HC Deb 04 May 1995 vol 259 cc451-533

[Relevant documents: The Seventh Report from the Defence Committee on Low Flying: Follow-up to the Fifth Report of Session 1989–90, HC 314 of Session 1993–94, and the Fifth Special Report, HC 686 of Session 1993–94, containing the Government's Reply thereto.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]

4.6 pm

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman)

This debate is aptly timed. The forthcoming VE day commemorations remind us of the enormous debt that we owe the Royal Air Force. Victory in 1945 was achieved only after years of effort and sacrifice. The picture was very different in 1940: most of Europe had been overrun, and all of southern England was in range of the Luftwaffe operating from airfields around the channel coasts. Britain, battered and weakened after Dunkirk, stood alone. But a successful invasion hinged on control of the air, and we turned to the Royal Air Force for the defence of Britain.

We remember with pride the battle of Britain, the first true air battle in history, when our outnumbered Air Force drove the Luftwaffe from the skies and crippled the invasion fleets then massing in the channel ports. The RAF's victory in 1940 preserved the safety of these islands, to become the springboard of final victory.

But victory was still far off. In the next few years, only Bomber Command, at great sacrifice, could take the war to the heartlands of the enemy, while Coastal Command played a key role in turning the crucial battle of the Atlantic in our favour. That maritime achievement, and the support given to allied land forces by both tactical and, at times, strategic air forces, set the tone for the inter-service co-operation that has been a continuing and growing aspect of RAF operations ever since.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene so early. Does he agree that many of the air crew who flew in those dangerous operations were ex-air cadets? Does my right hon. Friend recognise the massive contribution that air cadets have made to the nation since that time?

Mr. Freeman

That is a timely intervention, because schoolchildren today and anyone under the age of 55, which I dare say includes both Front-Bench spokesmen, will not have been old enough during the second world war to remember those great events.

I particularly appreciate my hon. Friend's support for air cadets and sea cadets. I have just returned from my constituency, where, at Southfield school for girls, 1,000 girls, including many air cadets and sea cadets, celebrated—perhaps it was a little early—VE day. It is very important that every schoolchild understands the importance of VE day. I hope that every school—including, I am glad to say, those in my constituency—will embrace the recruitment of uniformed cadets and reservists.

In the 50 years since victory in Europe, the RAF has continued to maintain its tradition of professionalism. It provided a major element of our strategic and conventional deterrent forces through the long years of the cold war, helping to preserve the security of western Europe. It played a major part in operations in Malaysia, in the south Atlantic, in the Mediterranean and the middle east, and in other areas of the world.

Most recently, we all remember the magnificent contribution that the RAF made during the Gulf war, in which the air campaign was the key to success. As I speak, the RAF is fully engaged on a range of operations across the globe, about which my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will say more when he winds up.

For the RAF, the past few years have seen a scale of change not experienced since the end of the second world war. We have now entered a new strategic era—a world, to quote the White Paper published yesterday by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, in which we are immeasurably safer, but in which we face increased uncertainty and rapid change". In that new and unpredictable strategic environment, we need forces capable of reacting quickly and effectively to a range of contingencies. We need forces and equipment offering flexibility, mobility, combat power and utility across the full range of military tasks in all three defence roles, as spelled out in the White Paper. Those are the characteristics of air power.

The restructuring of the RAF front line following "Britain's Defence for the Nineties" has now been completed.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

While my right hon. Friend is talking about restructuring the armed forces, is he aware of the deep concern and alarm among our senior service chiefs about the Labour party's proposal to permit homosexuals in our services? Does he not agree that that would undermine our discipline, and that it is not a realistic proposal?

Mr. Freeman

If my hon. Friend will permit me, I shall deal with that point in greater detail later. In the meantime, perhaps she will bear with me if I stick to the theme on which I had embarked.

As I was saying, the restructuring of the Royal Air Force front line, following "Britain's Defence for the Nineties", has now been completed. Subsequent events, and the similar conclusions reached by our allies, show that our response to the end of the cold war was soundly based. Our main priority since "Options for Change" has been to ensure that the resources allocated to the RAF are concentrated on the front line. We have scrutinised all aspects of our cost and management structure to that end.

Much of that process was under way before the 1994 defence costs study. Plans were in hand to rationalise the RAF headquarters structure, leading to the establishment of the new logistics, personnel and training commands last year. Substantial restructuring of the flying and ground training organisations was also in hand, as was a rationalisation of the three equipment supply depots into a single facility at Stafford, saving £160 million over the next 10 years.

A major study—the RAF manpower structure study—was in progress to assess the effects on RAF manpower of new technology, improved working practices and the extension of civilianisation and market testing.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

On the subject of training and restructuring, when does my right hon. Friend expect to announce his final plans to incorporate Army fixed-wing training with Air Force and Royal Navy fixed-wing training at RAF Scampton under the tri-service proposal in the defence costs study?

Will my right hon. Friend also consider undertaking a further review of flying training, the university air squadrons, and the employment of Bulldog and its possible replacement by a more modern aircraft, such as Firefly, which JEFTS—the Joint Elementary Flying Training Squadron—uses?

Mr. Freeman

I shall answer the second question, which falls to me, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will answer the first later. However, I must point out that we have moved—or shall do shortly—to tri-service rotary-wing training, which I am sure the whole House will believe is sensible. My hon. Friend will answer the question about fixed-wing training.

As for the Bulldog and its possible replacement, I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has been vigorous in his support of a company in his constituency that makes the Firefly, an excellent aircraft. I confirm that we shall carefully examine the economics of replacing the Bulldog compared with those of other options, such as a mid-life update, with improvements to the Bulldog.

It is important that our university air squadrons receive the best possible equipment. The university air squadrons and the air cadets provide not only excellent and fertile recruitment grounds for the RAF, but serve a wider social purpose, and my colleagues in the Department would join me in emphasising the importance of those services.

The defence costs study, "Front Line First", built on this foundation. It aimed to preserve front-line capabilities and to reduce support costs without sacrificing effectiveness. Elementary and basic level flying training will now be conducted at RAF Cranwell and RAF Linton-on-Ouse respectively. Fast jet advanced flying training will be concentrated at RAF Valley. We have also decided to amalgamate single-service basic rotary-wing training into a tri-service defence helicopter flying school at RAF Shawbury. Following a period of consultation, we decided to close RAF Finningley and RAF Scampton.

We were also able to achieve substantial further savings in logistics support without sacrificing output or effectiveness. The completion this year of the new facility at RAF Wyton is a major step towards a more economical organisation designed to implement the new business practices needed to deliver lower support costs.

The RAF is at the forefront of advanced logistics techniques which compare well with the best practice in industry. The aim is to realise significant cost benefits while making the logistic chain more flexible. We are making a substantial investment in the RAF's logistics information technology strategy, which will help to provide the most cost-effective through-life support for all the RAF's equipment programmes. It will also support deployed operations worldwide. This ambitious strategy will be a pathfinder for similar initiatives in the other two services.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The Minister has referred to market testing, and the importance that the Government are attaching to savings. Why are the 500 important RAF personnel involved in the maintenance of flight simulators not being allowed to make in-house bids for the service? That is particularly important in my area, which contains RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss, and there are a substantial number of jobs at stake. Why are those skilled personnel not being allowed the facility of making an in-house bid?

Mr. Freeman

There are two reasons. The hon. Lady asks a perfectly sensible and serious question, which applies not just to simulation training. First, the RAF must reduce its uniformed manpower to meet the economies about which I have talked. Employing a service man or woman is more expensive than employing a civilian, and is less flexible. We must look at support activities such as training, but also at the logistics command, to see where non-core activities can be performed better by the private sector.

Secondly, in addition to the pressure on numbers, it is sometimes better to contractorise an entire operation, and it is for the benefit of the taxpayer, and, I believe, of the RAF, if that function can be performed more cheaply, and in some cases better, by the private sector. I appreciate that that presents problems in the short term for the RAF personnel who are performing the tasks, but they are in the RAF only for a certain period, and in some cases, they can be reassigned.

Mrs. Ewing

I understand the Minister's point, but why should those personnel be denied the right to make an in-house bid? Surely, with the rights of a democracy, and given the skills of the personnel, they should have the facility to make a tender themselves. Why are they being denied that facility?

Mr. Freeman

I had hoped that I had explained the rationale, which is that there are functions which need not, or should not, be performed by service men or women. There are many other examples where we welcome in-house bids and where the function can and should be performed in part or in whole by service men and women in the future. We have made strategic judgments that it would be better if certain functions were performed not by service men but by the private sector. The hon. Lady may disagree, and I am sure that she will contribute to the debate.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

That matter will obviously loom large throughout the debate, but does the Minister accept that, if the Air Force is to continue to be a customer—perhaps increasingly a customer—of private operations, it needs to be an intelligent customer, and should therefore retain substantial skills to ensure that the taxpayer gets a good deal?

Mr. Freeman

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Where we might disagree is on whether simulation training falls within the activities that the services should perform. If he will bear with me, I will briefly cover RAF Sealand and RAF St. Athan, where it is the Government's judgment that the RAF should retain an element of being an intelligent customer, and should therefore stay in that business.

Returning to the first part of my remarks, given the new emphasis placed on flexibility and mobility, we judged it no longer necessary to maintain both our air stations in Germany, and plan to close RAF Laarbruch in 1999. Work continues to assess the most cost-effective, long-term basing arrangements for the Harriers and support helicopters, which will return to the United Kingdom.

"Front Line First" gave a substantial impetus to the Government's "Competing for Quality" initiative, to which the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) referred, which was designed to improve the quality of public services and gain better value for money by expanding competition.

