discharge of that responsibility involves the triple task of analysing the potential threat, providing a defence capability commensurate with it and co-ordinating defence and foreign policy to ensure that each supports, and does not contradict, the other. Only if there is clarity about the rationale and role of the armed forces, including the RAF, the confidence that it will have the means to fulfil foreseeable assignments and coherence between foreign and defence policies can a national consensus on defence matters be nurtured and the morale of the fighting services be maintained.
The main incident in foreign policy and defence terms over the past few years must be what is called the end of the cold war. I believe that that can more accurately be called the end of the third world war. Great issues for debate arise following that change of circumstance, and great questions of foreign policy and defence issues flow from it. They affect our consideration of the RAF just as much as they affect our consideration of the other armed services and the merchant marine.
There are several questions which, at this stage of the evening, I will not ask. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and other hon. Members who take an interest in defence matters will readily have such questions at their finger tips. I believe that those questions were not properly or fully addressed in "Options for Change". Some vital issues were addressed in that document, but it did not deal with all the very interesting and important issues that might have been asked.
"Options for Change" set out the savings that it was believed we could make if we no longer had to be prepared for war with the Warsaw pact. However, defence spending in real terms and as a proportion of gross domestic product has been reducing precipitously since the fall of the Berlin wall. In the mid-1980s, as hon. Members have said, defence spending averaged 5 per cent. of GDP. By 1995–96 it will amount to only 3.2 per cent. The most important 501 point to bear in mind is that, within that total, the proportion spent on equipment is at its lowest since the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, we spent about 45 to 48 per cent. of the defence budget on equipment. I am told that equipment now accounts for about 39 per cent. of the defence budget and there are signs that it is due to fall as low as 34 per cent.
I can understand the argument: smaller defence forces, smaller RAF, but better equipment. However, I find it difficult to square smaller defence forces with much less equipment. We must address that issue. Can we afford our percentage of equipment spending to fall further when the calibre of our defence forces must be tip top? The RAF will have lost 40 per cent. of its strike attack capability and 30 per cent. of its air defence capability before very long. We cannot simply allow those issues to be glossed over.
I am determined that the House should come to terms with the difficulty of many Conservative Members—I am speaking only for myself at the moment—who are loyal Conservative party and Government supporters, but who on this one issue find themselves in a dilemma. We want a credible defence force and a credible RAF which can meet the commitment that the public and our foreign policy requirements demand of it. It is no good having endless or open-ended commitments throughout the world but trying to meet them on the basis of diminished forces. I would would not mind having a small RAF if we had fewer commitments. But I cannot content myself with wide-ranging commitments with incompetent—I use the word neutrally—forces to deal with the problem. It affects not only our capability to deal with commitments but the morale of those who serve within the forces and those who wish to see the country prosper at home and abroad.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre said that national security is as vital as social security.
§ Mr. Garnier
We can agree or disagree on that, but it is an issue.
Despite the financial exigencies under which the Ministry of Defence has been labouring, nobody doubts for a moment that the Royal Air Force will continue, to the best of its abilities, to defend our shores and our interests overseas, but we must not send RAF personnel to perform tasks that they are no longer equipped to perform. Nothing that I have said is new, and, I dare say, nothing that I have said is original, but some verities demand restatement from time to time.
§ 9.5 pm
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
I apologise for not being present for the opening of the debate. As some hon. Members will know, I had the joy of attending a public inquiry concerning the Boundary Commission.
Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the RAF. I have always found it to be a professional and expert service. If the Government had a fraction of the expertise of the RAF, the country would certainly be flying higher than it is at present and we would not have such appallingly low standards of government.
The JP233 weapon was used in the Gulf war to destroy Iraqi runways. It requires that aircraft fly in a straight line along the length of the runway, and at a constant height. 502 That makes the aircraft highly vulnerable. The weapon has been implicated in the loss of Tornados in the Gulf war. The JP233 works by releasing hundreds of "bomblets" on the runway; some break up the runway surface and others make the job of repairing the runway harder. Although there is no doubt that the JP233 caused the Iraqis problems, it was not the only means of damaging runways. The United States air force attacked roughly the same number of runways as the RAF did and lost not a single aircraft on such missions.
The JP233 is a product of the RAF's obsession with low flying. I said as much in early-day motion 351 in the 1990–91 Session, for which I was greatly criticised. I said that the Tornadoshave become easy prey for maching gun and anti-aircraft fire when operating at low levelsand were the result ofthe blundering blindspot of Conservative defence ministers obsessed with low flying.Now, with the clarity of hindsight, I still believe that the facts bear me out.