The RAF manpower structure study confirmed that there was scope for the extension of that initiative in the support area, and our aim is to concentrate our scarce and expensive resources of highly trained military manpower on those operational and support tasks that need their skills and qualities. For other tasks, we will use the "Competing for Quality" programme to secure long-term value for money, substantial savings in cost, efficiency improvements and higher standards of service.

Our aim is to complete RAF support activities, which account for some £400 million per annum, by the end of the century under that programme. That is in addition to the £2 billion of running costs—leaving aside equipment procurement—that the RAF already spends in the private sector every year.

I said in the defence debate last October that we intended to press ahead with a vigorous market-testing programme, within the framework of Government ownership, for the major engineering establishments at RAF Sealand and RAF St. Athan. Since then, consultation with industry has confirmed our view that there are good prospects for achieving best value for money through competition and private sector involvement.

Subject to trade union consultation, we have now concluded that, at RAF Sealand, the way forward should be to allow the private sector to compete for the management of the facility as a whole. The continued involvement of service men and women is assumed, as is the case at St. Athan.

We intend to develop a formal statement of requirements broad enough to cover a range of management solutions at RAF Sealand, including those based on partnering arrangements between the public and private sector—that is to say, a private sector company joining the Air Force in the management and running of RAF Sealand. There will be an opportunity for an in-house bid for the management of the facility at RAF Sealand—as I said, service men and women will continue to work there—and our aim is to have the new structure in place by July next year.

The position at RAF St. Athan is more complex, given the diverse nature of the work and the substantial service presence. We have concluded that work at St. Athan on combat aircraft maintenance, which is closely related to the front line, should for now remain a direct service task. For the other work, which forms the majority of that done at the site, we propose to move as quickly as possible to competitions based on discrete packages of work, again allowing the opportunity for in-house bids. Subject to consultation with the trade unions, our intention now is to develop an agreed framework and time scale for moving ahead.

The combined effects of the rationalisation and restructuring measures that I have described will have a major effect on RAF service and civilian personnel. We have announced that a redundancy programme, involving some 8,600 service personnel, is needed for the RAF, of which just over 1,000 were planned before the defence costs study. Volunteers have been sought for redundancy in 1995–96, and work is continuing on the composition of the second phase in 1996–97. The first phase—some 2,100 redundancies—will be volunteers, but we expect that there will have to be some compulsory redundancies—about 6,500—in the second phase in 1996–97.

Change on that scale, however necessary, is inevitably painful and disruptive for those concerned. My ministerial colleagues and I are only too well aware of the extent of turbulence and uncertainty, and the effect on the morale of the service men and women and civilians concerned, and of their families.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that, although there are strong arguments in favour of the restructuring that the Government have set in train, it produces great uncertainty for many service men and women, including many of my constituents who serve at RAF Halton and RAF Strike Command, as they and their families do not yet know how the changes initiated nationally will affect them? Will he undertake to press on senior officers of the Royal Air Force the importance of making it clear as soon as possible to individual service men and women how they personally will be affected, so that some certainty is restored to them?

Mr. Freeman

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is extremely important that we identify which service men and women have been selected for redundancy, because, until that is done, there will be uncertainty. I understand how the uncertainty affects the whole of the Royal Air Force, not just those involved. But the sequence of the ending of the cold war, involving reductions in the front line, and then the defence costs study to try to economise on our support in the best way possible, producing good value for money but improving and, in some cases, enhancing our front line, must be the right way forward.

Mrs. Ewing

Will the Minister confirm that there will be full negotiations with any service man or woman who is asked to accept redundancy under the current plans, and that the existing regulations will not be altered? For those who remain within the service, will he touch on the vexed issue of housing, given the considerable debate about the transfer of RAF housing to agency status?

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces listened intently to the hon. Lady's question, and will respond when he winds up the debate, because her point refers not just to the Royal Air Force. The hon. Lady deserves a proper reply, and she will get one from my hon. Friend, if not verbally, then in writing.

While considering the morale of the armed forces, I should like to say something about the policy of discharging those members of the armed forces who admit to being homosexual or who engage in homosexual activity. Discharge is the policy recommended by our military advisers and fully supported by the Government.

The Ministry of Defence has long taken the view that homosexuality is not compatible with securing the aims of the armed forces, because it undermines the good order and discipline necessary for military effectiveness. This is not a moral judgment, but a practical assessment by those best placed to make it—the military—of the implications of homosexual orientation on military life. It is therefore our policy administratively to discharge personnel who admit to being homosexual or who engage in homosexual activity.

We consider that homosexuals and homosexual activity should be excluded from the armed forces in that way because of the different, and unique, nature of service life. No parallel exists in civilian life. Service personnel are often required to live and work together in very close proximity to one another. They have little choice about living in communal single-sex accommodation, with the resultant lack of privacy. At times, they must work in difficult circumstances, under considerable stress, where operational requirements take precedence over personal privacy and comfort. In such circumstances, absolute trust and confidence between all ranks is essential.

Moreover, some 35 per cent. of new recruits to the armed services as a whole are aged under 18. The services have a responsibility for the welfare and morale of their young recruits, and in that sense, act in loco parentis. Parents, as well as the young people themselves, trust the services to look after and safeguard them properly. We should be failing in our duty if we did not do so.

The House will already have appreciated the fact that the shadow Secretary of State for Defence has said that the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces is an infringement of civil liberties. He was reported in the Daily Express of 29 April 1995 as saying: The policy is that homosexuality will not be a reason for dismissal from the Armed Forces. That will be our policy after the next election. On 22 April, he was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying that, within a month of the Labour party ever taking office, a working party would be set up to introduce new regulations to lift the current ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces. He said: We will work out a way to hit the ground running. I quite understand, from a moral standpoint, that people may adopt different approaches to homosexuality. I am not entering into any argument on the moral issues, because that would be inappropriate. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have different views. Upon military advice, however, and with the full support of Her Majesty's Government, we do not believe that it is appropriate to retain homosexuals in the armed forces.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I have listened carefully to what the Minister said and the tone in which he said it. He referred to reports in The Daily Telegraph. The Labour party's position was read out to journalists from that paper on four separate occasions, but they ignored it completely. I am therefore glad to have the opportunity to make our policy clear.

As the Minister knows, and as was read out to The Daily Telegraph, this is a problem currently before the courts—indeed, I believe that it is before the High Court within the next two weeks. This problem faces our armed forces as well as virtually all other armed forces in the western world. As The Daily Telegraph was told: Other countries have faced similar problems and have ultimately been able to arrive at a constructive solution, acceptable both to the Armed Forces and society as a whole. A Labour Government will therefore establish a Commission"— if the problem still exists— to study the experiences of other nations". I want to emphasise that the commission will obviously include the chiefs of staff, as it must do. It will adopt the best practices towards evolving a solution for the British Armed Forces. That was a moderate statement, and I was delighted to note that it was basically endorsed by the vice-chairman of the Conservative party on the BBC at 7 o'clock on Sunday.

Mr. Freeman

The deputy chairman of the Conservative party has written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to explain that his contribution to the programme was misinterpreted. His view is not as it was reported.

I have made the Government's position crystal clear, so I hope that there is no room for misunderstanding it. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) must make the role of the commission clear to the House. He said that the chiefs of staff would serve on it, which sounds a little incredible to me. The hon. Gentleman has been quoted as saying that the purpose of the commission is to work out how to implement change rather than whether such a change should be made. Doubtless other Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen will shed more light on the subject. I have put—with clarity, I hope—the Government's position.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I applaud the statement from my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), which represents the right way to proceed.

The Minister has said that the Government's position is absolutely clear, and that they are not making any moral judgment, but the Government have obviously made such a judgment by saying that they do not want homosexuals in the armed forces. Other armed forces have got round the matter and include personnel of homosexual orientation, which has not caused any of the problems that the Minister has pretended would exist.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the end of the last war. The Minister should remember that then, the country was happy for many people of homosexual orientation to fight and to lay down their lives for it. Their orientation was not held against them by the country then, so why is the Minister adopting such a backward attitude now?

Mr. Freeman

I am not casting any aspersions upon the valour of the service men and women who may or may not have been homosexual in the second world war—the hon. Gentleman should not misinterpret my remarks. As the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has acknowledged, I am not making a moral judgment. I have simply said that, in today's circumstances and given the size and nature not only of the threat that faces our armed forces but of the way in which they discharge their duties—hon. Members should not forget that we have a Regular Army, Navy and Air Force—it is a military judgment that homosexuals should not be retained in our armed forces. The Government concur with that.

Mr. Bill Walker

Is not part of the problem the fact that our debate is largely being conducted by people who have had no military service? As a teenager, I served in a remote part of the middle east, living in a tent with several other adults. I was by far the youngest person there. The circumstances would have been totally unsuitable for any type of situation with a homosexual, especially on active service.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

If you will allow me to press on, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will my right hon. Friend give way on a further matter?

When the House considered that matter most recently, in 1990—I chaired the special Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill—it was the Committee's opinion that homosexuality was incompatible with proper military discipline, and that those who had a homosexual disposition that in any sense impinged on their military duties should be administratively discharged.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House by saying now that, were that matter to be taken to the European Court, and were the European Court to judge that the dismissal of homosexuals from the armed forces of the Crown was in breach of the European equal opportunities directive, Her Majesty's Government would take no notice, but would do what is right in the light of the interests of the country and the maintenance of good morale and discipline in our armed forces?

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend poses a question that I find difficult to answer, partly because it is not a matter for me. I simply say, however, regarding the first part of his intervention, which is much appreciated, that, both in 1990 and, as I recall—I also served on that Committee, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces—five years before that, it was an all-party conclusion that the present policy, which I have outlined, was the correct one, and that homosexuals should be administratively discharged from the armed forces.

I shall now discuss equipment. Following "Front Line First", we announced some very significant early improvements to the RAF's operational capability, including the addition of 12 Harrier aircraft to the front line and substantial additional provision for front-line flying training, which, when it comes into full effect, will result in our front-line air crew being able to fly at rates among the highest in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

The successful outcome of "Front Line First" also underpinned our future investment plans. The scale of those plans for the RAF may not be generally understood. Our programme covers all capability areas, and is designed to replace certain equipment and to deal with the proliferation of sophisticated threat systems and advances in technology.

Eurofighter 2000 will be the key aircraft for the RAF in the first decade of the 21st century. With new short and medium-range air-to-air missiles, Eurofighter will offer a superb capability. The development phase of the programme is making steady progress. Flight testing is expected to resume later this month at British Aerospace Warton. The third prototype, the first to be equipped with the new EJ200 engines from Eurojet—the engine consortium in which Rolls-Royce plays a key role—should also undertake its first flight, in Italy, this month.

We and our partner nations of Germany, Italy and Spain hope to sign the EF2000 development reorientation memorandum of understanding shortly. That will enable us to place the revised main development contracts with industry, placing the project on a much tauter footing. We are also in discussion with our partners about the arrangements for the production investment, production and integrated logistic support phases. We also intend to enhance our capability—

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of my constituents in Stafford on the way in which the issues of equipment spares, and all the things that RAF Stafford 16 Maintenance Unit does so well, have been handled? Will he say that that will continue, and that the extremely effective record of the Government in respect of 16 MU will continue into the future?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I join him in paying tribute to RAF Stafford. Of course Stafford will play its part in supporting future aircraft equipment programmes, including the EF2000.

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of the Eurofighter, will he give the House an assurance that, in taking the final decisions about the future of that programme, he will use financial yardsticks that are as rigid and careful as those that were applied to the purchase of the EH101 multi-purpose helicopter?

Mr. Freeman

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am grateful for his support for the continued existence of the helicopter design and manufacturing capability in the United Kingdom, which is extremely important.

We also intend to enhance our capability for deep low-level attack by day and night and in all weathers. As part of "Front Line First", we announced a substantial package of improvements to 142 Tornado GR1 aircraft, sufficient to sustain eight front-line squadrons well into the next century. The order, which has been placed with British Aerospace, is worth some £700 million.

We need to provide modern weapon systems for our advanced combat aircraft. Advanced precision weapons were used to great effect in the Gulf war. Again as part of "Front Line First", we signed a contract for Paveway III bombs and laser designators which, with associated work, totalled about £300 million.

Since "Front Line First", we have issued invitations to tender for two more key weapon systems. The conventionally armed stand-off missile will allow long-range precision targeting of strategic, tactical and infrastructure assets. The air-launched anti-armour weapon will be capable of attacking future main battle tanks and a range of other armoured vehicles and air defence systems. The competitions currently under way are a vital part of our procurement strategy for those new weapons, which are due to enter service early in the next century.

The time scales needed to develop and produce complex weapon systems are such that we must also give thought now to aircraft that will come into service well into the future. Tornado GR4 aircraft will need to be replaced in the second decade of the next century. The requirement for a future offensive aircraft could be addressed in a number of ways; a European collaborative venture is one possibility.

Preliminary studies to define the relevant technologies are in hand on a co-operative basis with France, and a memorandum of understanding is being drawn up that will allow the work to be carried forward. We need to minimise the risk inherent in such major new development projects, and we fully recognise the benefits of demonstrating, at an early stage, the key advanced technologies involved to ensure that subsequent procurement decisions are soundly based.

Following the signature of a statement of intent before Easter, we are also negotiating with the United States a memorandum of understanding for participation in its joint advanced strike technology programme. The US programme aims to provide a family of closely related and affordable combat aircraft for the US services. Our prime interest is in the advanced short take-off vertical landing variant, which could provide a replacement for the Royal Navy's Sea Harrier aircraft in the next century. We are also exploring whether one of the variants from the JAST programme could satisfy the requirements of the RAF for a Tornado GR4 replacement.

The E3D airborne early warning aircraft has justified its central place in the future force structure in a range of recent operations. At sea, our Nimrod aircraft continue to carry out essential maritime patrol tasks. I was pleased to announce earlier in the year that we had invited four potential prime contractors to bid for an aircraft to replace the Nimrod early in the next century. We expect a contract to be let in late summer 1996.

Air transport is an integral component of air power in the new strategic environment. It is essential for rapid power projection, and for a range of peace support and humanitarian missions. We announced last December that we would purchase 25 Hercules C130J aircraft to satisfy the immediate operational needs of the RAF, and that we would rejoin the future large aircraft programme at the end of the feasibility phase, subject to a number of conditions being met. We hope to do that by the end of the current calendar year.

The contract for the C130J aircraft was placed with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company on 3 March. There is a significant UK industrial interest in the programme: some 35 British companies have competed successfully to supply equipment to Lockheed. Their achievements will provide the UK economy with business opportunities estimated at around £1 billion. Following the announcement, we are actively seeking to establish a satisfactory basis for rejoining the FLA programme. Work to date underlines our strong resolve to help to establish a viable programme, based on commercial management, under the umbrella of the Airbus consortium and a competitively priced aircraft.

As the House is aware—and as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) has just pointed out—there has been a long-standing requirement for additional support helicopters. We announced in March that we would purchase 22 utility EH101 and eight Chinook helicopters, together with an additional six Chinooks to maintain the current fleet, taking into account attrition losses. That decision, which was widely welcomed, will lead to a substantial increase—some 70 per cent.—in support helicopter capability, as well as employment and industrial benefits.

The White Paper refers to a number of other improvements made possible by stability in the provision of resources for defence, and the continuing efforts by budget holders to extract the greatest output from the resources allocated to them.

Let me end by referring to the defence industrial base. The size and extent of the investment programme that I have outlined indicates the central role that industry will continue to play in delivering the front line of the future for the RAF as well as for the other two services. Defence expenditure in the UK, by the MOD and by overseas customers, sustained over 400,000 jobs in the industry in 1992–93, the last year for which estimates are available.

UK companies are responsible for some 90 per cent. of UK defence equipment spending. The UK draws great benefit from an efficient and technologically capable defence industrial base which contributes significantly to the UK's export order book, winning new business worth some £5 billion a year. It also provides significant spin-off into the civil sector, and skilled training for many of the country's craftsmen.

In recent years, my Department has pursued a policy of competitive procurement, with the aim of providing the right equipment at the right price and the right time to ensure that our forces are properly equipped, supported and trained, while making the best use of taxpayers' money. As a result, there has been a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of the UK's defence industrial base. Industry has shown on numerous occasions that it can compete in the world's defence markets, and win against tough competition.

The current restructuring of the defence industry in Europe and the US is likely to continue as a result of declining defence budgets, the increasing costs of high technology development and global competition. In common with its counterparts elsewhere, the UK defence industry must continue to evolve in response to those developments.

How industry is structured, and what it sells, must principally be determined by companies operating within the market, and not by Governments; but it is clear that there is a growing commercial necessity for more collaboration, both with other European countries and with the US. I am pleased to see that many UK companies are entering into joint ventures and co-operative arrangements. There is no doubt that those cross-border alliances will be a vital component in meeting our future defence equipment needs.

I recognise that Government cannot stand aside from these developments. We already do all we can to assist industry by discussing our future equipment plans as openly as possible. There are long-standing channels of communication such as the National Defence Industries Council, frequent meetings with trade associations and the publication of the "Defence Contracts Bulletin". We shall seek to sustain and develop those channels to make them more effective. We want a genuine partnership between the Ministry of Defence and British industry.

More fundamentally, we must recognise industry's concerns to maintain the UK's position in a declining world defence market. We share an interest in ensuring that we retain healthy and forward-looking defence industries, capable of competing with the best in the world and contributing as equal partners in major international collaborative projects, not least in Europe. A strong national industrial capability in the defence sector will help to ensure that we can provide our armed forces with the equipment that they will need in the longer term.

The Ministry of Defence is therefore looking at its own procurement practices and planning assumptions to ensure that such factors, including the advantages and disadvantages of off-the-shelf procurement or collaborative or national development of equipment, are fully taken into account, while always maintaining the principle of value for money. As part of that exercise, my officials will wish to take into account the views of industry and, of course, of the Defence and Trade and Industry Select Committees in their current work. I shall be giving evidence to the combined Select Committees later this month.

From this Government, the RAF will have the full range of equipment it needs to sustain the proud traditions built up in the course of its first 77 years. It will be more flexible, mobile and able to apply air power in complex and sophisticated ways beyond the dreams of its founding fathers. Above all, it will retain the commitment to excellence—in operations, training, technology and management—that has sustained its past achievements.

We recognise that the key to all this will be our ability to continue to attract and retain the high-quality people needed to deliver such a challenging agenda. The next couple of years will be difficult and demanding, but I am confident that the RAF will surmount the challenge, as it has done so often in the past.

For their part, the Government are committed—as yesterday's White Paper makes clear—to injecting a period of stability after the prolonged and difficult, but inevitable and essential, process of change following the end of the cold war.