The JP233 cost millions upon millions of pounds to develop and produce. Nobody other than the Saudis wants it. The Americans did not buy it. Instead, they purchased a French weapon, the Durandal. Anyone who follows United States military politics will appreciate that the purchase of a French weapon is rare. That shows what the Americans think of the JP233. The weapon costs millions of pounds to use because its very nature makes aircraft vulnerable. Each Tornado costs between £25 million and £35 million. The most expensive part of the JP233 is the lives of the pilots. Lives are too valuable to be measured in pounds. But many more lives are currently being affected by that dubious weapon. Some of the JP233's "bomblets" are anti-personnel mines.
§ Mr. Cohen
I do not have time to give way; I want to continue. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.
Anti-personnel mines, such as part of the JP233, are causing a world-wide blight on humanity, and I support a world-wide ban on their production. Two weeks ago, at Question Time, I asked the Department of Trade and Industry about curtailing the export of land mines. I pointed out that thousands of lives were being lost every week as a result of the use of those mines.
The Minister for Trade replied:We have the capability to make land mines that are self-destructive and self-neutralising as part of a runway denial system, which we believe is a perfectly proper use of land mines in making equipment for defending our forces."—[Official Report, 12 January 1994; Vol. 235, c. 168.1]The sole reason given by the Government for not acting to ban the export of land mines and their design was that they were part of a runway denial system.
The Minister for Trade is a clever man—he insulted Mrs. Thatcher and got away with it because his timing was right—but he is not clever enough to have said that without prompting, and his prompting came from the Ministry of Defence, which uses that fall-back position to try to deflect the argument when people realise that the use of anti-personnel mines is immoral. It is outrageous that the Ministry of Defence is briefing the DTI to stop a ban on immoral weapons by defending a dangerous weapon. That is a major scandal for which the Minister and the MOD should answer.
503 The Government should not underestimate the depth of feeling in the House about land mines. Last Monday I tabled early-day motion 361, which calls on the Government immediately to prohibit the export of all anti-personnel mines from the United Kingdom and to ratify the inhumane weapons convention. I wrote that early-day motion at about 9.30 in the evening, and by the time the House rose it had attracted 118 signatures. The current total is 160. That shows the strength of feeling against land mines among Labour Members. I know that there are Conservative Members who feel the same. Bill Deedes—hardly a member of the Labour party—has written a number of articles in Conservative newspapers exposing the land mines policy.
The JP233 should be scrapped immediately and there should be a worldwide ban on anti-personnel mines.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
We have had a wide-ranging debate, covering the changing international scene, key constituency issues of importance to hon. Members, particularly weapons systems, and, of course, basic procurement policies—a matter for the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who is to respond to the debate.
I do not know whether I could go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) who proposes that we seek a consensus on defence outside the House and then place it before the parties. It has been apparent during the debate, however, that there are some areas of agreement. Hon. Members have shown a willingness throughout the debate to praise the skills, dedication and commitment of our RAF personnel—although such sentiments from the Government have to be watched carefully because they are often the prelude to cuts. We fear the Government even when they bring praise.
It is significant that, so soon after the talk of turning swords into ploughshares and of the peace dividend, every type of RAF aircraft should be in operation somewhere in the world: we have Harriers over north Iraq; Tornados over south Iraq; Jaguars, Tornados and E3 AWACS on patrol over Bosnia; Nimrods monitoring the Gulf and the Adriatic; and old war horses being used in transport and supply. As the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, the commitments collide with Treasury pressures for further reductions and there is already the fear of overstretch.
The second area of consensus that emerged during the debate was the unpredictability of the international scene as the old certainties of the cold war disappear. The pace of change is perhaps best illustrated by reference to our last three debates on the RAF. In February 1990, Mr. Alan Clark—we have all read his diaries on the subject—talked of the diminution of the threat. That was before "Options for Change" and President Gorbachev was still in office in what was then the Soviet Union.
The last but one RAF debate was in May 1991. The Gulf war was over. The Warsaw treaty organisation no longer existed. By that time, President Gorbachev was no longer in office. In January last year, the debate was effectively and understandably hijacked by the events in the Gulf.
Thus the speed of change is breathtaking. The international context is moving beneath us. How can one then make decisions which are credible in the light of the 504 point made by several hon. Members about the long research and development periods and the long period during which the planes are eventually expected to see service? That is the sort of problem that we have with the Hercules replacement, to which I shall refer shortly. I thought that that point was well made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell).