In The Guardian of 3 May, the shadow Foreign Secretary promised that the Labour party would build on its new statement of aims and values … to increase the momentum on policy-making with a string of statements before the end of the year". I turned the page to read precisely what that meant for defence.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Freeman

Perhaps the House would like to hear about the Labour party's policy first. As to defence, The Guardian stated: No policy paper is underway, although Shadow Secretary David Clark has promised a full defence review within six months of coming into office.

Mr. Redmond

I thank the Minister for giving way. I draw his attention to a Conservative Lord Chancellor's remarks to me when I wrote to him quoting from a newspaper. He said, "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers, as it sometimes rots the mind." I advise the Minister not to do any long-term newspaper reading.

Mr. Freeman

I find it hard to discover, either from the newspapers or from past statements by Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons, precisely what Labour party policy is. The Times of 2 March stated: David Clark, the Shadow Defence Secretary, said the review to which I have just referred would remove the uncertainty from the Armed Forces". The Labour party does not have a defence policy, other than the one regarding homosexuality in the armed forces to which I referred earlier. The hon. Member for South Shields has made his party's position clear in that regard, but he has referred to no other policies except the review. The review would cause instability and uncertainty, and it would damage the morale of the armed forces.

Dr. David Clark

On that very narrow point, it is worth while informing the Minister—I know that he is a very reasonable man—that the Labour party has established a policy commission to examine foreign affairs and defence issues. It has held meetings, and has received papers from many experts. We are evolving a policy that we will present to the British public at the next election. I am certain that it will be endorsed, and that there will be a Labour Government.

Mr. Freeman

The whole House has heard the hon. Gentleman's message that work is in hand. I think that our reply is, "Hurrah!" We look forward to hearing about the Labour party's policies, but we will not know this afternoon precisely what they are. I have spelt out the Government's policies concerning the Royal Air Force, and I hope that the House will endorse them.

4.51 pm
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I feel sure that Opposition Members would wish to be associated with the remarks of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement about the dedication, professionalism and sacrifice of past generations in the Royal Air Force, as well as of our present serving personnel. That does not apply only to the RAF; it applies throughout our armed forces. We are well served by the people who choose to defend this country.

In the run-up to the VE day celebrations, we are delighted that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the grandson of our second world war Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, will wind up the debate today from the Conservative Front Bench. I am sure that Sir Winston, who had a great sense of history, would have been extremely proud that the Minister should be replying to the debate on behalf of the Government. However, I am certain that both Churchill and the Minister would agree that victory in Europe 50 years ago was not the achievement of only one man; it resulted from the collective leadership of the wartime coalition Government, the courage and the immense sacrifice on the part of our armed forces and the fact that the people of this country had a single-minded determination to defend freedom and democracy.

It was with the 50th anniversary of VE day in mind that I recently visited the RAF museum at Hendon. I recommend a visit to that museum to any hon. Member who has not already visited it. It is a credit to the RAF and to the museum curator and the staff. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement said that very few present Front-Bench Members were alive during the war or immediately after it. As a schoolboy, I remember the legends and the stories about the famous wartime aircraft. I recalled those stories when I visited the museum and saw the Hurricanes and Spitfires and the Halifax, Wellington and Lancaster bombers.

The visit brought home to me the immensity of the industrial war machine that we developed to defeat the Nazis. We needed not only quality but quantity of aircraft, and we managed to provide it. Although we no longer supply that quantity of aircraft in this country, there is no doubt that we still build some of the finest military aircraft in the world. We should all be very proud of that fact.

The museum collection also contains portraits of the RAF leaders during the war—Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and the Marshal of the Air Force, Sir Arthur Harris. In recent years, it has become popular to denigrate their achievements. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the reality is that we were in the middle of a major war, we had suffered terrible bombing by the Germans and I think that those RAF leaders took the right decisions for that time. I wish that people would look at the issues from that perspective instead of constantly criticising the leaders' achievements.

The one statistic we should never forget is that more than 70,000 air crew were listed as either killed or missing during the five and a half years of world war two. More than 50 per cent. of that number were from Bomber Command. They made that sacrifice to protect freedom and democracy—something that we should never take for granted.

The RAF still protects freedom and democracy. In the former Yugoslavia, the Jaguars and Tornados are helping to police the no-fly zone. Every day, Hercules air crews risk their lives delivering medical supplies and food to the beleaguered people of the besieged city of Sarajevo. We do not perform those duties only in Bosnia. The RAF served with distinction during the Gulf war and RAF forces are still stationed in that area today. Harriers operating from Turkey police Iraqi Kurdistan. Under the United Nations mandate, Tornado bombers fly out of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to protect the marsh Arabs in the southern Iraqi marshlands. If it were not for their presence, the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein would reap a terrible harvest among that civilian population. The people of those areas believe in the RAF.

Without the help of the RAF, the security forces in Northern Ireland would not have been able to cope during the 25 years of the troubles. I recently had the pleasure—if that is the word—of being flown from Derry to Belfast airport by the RAF during a force eight gale. The crew members were very good, and I was very frightened and glad to get off the plane. Their professionalism shone through. I think that there is a feeling in some circles—it is referred to in the defence estimates report—that the troubles are over. Following yesterday's incident in Northern Ireland, we must not take too much for granted. We must be very careful when it comes to cutting the size of our forces on that basis.

The people of Britain are very grateful for the search and rescue role performed by the RAF using the Sea King helicopters. At this point, I must express some concern about the search and rescue review that took place in 1992. That review left this country with what I can only describe as a minimal service.

The decision to rationalise was based on the fact that the Sea King had replaced the Wessex. In my opinion, that cost-cutting exercise could cost lives in future. That was realised by the Select Committee on Transport, which recommended that RAF Manston and RAF Brawdy in Wales should remain open. The Government ignored that advice.

The reallocation of search and rescue has been criticised by many local communities as response times have increased because of the changes. The change of cover implemented in the North sea, the Dover straits and St. George's channel no longer meets the criteria set out by the helicopter coverage group. Although those areas are not large, they are intensively used, especially by ferries to the continent. If we are not careful, there will be a major disaster and we will not have adequate helicopter coverage to respond in sufficient time, resulting in the loss of lives.

There is no doubt that the replacement of the Wessex by the Sea King was welcome, but no matter how modern and speedy a helicopter is, it cannot be in two places at once. The number of helicopters has been reduced, when there is an increased demand on the search and rescue service from mountain rescue teams who, for health and safety reasons, increasingly call on that service.

In my constituency, where there are no mountains but there are fells, the mountain rescue service regularly uses helicopters to get injured people to hospital quickly and to safeguard members of the mountain rescue team who have to descend through difficult terrain.

I am sorry that the Government have left the search and rescue service severely overstretched. I call on them to take action to redress the position immediately before there is unnecessary loss of life.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

Can the hon. Gentleman report any incident this year when a helicopter has been requested by the mountain rescue service and not provided, except in very bad weather conditions?

Mr. Martlew

I understand that there was an incident in the channel and a Belgian helicopter got there first.

Mr. Gallie

I was asking about mountain rescue.

Mr. Martlew

The hon. Gentleman is playing with words; he hears only what he wants to hear. There is no doubt that response times have deteriorated and there is increased concern. I am putting it on record before there is a disaster, as the Government need to be warned.

Mr. Bill Walker

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The search and rescue capability that used to be at RAF Leuchars in my constituency is sadly missed. There have been incidents when people were unable to get a helicopter when one was required and that is rather sad.

Mr. Martlew

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. If we keep closing RAF base after RAF base, the Government will need to consider whether alternatives should be used. The RAF would not like that because it considers it to be valuable training, but we have to make sure that lives are not lost.

Mrs. Ewing

We all agree that search and rescue services are an important part of the work of the RAF. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is no need to accept arguments that are often propounded by other hon. Members that the capability represents a cost to the taxpayer, because all the RAF stations involved in mountain search and rescue services regard it as part and parcel of their general training, therefore it is a commitment rather than a cost to the taxpayer?

Mr. Martlew

I understand that there is a cost to the taxpayer, but it is one worth paying. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) suggested that local authorities should pay towards it. That is not the case. If there are any grounds whatsoever for that argument, perhaps the money should come out of the Department of Transport budget. I see that the Secretary of State agrees.

I am concerned about overstretching of the search and rescue capability and generally in the RAF. We now have 50 aircraft flying on behalf of the United Nations in Iraq and Bosnia.

Lady Olga Maitland

The hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating that we should spend more rather than less on the RAF. How does he square that with six consecutive Labour party conference motions suggesting that we should cut our defence spending by £6 billion?

Mr. Martlew

I find that difficult to accept from the hon. Lady, whose party has cut defence by 30 per cent. in recent years. According to the defence estimates, the Government plan to make cuts of £1.5 billion in future, so that they can give back the tax before the next general election. I do not accept that argument from the hon. Lady.

Mr. Freeman

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not seeking to mislead the House on this point, but from 1 April this financial year and for the next three years, our defence expenditure is stable.

Mr. Martlew

The Minister should read the defence estimates.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I wrote them.

Mr. Martlew

The Secretary of State may have written them, but he obviously was not reading what he had written. On page 136 there is a commitment to cut £1.5 billion. If that is not the case, why did he announce that there would have to be compulsory redundancies in the armed forces in future? It is because the Government are cutting defence. It is wrong for the Government to attempt to mislead the House. I hope that we shall debate the defence estimates before the recess, rather than afterwards, in order to discuss the matter more fully.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has already expressed concern about overstretch, which puts great pressure on the aircraft, pilots and support teams. Current operations are placing particular strain on certain sectors. I understand that the Hercules fleet is facing real problems. We have NATO bases in Turkey and Italy, but the Hercules fleet has to carry out more than regular flights to service those bases. When the Select Committee was considering the matter, it stated that defence policy was being decided by the availability of scarce resources rather than the dictates of national interest or international obligations. The only possible conclusion is that the Government have cut the RAF too far.