There are problems of choices, as stated by Philip Sabin in the recent book "British Defence Choices for the 21st Century", of readiness as against reconstitution, independence as against integration, flexibility as against specialisation, mobility as against punch and quality as against quantity. The certainties which led to a certain force structure, which led to certain deployments and a certain mix of aircraft, no longer exist.
As for the threat, the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and others said how real and relevant was the Zhirinovsky threat. Clearly there will be a greater nationalism in Russian defence and foreign policy. The Russian economy has crumbled to such an extent, the likely obsession with internal problems is such and the lead times and alert times are so much greater that at least we can step back a little from the threat as perceived in the 1980s, although, as several colleagues have said, it would be prudent to watch this space carefully.
Obviously we are now in the middle of a period of great choice. The Royal Air Force is highly relevant to that, with the need for greater flexibility and mobility. NATO itself is in a period of profound transformation, as was exemplified by the communiqué from the January summit. Increasingly, our role will be a United Nations role—humanitarian, disaster relief and so on.
On the domestic side, we in the Opposition, together with a number of major voices on the defence side, have called for a strategic defence review rather than ad hoc cuts forced by the Treasury. That is one of the key differences between the Government and the Opposition positions. Why are the Government so adamantly against the R word? Why do they feel that a review must be avoided, in their parlance, at all costs?
On the international side, the recent international changes have particular relevance to the size and nature of the Royal Air Force. The perceived role of defending the island against Soviet bombers is no longer, or hardly, a relevant consideration in current circumstances. Yet we need to maintain our reputation for excellence and be perhaps even more ready to see all our policies in an alliance context. What was most clear in the NATO summit in Brussels was the smokescreen, if one will, of transition from an Atlantic to a European position, with again and again the leitmotiv "the European pillar". We shall have to adjust to that.
As President Clinton said in Brussels:We must build a new security for Europe. The old security was based on the defence of one bloc against another bloc. The new security must be found in Europe's integration. An integration of security forces, of market economies, of national democracies".The message for us in Europe is clear. Indeed, it has already been accepted by the French, whose anticipated White Paper—the first for 20 years—states that the defence of France's vital interests can be envisaged with Britain and Germany. Perhaps this sea change was the motive for yesterday's meeting between the Secretary of State and his French and German counterparts, which was initiated by 505 the right hon. and learned Gentleman. However, basic questions remain. Will the French, in their procurement policy, be as nationalistic as they have been in the past? What is the relevance, in terms of co-operation, for the RAF and our other services?
The Minister replying to this debate will deal specifically with procurement policies. Will our procurement policies be seen increasingly in a European framework? Is the new spirit of co-operation relevant to decisions such as that concerning the United Kingdom's Hercules replacement programme? Clearly the C130Ks, which were bought in 1967, are coming to the end of their life, with an increasing utilisation rate. Ours is one of the oldest Hercules fleets in the world, with outdated technology.
Are we now on target for the decision on replacement or refurbishment? Presumably the tender documents will be issued in the very near future. It is to be hoped that if the contract goes as a number of hon. Members have suggested, the first orders will be placed by the end of the year.
Lockheed has a proven track record. There will be a gap—financially, in terms of the Government's procurement programme, and industrially—before the Eurofighter 2000 comes on stream. The peak years will be around the turn of the century. Hence the relevance in this context. But will our decision to give the first tranche of, say, 30 aircraft to Lockheed pre-empt a decision on the later tranche and force out the proposed European rival—the future large aircraft programme, the FLA? I concede that this is not a flying aircraft; it is only on the drawing board and will not fly until about 2004.
What are the options? Could the Ministry of Defence charter civilian transport planes for routine tasks? Much spare capacity is now available. What are the prospects for leasing? This is a matter that the Secretary of State mentioned to the Select Committee on Defence in December last year. Would leasing be simply a financial device once the basic decision about refurbishment or purchase of new aircraft had been made?
What can the Minister say about the Eurofighter 2000? My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South has already mentioned the problem of the reduction in defence expenditure and the question mark over whether the Ministry will be able to meet the commitment figure of 250. The aircraft is already behind schedule. If other countries reduce their purchases as a result of their own financial pressures, that will only increase the unit costs and boost our procurement costs when the European fighter aircraft, because of its size, is already shouldering out much other potential procurement over the relevant period.