I am not totally negative about the Government, as I am a very fair man.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

In the forthcoming Labour defence review, should it ever happen, will the hon. Gentleman clarify for the House what changes he would be likely to make to the RAF and whether he thinks it would get bigger or smaller?

Mr. Martlew

I remember the Minister saying that he considered his time in the Army as a career break between Eton and the Cabinet. If he carries on asking such questions, it could be a very long career break. The defence review will tell us the answer.

I shall not be totally negative about the Government's downsizing of the RAF. We congratulate the decision of the Secretary of State to remove unilaterally the nuclear deterrent role of the RAF. That role began in the 1950s and continued through Labour Governments, but the Secretary of State had the courage to decide to remove it. I only wish that he had the courage to take credit for it. Time and again he comes to the Dispatch Box foaming at the mouth with artificial indignation about Labour Members who are long-lapsed members of CND, when he has done more to reduce the number of nuclear weapons than anybody else in British history.

The Secretary of State came to the Dispatch Box frothing and foaming on the day he announced the cancellation of the tactical air-to-surface missile—TASM—the RAF nuclear missile. The same thing happened when he announced that the United Kingdom would have 21 per cent. fewer nuclear warheads than in the 1970s. Then it was announced that the Government would withdraw the RAF's nuclear bomb, the WE177. I understand that it is to be withdrawn by 1998, when originally it was intended that it would be in service until the next century. Earlier in the week, the Secretary of State fumed, huffed and puffed at the Dispatch Box about the CND. That was followed by a statement which, on analysis, suggested that we shall have fewer nuclear warheads on Trident than ever before. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has reduced the number of nuclear warheads by 21 per cent. and reduced their explosive power by 59 per cent. Those are the comparisons to be drawn with the levels of the 1970s when we had a Labour Government.

Mr. Rifkind

As I have not been the Secretary of State for Defence since the early 1970s, I can hardly claim credit for comparisons with the 1970s. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there has been a reduction in the number of warheads and the explosive yield of our nuclear force, comparing today with the early 1970s and the coming into effect of the non-proliferation treaty. As the hon. Gentleman has been so kind as to be complimentary about the reductions in nuclear weapons for which I have been responsible, will he accept, given that background, that the Labour party's current proposal to insist that Trident should carry only the same number of warheads as was carried by Polaris is based on a clear and fundamental misunderstanding of the respective systems? It is a simplistic approach and the outcome would be very much against the UK's interests. The policy is not compatible with our requirement to ensure the same deterrent effect with Trident as with Polaris.

Mr. Martlew

I would give more credence to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's views if he had not responded as he did to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) when he asked him to scrap TASM. The right hon. and learned Gentleman gave a similar answer on that occasion. We think of him as carrying on his good work. Perhaps in future he will be known as Malcolm the Disarmer.

Mr. Rifkind

I much appreciate the hon. Gentleman's generosity in giving way. Perhaps he will be good enough to consult the record on my views about TASM since first being asked about it. He might recall that I said that the matter was under review, and that was exactly the position. We concluded that, because we could achieve the same sub-strategic deterrent with the use of Trident at virtually no additional cost to the defence budget, the TASM approach was infinitely preferable to financing at well over £1 billion a new sub-strategic system to be carried by the Royal Air Force. As we could maintain the same sub-strategic capability with a much smaller burden on the defence budget, it made sense to go in that direction.

Mr. Martlew

I am not criticising the Secretary of State. If, however, he had taken the Opposition's advice on TASM two years earlier, development costs could have been saved.

I must praise the Secretary of State for all that he has done in the context of nuclear weapons. I understand that his honorary membership of the CND is in the post.

The Labour party has always taken the view that we should provide our armed forces with the best available equipment. At the same time, we need to ensure value for money. Wherever possible the equipment should be produced entirely or partly within the United Kingdom. When that is impossible, the maximum offset should be obtained. Against that background, it is no surprise that since the mid-1980s the Labour party has been a supporter of the purchase of the Westland helicopter known as the EH101.

To that extent, the Opposition welcome the Ministry of Defence's decision in March to purchase 22 of those helicopters. We remain critical, however, that there was an eight-year delay in the placement of the order. There is no doubt that that delay lost us valuable export orders. I think especially of the Dutch contract for the Dutch forces. It might be that our Minister with procurement responsibilities had a word in the ear of his Dutch counterpart and thereafter the Dutch bought the French equivalent. There is no doubt that Westland is important if we are to retain a helicopter industry in the United Kingdom and that the industry must be kept at Yeovil.

The Minister has talked about the Hercules replacement. The Labour party was of the opinion that the future large aircraft project should be given an opportunity to enter the market. It therefore welcomes the decision that was announced in January by the Government that they will rejoin the FLA project after the completion of the feasibility studies. That means in reality, however, that the Government are admitting that they were wrong to pull out in the first instance.

These criticisms are nothing compared with our condemnation of the Government's handling of the Eurofighter 2000 and the Tornado mid-life update contracts. The Labour party has supported the Eurofighter project since its inception, and it will continue to do so. Unfortunately, there has been a sorry tale of delay and overspend. The EF is now two years behind schedule and remains dogged by difficulties. In February, it was estimated that the total cost of the aircraft would be £14.9 billion. In real terms, the cost of development has increased by a projected £2.2 billion. If the cost of the aircraft increases when it is in production, overall costs will be even higher. We could buy many district general hospitals for £2.2 billion. With that amount, the RAF hospital could be kept open for about 1,000 years, or longer. I am much involved with the west coast main railway line. We could upgrade that line from Carlisle to Glasgow and back again—not that there would be any need to go back—for £2.2 billion. There has been a waste of £2.2 billion because the Government cannot control costs.

Mr. Bill Walker

The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the RAF had been cut too much and that more money needed to be spent on it. Anyone reading a report of what he has just said would have the impression that a future Labour Government, if one were ever to exist, would not pursue the Eurofighter 2000 purchase.

Mr. Martlew

I am sorry if I did not explain myself sufficiently clearly. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not listening attentively.

Spending on the RAF would not have needed to be cut if there had not been excess expenditure of £2.2 billion. As I have said, the Labour party has supported the Eurofighter since its inception. It does not, however, support the extravagance that is now to be seen.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martlew

I am sorry, no. I have already given way to the hon. Lady.

The Eurofighter is two years behind schedule and it is already £2.2 billion over budget, and that figure is likely to increase. At least the aircraft flew in April 1994, which we welcomed. This is a key year for the Eurofighter because the development phase is largely completed and the four nations involved in the consortium must now sign an production agreement.

The aircraft has come under particular criticism by the Germans. There have been problems between the contractors and the German Government. I hope that they have been resolved. As I have said, we are coming to the point when the contract must be signed for the production run.

It was argued initially that the industries involved would obtain work on a percentage of the aeroplanes built. The Germans decided originally that they wanted 250. They have now decided that they want only 140. The Italians have reduced their take of new aeroplanes from 165 to 120, and the Spanish from 100 to 87. Meanwhile, we have maintained our commitment—I do not object to this—to 250. Those figures should allow British industry to undertake 40 per cent. of the production work on the Eurofighter. I am sure that nobody would disagree with that.

I read in the Financial Times last month, however, that the Government of Germany were threatening to pull out of the scheme if they did not get 33 per cent. of the production work. I hope that in his winding-up speech the Minister will say that the British Government will stick with the original agreement. If the German Government want more work, they must order more aeroplanes. We should stick with the 40 per cent. for which we originally signed. I do not think that Ministers can take any credit for such a fiasco, although I accept that neither the Minister of State for Defence Procurement nor the Minister of State for the Armed Forces were in post when most of the money was wasted.

The Tornado mid-life update is yet another example of the Government's failure to extract value for money or, indeed, get projects delivered on time. The National Audit Office subjected the project to severe criticism and pointed out that the original in-service date for the aircraft was 1993 and that the estimated cost was £540 million. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement said that it was a great project costing £700 million. It should not have cost that. It should have cost only £540 million. Indeed, many of us suspect that there will be at least a £270 million overspend on the project and that it will be five years late. It is another example of how the Government have wasted money in the MOD. No wonder the Ministry of Defence is known throughout the Government and the country as the Ministry of waste.

As I said, present Ministers cannot take all the credit. The former Minister of State for Defence Procurement, the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), has been promoted to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The man responsible for the highest overspend in any project is now second in command at the Treasury. It beggars belief.

I accept that the Royal Air Force had to reorganise after the cold war—perhaps the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam does not, but most of us accept that there had to be some change. The reorganisation under "Options for Change" reduced the strength of the RAF from 90,000 personnel—what it should have been—to 75,000 by this year. It meant that we lost 14 squadrons and our front-line jet combat strength was reduced by a third. Overall, the number of air bases in the United Kingdom and Germany was reduced by 23. Then, in July 1993, the Government panicked. They needed to save £750 million and they therefore cut another Tornado squadron. The defence costs study means that by the end of the decade, RAF personnel numbers will have dropped from about 90,000 to about 50,000—nearly a cut of 50 per cent.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for finally giving way. Perhaps it is even more appropriate for him to give way now than it was earlier. We are hearing of the concern about so-called cuts; what I would call value for money. Will he explain a little how he equates his concern about the size of our armed forces with a statement made by his hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) to the Royal United Services Institute? I have a copy of the hon. Gentleman's speech, in which he said that he welcomed an opportunity to reduce defence spending. How does that equate with the hon. Gentleman's concern about the size of our armed forces?

Mr. Martlew

I do not think that my hon. Friend quoted a figure of 30 per cent., as has the Minister, who welcomed the opportunity. When I asked the hon. Lady in a recent debate whether she would increase spending in the armed forces, she said that she would only if there were growth in the economy. Despite that answer and the growth in the economy, she is going to vote for the defence estimates and for the slashing of the defence budget by £1.5 billion. Her arguments are not credible at all.

Numbers in the RAF have been cut by almost a half. Such decline is not easy to manage, and we accept that, but the crass way in which in the Government have done it is beyond belief. The repercussions of the decision to issue compulsory redundancy notices to service personnel who were on active service went way beyond the individuals concerned. Whenever I go to a base or an Army camp, I am reminded that the Government sent redundancy notices to people on active service in Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

The other drastic blow to morale, especially of the RAF, came when the Secretary of State—I am sorry that he is not in his place—demanded, in essence, the resignation of Sir Sandy Wilson, the second most senior officer in the Royal Air Force. That demand followed allegations of unauthorised spending on official residences. We in Parliament cannot tell whether that action was justified. A report was produced by KPMG Peat Marwick—it cost us £100,000 and we were only investigating an overspend of £380,000—but the Government censored it; they would not make it public to Members of Parliament or anyone else. No official announcement was made.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) accused the Secretary of State of fleeing the capital on the day that the news came out. Not only did the Secretary of State flee the capital that day but the following week he fled the country and went to Poland. It was a disgrace that the character of one of our finest officers was besmirched in such a way without the Secretary of State coming to the Dispatch Box to explain why.

Mr. Hardy

Does my hon. Friend agree that the record was put a little straight, because, a few days after the Secretary of State had expressed no confidence in Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, in reply to a debate secured by his hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), paid a deserved and full tribute to Sir Sandy? The record needs to be further clarified, so I hope that my hon. Friend's questions will be answered in full.

Mr. Martlew

I attended that debate and I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a pity that the MOD seemed to keep on leaking to the press the information that the Secretary of State had no confidence in Sir Sandy—

Mr. Soames

rose

Mr. Martlew

In a minute.

Mr. Soames

On that point.

Mr. Martlew

I wish to finish this point.

Mr. Soames

We had a very serious—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) is not giving way. The Minister should wait until the hon. Member gives way.

Mr. Martlew

I am sorry for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the Minister replies to that point—he will have the chance to reply at the end of the debate—will he tell us who was the major budget holder for that official residence? Was it Sir Sandy? We understand that it was not. I do not wish to go into the matter any further because I understand that hon. Members of all parties will be touching on the issue.

There has been rapid change in the RAF. Morale is low, yet rapid change is to continue. The Minister announced that there will be compulsory redundancies, and we know that that will also affect morale. I must touch on one report, "Managing People in Tomorrow's Armed Forces", which was published in March, following discussions chaired by Mr. Michael Bett. The Bett report contained many good things. I used to be interested in personnel, so I read the report thoroughly and it contains ideas which would improve the efficiency and morale of the forces. However, one item is generating tremendous opposition, if not disbelief, in the forces—the proposal to introduce performance-related pay. That proposal is nonsense. It cuts across the ethos of our armed forces of teamwork, comradeship and sacrifice. That ethos has served our armed forces, and therefore our country, well over the centuries.

How can we measure performance when it is a matter of life and death? Will our pilots be braver or better in combat if they think that they are going to receive a bonus? Do the Government really believe that, in this country at the present time, the love of money is greater than the love of country?

The chief constable of Hampshire recently highlighted the point, and his comments could apply to any of the uniformed forces, when he said: I joined the force out of a sense of public service … recognising the financial disadvantage. Had I wanted the principles of the market-place, I would not have made that decision … The notion that I will work harder or more effectively because of performance related pay is absurd and objectionable, if not insulting. My advice to the Minister is to cherry-pick the Bett report. I am aware that the chairman of the report said that it should not be cherry-picked, but that was arrogance on his behalf. I would leave the particular cherry of performance-related pay to rot on the tree. Please do not try to run our armed forces like Barings bank.

The Labour party is committed to the strong defence of the nation. Where this Government pursue a policy on strong defence, the Labour party will support them. However, when we do not support them, we will be constructively critical, as we have been today. I am sure that Conservatives will take the same line when there is a Labour Government in the not-too-distant future.

We do not wish to play politics with the defence of this nation or with our armed forces. It is in that spirit that we remember the sacrifices that were made 50 years ago. People in England and Wales today are taking the opportunity to vote. That option would have been denied them if we had lost the war and had lost to fascism. I hope that those who are eligible to vote will do so. Even those who do not take that opportunity have it because of the sacrifices made 50 years ago.

5.32 pm
Sir John Cope (Northavon)

I want to make two points about the RAF—a large point and a small point.

First, it is appropriate to support the tribute paid by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to the RAF for its service during the second world war. My right hon. Friend said that 55 was an important age in that respect. I happen to be rather above that age. I was about eight when the war ended so I have no first-hand reminiscences of horror or fighting, but I remember sleeping in a shelter and the fact that the string on one's gas mask pulled into one's shoulder on the way to school. I recall the occasional thrill of seeing aircraft passing overhead with the three yellow bands which were on them at the time.

My right hon. Friend the Minister was right to pay a great tribute to the RAF for its part in the second world war and in a series of actions since. I was particularly pleased that the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned Northern Ireland, of which I have particular experience and where the RAF has been extremely valuable.

I strongly support the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Minister made at the end of his speech about the defence industrial base. He made a welcome statement and some very good points that back up what he and his colleagues have done recently in the Ministry of Defence.

Strong defence industries are just as important to the defence of our country and our freedoms as strong armed forces. My constituency interest is in the airframes, aero-engines and missiles of British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce. I think of the defence industries mainly with regard to RAF procurement rather than that of the Army or Navy, although my point is not a single service one.

I do not mean simply that it is a good idea to have one's own reliable domestic suppliers in times of war. There are clearly times when that is of the greatest importance, and the incident with Belgian ammunition not so long ago reminded us that gratitude for past services cannot always be relied on. I served in a Territorial Army regiment that had collectively been awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre during the liberation of Brussels, but I shall let that pass.

It is important that our great companies flourish and many of our most important exporting companies are in defence and related areas, including those to which I have referred. They are profoundly affected by MOD procurement decisions. That is why I welcome Defence Ministers' renewed emphasis on industrial arguments when taking procurement decisions. In particular, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on showing appreciation of the importance of the defence industrial base in the future large aircraft decision last December and his attitude to the FLA since, which he expressed again earlier. I also congratulate him on the support helicopter decision, which was taken more recently.

It is very important that our industrial interests are taken into account for economic and employment reasons. Expressed crudely, if we cannot compete in the world marketplace with our industries and great companies, we will not be able to defend ourselves. Poor countries are bullied and lose wars. That is a very important aspect of this part of the debate.

Every important project is now international, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said. United Kingdom Government procurement is not enough to provide the basis for modern aircraft. That is why our defence industrial base depends on exports as well as on sales to the MOD.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to the Defence and Trade and Industry Select Committees, which are considering the issue at the moment. I welcome the involvement of the DTI as well as the MOD in defence procurement decisions. I hope that as a result of the Select Committee reports and of what flows from them we shall see increased and earlier involvement of the DTI in major defence procurement decisions.

I am sorry to see a reduction of the funding percentage for technology demonstrators. Like the Public Accounts Committee, I believe that technology demonstrators can save money. The Government should take that into account. They should also involve suppliers earlier and more deeply in procurement decisions so as to reduce costs, just as major companies are doing with their suppliers. The Japanese have taught us a lot about how to treat one's suppliers and how to get the best value for money by involving suppliers early. The MOD needs to apply those lessons, just as the great companies are applying them.

The defence industrial base is an important part of our economy and that, in itself, is vital for our freedom. I realise that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State knows all this and that he said it in his speech. In a sense, I am directing my comments not to him but to ensuring that everyone in the MOD and the armed forces appreciates the strong emphasis that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues have placed on their defence procurement decisions. After all, the 1939–45 war—especially in Europe but also in the far east—was a struggle that was measured not only by the undoubted bravery of the armed forces on all sides but by the industrial might of Germany on the one hand and the allies on the other. In a sense, that is part of the lesson of that war, as of many wars in the past.

I said that I wanted to make two points and the small one relates to the university air squadrons. My right hon. Friend the Minister paid tribute to both university air squadrons and, in the same sentence, to the Air Cadet Force which, I know, is also supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). However, I make a clear distinction between the two.

The Air Cadet Force is extremely important and I agree with what was said about it but, as they are organised at present—I emphasise the latter two words—the university air squadrons, and especially their flying training arrangements, are a shocking waste of money. I realise that, in RAF terms, it is not a great deal of money. We have been talking about billions of pounds but the cost of the university air squadrons is not in that bracket. However, that is no excuse for waste.

My attention was drawn to the matter when Bristol university air squadron moved into Colerne airfield in my part of the country without warning my constituents, but that was because of an error. The airfield is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), our excellent Minister for Trade, but the airfield boundary is also the constituency boundary and the aircraft take off over some of my constituents and an important international school that is located there. The airfield was disused for many years and was supposed to be safeguarded for future use. The local authority did not know that, but that is a different matter. In fact, the issue will probably finish up in court, but I shall not dwell on that aspect.