We have heard mention of the EH101 support helicopter and of the importance to Westland of a speedy decision to end the long saga of delay. When is it likely that a decision on attack helicopters will be made? The absence of a United Kingdom attack helicopter capability was very noticeable during the Gulf conflict.
I will not rehearse the well-judged comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) about the current low morale within the RAF. As the hon. Member for Tayside, North said, there is a huge sapping of morale. That is relevant to our questions about the remarks of the Chief of Air Staff. Why did he feel the need to 506 intervene as he did? Did he feel that his access to the Secretary of State was insufficient? He obviously made his point, because he had to go on his knees to apologise thereafter. He spoke of a "disreputable campaign" and he pointed the finger at the Treasury. That is why he was specifically asked to apologise to the Treasury. There was great rejoicing among RAF personnel throughout the country and the world that he had spoken up on their behalf. He said what they wanted to say, but felt unable to say.
Other reasons for loss of morale include the proposal that the RAF should lose its sub-strategic nuclear role to Trident. Morale has also suffered because of the extent of the cuts to which the RAF has been subject, which have been spelt out by hon. Members.
The plea from the Air Chief Marshal to the Government was quite clear: stop undermining the services, because there are few enough institutions in the country of which we can be justifiably proud.
The quality of life of our service personnel and their families—this is within the competence of the Minister—is also relevant to morale. Mr. Alan Clark told the House in February 1990:we are intending to improve the entire stock of married quarters and single-service living accommodation in the next 10 years."—[Official Report, 28 February 1990; Vol. 168, c. 291.]Now the plan is to sell not just the family silver, but all the housing as well, in 1995–96, to a private sector housing trust. Thus assets will be sold off and thereafter counted as revenue. It represents a once-and-for-all increase in the resources of the MOD.
What progress has been made in planning that major sell-off, which will create the largest housing association in the country? Much of the property is probably unsaleable or in remote areas. Who will carry out the valuations? The figures that I have seen reveal that working assumptions relate to 70,000 properties, to be sold at £7,000 each. That means that roughly £500 million must be raised from City syndicates. Have the Government worked out the full implications of that by discussing it with the Department of the Environment, the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office, as appropriate?
The fact that this massive sell-off of property was not mentioned in 1990, in the afterglow of Thatcherism, suggests that it is a relatively recent decision which has been forced upon the MOD by the Treasury as a revenue-raising operation.
Many implications of the sale may not have been worked out yet. For example, how will it affect local housing programmes? What about tenant participation? Formidable management problems will arise because of the size of the proposed housing trust. What about the sale of properties to service men? Will they have the normal right-to-buy facility? Will priority be given to local housing authorities or housing associations if the stock is not needed by the MOD? The way in which the sale has been introduced into the argument suggests that not only is it a fairly recent decision but one whose implications have not been fully thought through.
The market testing of support services is another source of concern, because of the threat to jobs. I accept that it is a case of horses for courses, because there are examples where the case for that testing can be properly made, if not welcomed. The fear is that ideological zeal, spelt out so well by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) in relation to his own constituency, will push the process of 507 market testing further and faster than is warranted, particularly in relation to the RAF's role in servicing its own aircraft. There is already RAF resentment, particularly about the civilian contractors servicing Tornados in Saudi Arabia. The RAF has cancelled a contract with Airwork, saying that it had caused damageof a very serious natureto the Tornados during modification.
Only one third of the Ministry of Defence personnel questioned about cleaning contracts by the National Audit Office considered that the Government were getting value for money. My advice to the Government, therefore, is that they should be careful and not be pushed headlong, as if they were still enthralled by a type of Thatcherdom, into ways that were spelt out by the hon. Member for Gloucester which would have adverse effects, examples of which have been pointed out.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South said, diversification is another subject about which there is a profound difference of principle between the Government and the Opposition. The Opposition recognise the strategic role of the defence industries. There is a key interface between the defence industries and employment. For example, as recently as Tuesday this week British Aerospace announced 421 job losses at Chorley. The United States President has promised $500 million dollars in the summer to help towards conversion of the US defence industries. The US has a defence conversion commission.
Because of the size of the rundown—about £30 billion to be cut from our defence budget over the decade—there is a potential threat to perhaps 25 per cent. of the United Kingdom engineering industry. The free market has little role in defence purchases, which depend on Government contracts. There is a clear national interest, therefore, in working out the implications for regions, industries, and particular skills arising directly from the effects of the cold war and the substantial reduction in the proportion of the gross domestic product given to defence.