Such events made me look carefully at the university air squadrons and their financing. They are said to have cost £11.9 million in 1993–94 and much the same in 1994–95. I doubt whether that includes the capital and other costs of keeping airfields such as Colerne open for their use. Colerne covers an enormous acreage with substantial buildings. It was previously disused and presumably could have been sold. I shall deal, however, only with the £11.9 million.

The total establishment of the university air squadrons across the country is said to be 725 students, although a parliamentary answer last week stated that there were 801 students at present. Using the higher figure, the cost per student per year is about £15,000.

Mr. Bill Walker

As a former Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend will understand that some of the costs charged to the university air squadrons cover the amortised cost of, for example, instructors. The instructors are carrying out Royal Air Force duties while instructing, and it is essential that they keep in current instructional flying practice. In other words, some of the costs would have to be transferred elsewhere.

Sir John Cope

That may be so, but there are many such costs. In any case, my hon. Friend's argument depends on precisely what other duties those people went on to perform or whether they are being retained by the RAF for those duties, which I understand they are in some cases.

The justification for the existence of the university air squadrons is apparently twofold. First, it is said that they are necessary for recruiting and, secondly, that they give students initial flying training. Neither reason stands up to scrutiny. Bristol university air squadron has a total of 48 members and a small proportion of them—five to be precise—are already acting pilot officers, being paid a salary and attending university at the same time. They have, in a very real sense, already been recruited. Twelve have RAF bursaries and some, but not all, of them will go into the RAF. However, the RAF does not want them all. The majority—31 out of 48 at Bristol—are not wanted by the RAF and will not be in future, but they are also trained to fly at an average cost of £15,000 a year for three years. Even if one thinks that the acting pilot officers and bursary students would not have joined the RAF unless the university air squadrons existed, it is still very expensive recruiting.

Across the country, 57 former university air squadron students joined the RAF for pilot training last year. Therefore, when regarded as an incentive to recruiting, the university air squadrons cost £209,000 per recruit, which is a vast sum.

The other so-called reason for the existence of the university air squadrons is that they give initial pilot training to people entering the RAF, but it is very expensive training. I inquired about private flying tuition. It seems that similar training could be bought by the hour for about £3,200 per student per year.

Mr. Hardy

The right hon. Gentleman should understand that training air crew for the Royal Air Force is very different from training pilots to fly either their own aircraft or civil aircraft. Does he not realise that pilots and other air crew in the Air Force have to be trained not merely to carry out their air crew duties but to do so in a very hostile environment? If one separates training from the service itself, as the Air Force is tending to do under this Government, the ethos of the service, which might generate a willingness to fly in a hostile environment, might disappear.

Sir John Cope

I do not entirely agree. It is of course true that some of the later stages of training, not conducted by the university air squadrons, are very different in character from civilian flying training but the initial training is not that different, and certainly not different enough to justify such high costs. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Ministry of Defence has already recognised that point.

If all the 801 members of the university air squadrons were trained by civilian flying schools, the cost would come down from £12 million to £2.5 million. If, on the other hand, private tuition was used for only the 57 students who actually joined the RAF for later pilot training, the cost would be about £182,000 rather than £11.9 million. That is a tremendous difference.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that there are real benefits in the university air squadron system in that it is an invaluable point of contact between the Royal Air Force and the university community as a whole? There is little enough contact between the services and civilians today but the university air squadrons enable undergraduates to get a taste of service life and what is entailed in flying in the Royal Air Force. In view of the grading aspect of the flying training that they undertake, that would tend to attract some people who might not otherwise join the service but it might also dissuade some people from entering the Royal Air Force. Once people have entered proper flying training in the Royal Air Force, it costs a great deal to wash them out. It might be better that that happens at university rather than when they have put on the uniform.

Sir John Cope

There is something in that, and my hon. Friend clearly speaks from experience, especially of the Royal Air Force. I am not suggesting that the university air squadrons should be abolished. What I am asking for, and what I understand is taking place, is a careful review, following on from the excellent document "Front Line First", of the way in which flying training is conducted in these circumstances. I believe that any rational review would lead to changes in the flying training conducted by university air squadrons. That, I agree, would change the character of the squadrons as we now know them, and that is what I am seeking to achieve. They seem to me to be a wasteful way to achieve the desirable results to which my hon. Friend draws attention.

We have every reason to be grateful to the Royal Air Force. My criticism of that one very minor matter does not mean that I do not support it and its work very strongly. In fact, I very much appreciate the work of all our armed forces, including the Royal Air Force.

5.49 pm
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to say a few words. The right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) complained about the string on the gas mask making a mark on his neck. He was very fortunate; we were too poor to own one. I am quietly confident that, had the present Government been in power, they would have privatised the distribution of gas masks.

Mr. Soames

I know that times are pretty rough in Yorkshire, but, actually, people used to be given gas masks. They did not have to buy them.

Mr. Redmond

We still cannot afford to buy them because of the high unemployment in south Yorkshire. I am quietly confident that, if the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is feeling compassionate, he will reconsider the closure of RAF Finningley.

The right hon. Member for Northavon mentioned the Air Cadet Force, which has a valuable role to play. Regrettably, with the planned closure, there must be a big question mark over RAF Finningley. One hopes that, even at this late stage, the Minister will look at matters logically and reasonably, come to a different conclusion and keep RAF Finningley open.

Actions speak louder than words. We have heard certain words from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and certain quotations from newspapers. The Minister emphasised what the papers said. He cannot have his cake and eat it too. When I challenged the right hon. Gentleman on what was printed in the paper regarding RAF Finningley, he told me not to believe everything that I read in the newspaper. One either believes or disbelieves what one reads in the newspaper. I am surprised that the Minister, with his vast experience, did not see fit to check whether the newspaper report was accurate.

We have had problems for centuries regarding the pacifist attitude of people in power, who have deliberately refused to spend money on keeping the nation's defences adequately built. Unfortunately, we have suffered a loss. I regret to say that men have been slaughtered needlessly throughout the centuries. We have seen the pictures of first world war troops going over the top of the trenches and being slaughtered. In the second world war, men were slaughtered needlessly before we had a good fighting machine.

Yesterday's edition of the Evening Standard referred to the Spitfire. It was a marvellous aircraft, which certainly helped to turn the tide against Nazi Germany. VE day, which we will celebrate at the weekend, came about because people took the opportunity of making sure that the war effort was geared up to meet the challenge from Germany.

We need to be consistent in what we say and do. I cannot accept that what has been said meets the requirements of the future. One of the necessary defence ingredients is training. We must have first-class training, equipment and manpower. Over the centuries, Britain's service manpower has been the best in the world. Unfortunately, the forces have not always had the best equipment or best leadership. If we slip up on any of those ingredients, we shall put the defence of the nation at risk. I gather from the Government's conclusions that they are overstretching the armed forces to a dangerous level. I hope that, even at this late stage, they will reflect on what the country requires. We must have a surplus of manpower, planes or whatever, and I am sure that the Minister is aware of that.

The Government's response mentions overseas training. I remind the House that political parties and Governments in other countries change from time to time. Although we are welcomed now, we might not be welcomed in future. If the Government reduce or risk training facilities, they will not be doing the job that they were given.

The closures of RAF Finningley and RAF Scampton obviously place training facilities at risk. I raised that point with the Minister of State, and I was told that the RAF's airfield needs were stretched to the limit and that, if it required over and above the limit, it would commandeer private airfields to meet training requirements. The Government just cannot turn things on and off with the stroke of a pen. Training is important, but by trimming or privatising certain sections of the RAF, the Government are placing a greater onus on the personnel who remain. RAF Finningley is an example of that, small though it was. Military personnel were required for guard duty over and above their normal duties. That has placed a burden on the lads and it is causing stress and strain that RAF people can do without. That is only one small example of the extra burden that the remaining lads must endure as a result of the Government's policy.

We learn, reading The Guardian, that the Secretary of State will have a great big worldwide role for our military personnel. If that is the case, will we complete the task with the reduction that is now taking place? I doubt whether logic can provide an answer. Bearing in mind the privatisation that has been hinted at, there is obviously a major problem. I cannot accept that privatisation would lead to any benefit. Things still have to be paid for. There is a big question mark about the wisdom of the major privatisation schemes in the lifetime of the Government since 1979. They have not served the best interests of the people of this country.

One wonders how the decision to close RAF Finningley was reached. We met the Minister about 12 months beforehand to talk about joint use, whereby the private sector and the military section could complement one another and help to defer some of the costs of the station. It appears that our words fell on stony ground. Certainly the defence team was not keen to accept our suggestion.

Just before Christmas, we met the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and got a better response, but he said that a whole consultation process was taking place, so he could not comment. I cannot speak for the other establishments affected, but will the Minister provide me with a list of the parties and organisations that were consulted during that process? A few were consulted, but beyond that I am not sure. No doubt the Minister will give me a full list.

Several questions arise from the closure of RAF Finningley. The cuts stemmed from a Treasury initiative designed to make savings so that the Government could meet the requirement for tax cuts at the next general election. Or perhaps the military chiefs have done a double shuffle and suggested the closure of Finningley and other establishments, saying, "That is where the savings will be made; that will meet your requirements."

I am not sure who is kidding whom here. The closure of Finningley will not save money for the Government. When people are thrown on the dole and the number of jobs is reduced, other Departments have to pick up the bill. One needs to look at the broad picture. With all due respect, I do not think that the situation has been considered in a global sense.

As regards the military aspect, Ministers say that the resources can be provided at other stations. I shall talk about that later, but when we move equipment, personnel and extra duties to other stations, it is not simply a question of moving them out and then in. One has to provide the equipment to accompany such a move, and that costs money. I do not believe that the figures that we have been given reveal the true costs. There are all sorts of questions about the true cost of the cuts. All that we can say with any truth or sincerity is that there is a dramatic reduction in the RAF's strike capacity.