All we had from the Secretary of State was, "We leave these matters to market forces". The Government appear to be accepting no responsibility for assisting in the process of conversion. There have been signs of movement from pure Thatcherism in other policies, such as the recent decision on the financing of the channel tunnel link, but there is no such sign in the Government's unwillingness to intervene in diversification. They do not appear even to recognise the problem. Their do-nothing stance is in contrast to that of a number of our allies and is failing the nation.
The Labour party is fully convinced of the case for defence diversification, and the agency that we propose is promoted by industry, the trade unions and local authorities. It is absurd that the Government should fold their arms when faced with a national problem of such magnitude.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)
This has been a valuable and interesting debate and, having listened to all 16 speeches made since 4 o'clock this afternoon, it is good to be able to begin this winding-up speech by saying that the whole House has been genuinely united in the tributes that have been paid to the professionalism, dedication and achievements of the RAF. Even the hon. Member for 508 Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who made a carping, whingeing and sneering speech, redeemed himself for a few seconds by paying tribute to the service. I agree with his statement that 1993 was a good year for the RAF.
Not since the 1960s has the RAF been actively engaged in more concurrent operational deployments than today. I am glad to add the Government's tribute to the Royal Air Force and to express our appreciation to its service men and women, from the Chief of the Air Staff downwards, for the excellence of their achievements, often in carrying out missions of considerable risk and danger in places such as Iraq and Bosnia. The whole House and the country are grateful to them for their superb job.
In the time that is available, I hope to respond to as many as possible of the issues raised by hon. Members. Before dealing with individual speeches, it is appropriate to tackle the two or three major procurement issues that have run through the debate. I shall refer in particular to the Eurofighter 2000 and the Hercules replacement and, if I have time, I shall refer to support helicopters.
Eurofighter 2000, formerly known as the European fighter aircraft, is the cornerstone of the RAF's future capability and is one of the Government's major procurement projects. The House is aware that in 1992 and 1993 there were changes to the Eurofighter 2000 programme. In 1992, there was a great deal of uncertainty about its continuation as a four-nation project. There was much speculation about Germany's willingness to continue and there was even speculation about the imminent demise of the project.
Throughout that period, the Government's view remained constant—that there is a clear and continuing need for an aircraft of Eurofighter 2000's capabilities, both for the defence of the United Kingdom and to meet the RAF's commitments in other theatres. That view enjoyed support in all parts of the House and was also supported by industry and trade unions throughout the United Kingdom. I am grateful for that all-round support for a project which is vital to the future of the RAF.
Over the past year, the process of reorienting the Eurofighter programme has moved on and good progress has been made. We have reacted to the significant changes in the international security environment that have taken place since development of the Eurofighter 2000 began in 1988. In the light of the changes in eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, chiefs of staff of the four partner nations were invited in December 1992 to review the operational requirement.
That work was carried forward in 1993, and some minor relaxations in the operational requirement have been identified and incorporated in the revised European staff requirement which the four chiefs of air staff signed last week. For example, we have slightly relaxed the requirement to operate on damaged runways, although the aircraft will still be capable of operating to NATO standards. We have also agreed to some relaxation in the engine thrust requirements. The revised requirement recognises the continuing need for a fighter aircraft for the RAF with Eurofighter's capabilities.
It was also necessary to reorientate the time scales for the Eurofighter 2000 programme to reflect the budgetary difficulties of the four partner nations. That has led to a revision of the first delivery dates of production aircraft about which the hon. Member for Carlisle asked. It is now 509 planned that the United Kingdom and Italy will receive their first aircraft in the year 2000. Spain and Germany will receive their first aircraft in the year 2002.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) asked about the cost of each aircraft. Based on our planned off-take of 250 aircraft, the unit production cost of Eurofighter 2000 is today estimated at some £33 million.
Advances continue to be made on the technical front, but to expect progress on a project as complex as the Eurofighter without any technical difficulties would be unreasonable. Over the past year, there have been well-publicised problems with the flight control system. That is the heart of the aircraft which allows this highly agile and, therefore, potentially unstable aircraft to remain stable in the air.
Eurofighter 2000 has not been alone in experiencing such difficulties. Similar problems have beset the Swedish Gripen and the American F22 programmes. It was with great sadness and horror that we heard of the disasters involving the Gripen and the F22 last year, which we believe were largely due to immature flight control software.
In such circumstances, although the delay to the first flight of the Eurofighter is disappointing, it is understandable. Therefore, it was unfair of the hon. Member for Carlisle to criticise it so much. Industry is rightly being cautious and is double checking the software. Industry's work in the area is now in its final stages and I am pleased to announce that the flight control system is undergoing final testing prior to clearance for the aircraft's first flight.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
My hon. Friend has just made an important announcement to the House confirming reports that have been appearing in the technical press for some time. What estimate has he made of the effect of the delays on the likely export potential of the aeroplane, as the JS39 Gripen and the Rafale will have been in the marketplace for some time before the Eurofighter 2000 comes into service with the Italian air force and the Royal Air Force? Is it expected that the prototype Eurofighter 2000 will be flying at Farnborough?
§ Mr. Aitken
If the first flight will be in April, it will certainly be possible for the prototype to be flying at Farnborough later this year.
We have always believed that the Eurofighter 2000 has considerable export potential, and none of the delays has seriously adversely affected those prospects.
More generally, there is no sign of any major design problem and the delays that have occurred should not be of great significance in the overall programme. The first delivery of production aircraft to the RAF is still forecast for the year 2000.
I move on to the Hercules replacement, in the context of future air transport requirements. In order to overcome increasing problems with the availability and maintainability of the Hercules, we have been giving active consideration to how we can replace or refurbish up to half—that is some 30—of our Hercules C130K fleet.
We let a contract last year to define the refurbishment work including an austere refurbishment. The only new 510 aircraft available in competition with the refurbishment in the necessary time scale are the Lockheed C130H and C130J.
I can announce tonight that an invitation to tender has been handed over to Lockheed executives in the United Kingdom this afternoon. It will enable us to compare on a life-cycle basis the costs of refurbishment and those of buying new aircraft. We are also looking at the possibility of leasing transport aircraft. We hope to be in a position to take a decision later this year.
I am well aware of the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French), in whose constituency I visited the factory of Dowty and saw the excellent propellers. Centrax is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). There are several British companies—18 to be precise—in the C130J industrial group that hope to benefit from the order, if it is placed.
Replacement of the second tranche of the fleet will be considered later in the light of future requirements for large aircraft. By then, the number of new-buy options should have opened up to include the European future large aircraft which has strong supporters in the House and the country, and others, such as the McDonnell C17.
Most other aircraft are somewhat larger than the Hercules, so both operational mix and cost factors will need to be taken into account.
The House will know that the Government withdrew from the future large aircraft project in 1989. It has often been suggested since then that we should rejoin, but we feel that adequate technology for transport aircraft already exists without the need for Government funding of further development and that it would be difficult for us to maintain an open competitive stance if we were seen to be supporting one particular option.
It was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) that we should wait for production of the future large aircraft before updating the current Hercules fleet, but the pressing availability and maintainability problems will not allow us to do that. That is why we have taken the decision to go forward in the way we have.
§ Mr. Aitken
I am glad that my hon. Friend has made clear by that intervention what a paper-only stage the future large aircraft has reached. Sure, we will look at the feasibility study when it appears, but this is pie that is not even near the sky at the moment. Therefore, I cannot be too sanguine for its chances for the first tranche of our transport fleet replacement.
I shall now deal with various points raised by hon. Members.
§ Mr. Aitken
I must go steadily on. I will refer to the hon. Gentleman's speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) spoke eloquently of the debt that we owe to the Royal Air Force nationally, and locally in his constituency. I am able to give him some of the reassurance that he sought about the closure of RAF Stanmore Park. I can 511 assure him that the disposal of the site will be done in a way that will try to preserve various important features such as tree preservation. I have noted his points about the historic site of Bentley Priory and will write to him about those matters in due course.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East made a characteristically thoughtful speech. I have covered some of his points already. He asked about the low-level, laser-guided bomb. The position there is that invitations to tender were issued in May 1993. We now have a short list of two leading contenders: one in the United Kingdom, GEC Marconi Dynamics; and one in the United States, Texas Instruments. Those tenders are currently being considered. Our aim is to complete the selection process in time to place a contract by April 1994.
The hon. and learned Gentleman asked, in a rather philosophical way, what the future role of the Royal Air Force would be, and made some good points about the size of our presence in Germany. Earlier in his speech, he answered his own question by pointing out that there was no shortage of sophisticated combat aircraft falling into the hands of troublesome and sometimes hostile nation states all over the world. Even though some of the domestic defence role may be diminishing, there is still a key overseas role in the world.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) on his many years of service in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. I even join him in his heartfelt tribute to Mrs. Walker, who has put up with his weekend absences all this time. He was right to draw our attention to the period of great uncertainty that we face, and to emphasise that the RAF requires a period of stability in it. That theme was touched on by several hon. Members. The defence costs study—"Front Line First"—which we are now undergoing unfortunately means that there will be some three more months of uncertainty. After that, I hope that one will be able to answer favourably the good point that he made.
The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) raised a long point about RAF search-and-rescue helicopters. I heard him with more than a passing touch of sympathy as a constituency Member of Parliament, as RAF Manston in my constituency has had many of the same problems. I know how high emotions can run on these issues. These matters have been fully considered and debated. I refer particularly to the very good Adjournment debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) about the Dover strait. Whether it is the Welsh coast or the English channel, the response times are considered adequate by Her Majesty's Coastguard and the DTI. I shall draw the hon. Member's comments to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.
§ Mr. Aitken
I am sorry, but I must move on. I will give way later if I can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester drew our attention to his concern about the proposals for RAF Quedgeley and the changes in support arrangements there. He wants access to some of our figures. My understanding is that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Armed Forces has undertaken to provide certain financial information within the bounds of confidentiality. I shall certainly draw his attention to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has raised in the debate.
512 My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made a thoughtful speech, which was characteristic of him, with his expertise on RAF matters. I was much taken with his suggestion, with which I agree, that we must use the defence cost study to look fundamentally—not just from a savings only point of view—at the future of the Royal Air Force. He made a good many rather ingenious suggestions for restructuring, not only for savings, but other reasons. I am very much in sympathy with the theme that he has struck.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) said that the French defence budget has increased. I am sure that we all take note of that. He, too, made the compelling case for the need of the service to have more stability and more certainty. I hope that this chapter of frequent change will come to an end at the end of the defence costs study.
I accept my hon. Friend's point that the levels of management in the RAF are somewhat excessive. I shall not today go into whether we should abolish any particular ranks, but I am sympathetic to his view that the procurement executive might need to be reduced in size and its decision and evaluation processes accelerated. That is a thought which we could well take further in the defence costs study debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for reminding us how he and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre championed the cause of Eurofighter 2000, or the European fighter aircraft as it was then known, among German parliamentarians. We owe both of them a debt of gratitude for that.
We are always glad to hear the hon. Gentleman's voice in favour of more resources for defence, but it is rather like a performance of "Robinson Crusoe" because he is stranded on his desert island articulating his pro-defence and more spending views among a sea of cutters and slashers who want to reduce our defence budget by more than a third. However, long may he survive and flourish.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) drew our attention to paragraphs 7.41 to 7.43 of the White Paper and asked whether there could be flexibility up as well as down in the figures that he quoted. The answer is yes, there can be and there might need to be if there are strange political developments in Russia of the kind that some people have forecast and might even happen if the Zhirinovsky group were to come to power.
My hon. Friend then argued that the great questions of defence and foreign policy that arise from the new and somewhat unstable situation that exists in the aftermath of the ending of the cold war need to be more carefully considered. He is right.
What is the right percentage of GDP that we should be spending on defence and how much of the defence budget should we be spending on the equipment budget? The Government think that we have the answers to these questions right, and that about 40 per cent. is the right figure for the equipment budget. However, we consider those matters continuously in relation to events.
Winston Churchill, once being accused of inconsistency, said, "No, certainly not. My thoughts are an harmonious process in relation to current events." So should any defence planners thoughts be. If there are political changes in Russia or anywhere else, we must take them into account in such matters as the equipment budget.
The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) produced his latest bogey, the JP233 bomb. He is following the media crowd in focusing attention on it. The criticism among the 513 media critics is that that weapon should not be used, as it contains an anti-personnel element. But I should point out that that element self-destructs. It is not used indiscriminately and is, therefore, perfectly consistent with our support for the United Nations resolutions and the weaponry convention.
The JP233 aircraft denial weapon was used successfully in the Gulf conflict during the early stages of the air campaign and it played a part in the rapid success of the overall allies campaign against the Iraqi air force. Clearly, the RAF must select the most appropriate weapon for any given mission and the JP233 is uniquely suited to cratering runways and taxiways, preventing enemy aircraft from taking off. In the Gulf war, after only four days, air supremacy was achieved. Clearly that was a key factor in minimising allied casualties and in bringing the conflict to a speedy end.
It should be stressed that the JP233 was a strictly military weapon, used exclusively against Iraqi military air bases. Clearly, as with any weapon system, or most weapon systems, there is an anti-personnel element in the JP233, but that must be set against the fact that Iraq was prevented from mounting effective air operations during most of the war.
Moreover, as I said, the anti-personnel element of the JP233 has a self-destructing and self-neutralising system, making its use perfectly proper and posing no threat to the civilian population when used against military targets. Our current stringent controls on the export of defence equipment are sufficient to prevent the sale of such weapons to countries that might conceivably use them irresponsibly.
I welcome the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) to his new responsibilities. He made some thoughtful comments about Europe's new security architecture following the NATO summit, and, in that context, asked whether our procurement policies would be set in a European framework. That sounded a little Europhile for my taste; but we are not at all Euro-sceptical about procurement issues in the Ministry of Defence, as our championship of the Eurofighter makes clear. Moreover, I have excellent political and personal relations with the German State Secretary for Defence.
That is a good example of a European defence project that is working well. Another is Project Horizon—the Anglo-French-Italian frigate project. The hon. Gentleman, however, seemed to suggest that we should automatically put a European spin on all procurement. Under the treaty of Rome, defence equipment buying is not covered by any Brussels rules—thank heavens. I think that we shall continue our present sensible approach, which is to embark on European collaboration when it is right to do so.
The hon. Member for Carlisle began by mentioning—
§ Mr. Aitken
I fear that I shall have no time to deal with helicopters. In any case, we have really said it all already: we have announced our plans for helicopters. We are now engaged in a NAPNOC negotiation with both Westland and Boeing in regard to, respectively, the EH101 and the Chinook. Obviously, much depends on price and on further 514 evaluation. I share some of the frustration that hon. Members have expressed, but we are not backsliding in the way that some have described.
§ Mr. Aitken
That is an Army project; we are debating the RAF. It seems that Opposition Members are keen to stop me from having a go at them.
The hon. Member for Carlisle began his speech with a quote from Dickens. The character in Dickens of whom he most reminds me is Mr. Micawber, who was always waiting for something to turn up. I was longing for something to turn up in the hon. Gentleman's speech—an idea, a correct fact, even a policy. I have been longing to know what Labour's defence policy is, but it is a well-kept secret: Labour Members do not make policy statements. Indeed, they do not make many speeches—although they occasionally ask questions, which give us a clue about the way in which their minds are tentatively working.
An interesting signal was given this week when a Labour Member asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State a telling parliamentary question. The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) asked on how many occasions the Ministry of Defence purchased soft-pornography magazines for distribution to members of the armed forces. I know that my official title is "Minister of State for Defence Procurement", but I must disappoint the Labour party: we certainly do not spend taxpayers' money from the defence budget on porn magazines.
I was, however, so stimulated by the hon. Gentleman's question that I thought I might make an exception to that policy. I am thinking of distributing a certain magazine to our armed forces—and, indeed, to the whole electorate, if I can find the money. It is not quite a soft-porn magazine, although it has made one or two strange lurches in that direction; but I would certainly call it a political porn magazine. I refer to New Statesman and Society, whose 12 November issue carried a long interview with the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).
I read the piece—in which the hon. Gentleman gave his views on Labour's defence policy—with a quickening pulse, searching early for the hard core of that policy. When I reached the point where the hard core should have been, lo and behold! It had been airbrushed out. Just listen to this:Fifteen months into his job as Labour Defence Spokesperson, David Clark gets annoyed at the suggestion that he has been keeping a low profile.The interview goes on to deal with defence spending, which—surprise, surprise—the hon. Gentleman is in favour of reducing. Indeed, he has to be: composite motion No. 49 commits Labour to reducing defence spending by a third. The party is ready to wipe out all our spending on one of the three services. The interviewer then presses him for details, and this is where the airbrush comes into play. The article states:Clark is vague however as to where the cuts should fall … he says, 'Just now, I simply don't know.—'Those six words are the beginning and the end—the alpha and the omega—of Labour's defence policy. The clarion call—Just now, I simply don't know"—has been heard loud and clear from the Opposition Front Bench tonight and, indeed, has been evident in the Labour party's vacuous statements for many months. 515 By contrast, the Government know that we are proud of the Royal Air Force and we know what our policies are for its future. We believe that our air power is a vital ingredient in Britain's defence which will continue—
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.