Since aircraft were invented, they have played an important role in winning victories for this country, whether they were the old biplanes in the first world war, the Spitfires in the second world war, or latterly our aircraft in the Gulf. Those wars proved that the RAF could damage the enemy without great loss of life in the ground forces—a softening-up process. Regrettably, the RAF suffered some casualties, but had it not been there to soften up the opposition, there would have been enormous casualties among the ground forces. The reductions now taking place in the RAF bring our capacity to do that in future into question.

I hope that the defence team will have a different approach. There is an old saying that someone could not organise a pee-up in a brewery, and that may be true, but the situation is too serious not to consider it in depth. On 29 September last year, we had a letter from the Government saying: our primary concern must be to ensure the best use of defence resources". If we have not sufficient resources, there is a problem, and I hope that, even at this late stage, Ministers will have the guts to tell the Treasury that what is being proposed is not acceptable. We must have an adequate force—indeed, the best equipped force in the world—and we can have that only if we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is.

I do not think that any long-term planning has gone into the suggested cuts, so I hope that the suggested closure of RAF Finningley will be reviewed and that the station will stay open. As the Minister knows, I have tabled many questions and written many letters to him on the subject. Those have not been answered adequately, because all the answers took the form of broad-brush evasion. Apparently there is to be a compromise—a bit of this and a bit of that, and a little bit of a package.

Perhaps Ministers think that they may not be around when the decision takes effect. Certainly the Labour Government will have the huge responsibility of ensuring that there is a well equipped and trained force adequate for this country's defence needs.

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to what is proposed in the White Paper. I am sorry to have to keep emphasising that, but there appears to be neither logic nor reason behind the reductions. I hope that when he has thought about all the questions asked by hon. Members on both sides of the House, the Minister will seriously consider delaying any action until we have had a thorough look at the implications for this country and for our forces, which will be so desperately needed in the 21st century.

6.8 pm

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

Sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who so effectively chairs the Defence Select Committee and plays so valuable a part in our debates on the services, cannot be with us today because of a family bereavement. But I am pleased to see the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) in his seat, because he too plays a valuable role in the Committee's affairs. Most of the members of the Select Committee are in Italy today, on a visit that was arranged some time ago. They are in fact talking to members of the Italian air force today, having talked to the NATO commanders over the past few days.

The Committee is especially concerned about the instability on the southern flank of NATO, which includes the turbulent areas of north Africa, the former Yugoslavia and the republics of the former Soviet Union. The Committee has made regular visits to the British forces in Bosnia—this country's participation there includes, of course, extensive RAF involvement. I met the RAF contingent at Aviano air base in northern Italy during the Easter recess, and I found them to be full of professionalism and enthusiasm as always. I shall return to the RAF's substantial involvement in operations in Bosnia and elsewhere overseas.

The Committee will soon be visiting the Jaguars and Tornados at Lossiemouth and the principal Nimrod base at Kinloss. Later in the year the Committee will be visiting the Harrier force deployed to Turkey to undertake operations in northern Iraq.

It is fitting that the debate today is on the very eve of the celebrations to commemorate VE day, 50 years ago. In the second world war, the men and women of the RAF played a vital role in every campaign through to the final liberation of Europe. It is not to decry the heroic efforts of the other services to say that, but for the RAF in the battle of Britain, the civilised world would not have survived that conflict.

The men and women of the RAF today are justly due the praise that they have been given during this debate, and they are worthy successors of those who served in the squadrons which fought in the second world war. Their numbers are far less than in 1945, but their resolve and training standards remain of the highest quality. I looked up some figures relating to the strength of the RAF at its peak in 1944. There were at that time 1 million men and women in the service, but they faced a Luftwaffe with a strength of 3 million and—as late in the war as 1944—a German aircraft industry which was producing 3,000 new aircraft a month.

We could also celebrate this weekend 50 years of peace in western Europe—the longest period in our history. The long, hard and costly slog of maintaining our massive defences against the threat to our very existence that was posed by the Soviet-led Warsaw pact has paid off, and we now see democracy throughout Europe. The RAF, in common with other western air forces, has inevitably reduced in numbers following the end of the cold war. The United States air force, for example, has reduced by 40 per cent. the number of its combat aircraft since the end of the cold war.

This is not the time to debate at length the future of central and eastern Europe, but the Committee has recently visited Russia and Ukraine. I was myself able to visit the Black sea fleet base port of Sebastopol. It was encouraging to find freedom of speech and many expressions of friendship. I was also able to visit the huge Zhukovsky aeronautical research establishment outside Moscow. A few years ago, it would have been impossible for me even to have entered the town of Zhukovsky.

We noticed some disturbing features on the political, economic and military scene in Russia. The Russian satellites in eastern Europe have been lost, and the Russian forces have been greatly run down. There have been massive cuts in the Russian air force, and pilots are flying perhaps only 40 hours a year against the recognised desirable NATO figure of 240 hours a year.

The threat of a third world war which hung over us for so many years after VE day has been removed. While we sincerely hope that Russia can overcome its massive problems, we cannot be certain that, in a few years, the problems there will not lead to a hostile Government and a renewed military threat. Certainly, we have seen a great increase in instability elsewhere in the world since the end of the cold war.

It is impossible to be sure what challenge Britain and our forces will face. All that is certain is that there will be a challenge, but we can be equally sure that the RAF will respond with its customary efficiency and professionalism. While the reduction in size of the RAF was inevitable following the end of the cold war, we are right to continue to spend £60 million a day on defence. That is an interesting and perhaps not widely appreciated figure—we are still spending £60 million a day on defence.

We must maintain the present front-line strength, while seeking to improve our capability with new technology. We heard earlier in the debate about the enormous sums of money involved in producing the new equipment which is needed. A feature of the present-day world is that many countries which could prove hostile to us in the future have sophisticated weapons that could be used against our services. That is particularly true in terms of the air defence systems which could face the RAF. The RAF must have the best possible aircraft, weapons and training.

I welcome the progress that is being made in the acquisition of new weapons systems. Today's conditions for ground attack give rise to two requirements—precision-guided weapons and those with a stand-off capability. The target should be hit on the first pass without the cost and danger of multiple attacks, and the aircraft—if at all possible—should keep a distance away from the enemy's defences.

The Committee will be following with interest the weapons procurement programme outlined in my right hon. Friend the Minister of State's opening speech today, and in yesterday's White Paper. We are certainly following closely the progress of the vital Eurofighter programme. It is interesting to reflect that the European fighter project will be bigger in financial terms than was the construction of the channel tunnel. It is a project of enormous size, and of the greatest importance to the future of the RAF.

The Committee will be looking at the possible alternatives for the RAF's future maritime patrol aircraft, a role that has been successfully pursued for 25 years by the Nimrod force. We now need improved avionics to cope with the more sophisticated submarines with which the RAF may have to contend in the future. The only three suitable airframes that are likely to be available are the same three as competed originally some 30 years ago when the Nimrod was chosen. When the Committee visits Kinloss in a few weeks' time, it will be interesting to hear the views of the Nimrod crews on what they would like to see as a replacement. I suspect that we shall end up by rebuilding the Nimrods and fitting them with new avionics.

I welcome the decision at last to order helicopters, and the mix of the Chinook and the EH101 seems to be a good solution to a problem which has been agonised over for far too long. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement mention to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who will reply to the debate, my concern at the recent crash of a 101? Can my hon. Friend assure me that that will not affect the programme for the introduction into service of this valuable machine? We are also waiting for some response on the causes of the tragic Chinook crash more than a year ago. I do not believe that a report on that crash has yet been published. Can my hon. Friend state when that report is likely to be published?

I would like to refer to the attack helicopter which, although primarily an Army matter, is of importance to all of us who are concerned about our air defence forces. It is important that a decision is taken speedily on that project. I mention the word Apache, as that seems likely to be the best of the machines competing to become our attack helicopter.

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend and the House may find it helpful if I state briefly that we intend to try to reach a decision before the House rises for the summer recess, and that the competition will be for an attack helicopter. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) referred to a Dutch decision for an attack helicopter, not a utility support helicopter.

The competition will be on the basis of value for money, and we will not be influenced by arguments about being good Europeans or good Atlanticists. The decision will be taken purely on the basis of operational effectiveness and value for money.

Mr. Trotter

That was a reassuring comment from my right hon. Friend. May I refer to the order for C130J Hercules aircraft, and say how much I welcome the decision that we are also staying in the future light aircraft development project? In this way, a sensible solution has been found to the problem of replacing the ageing Hercules.

I referred earlier to the need for our force to be well trained, as well as well equipped. Modern air warfare requires constant practice of low-level flying. The Committee has reported on the matter since the previous RAF debate in the House, and I refer to a number of the issues raised in that report. It is obviously important that as much operational low-level flying as possible is carried out overseas, and the sophisticated ranges in the USA and at Cold lake in Canada are very valuable in that respect. A significant number of low-level flights have also taken place at Goose bay in Labrador for many years, and we have been told that the agreement with the Canadian Government was to be renegotiated. Can we be told whether that has happened?

The Committee was told that discussions were to be held about possible low-level flying by the RAF in Morocco and in the countries of central and eastern Europe. I can see something of a problem in both Morocco and in the countries of central and eastern Europe with regard to ranges. We would either have to incur the cost of installing them, or we would have the inconvenience of taking large equipment in and out when we exercised in the area.

The Committee was keen to see the introduction as soon as possible of ALFENS. For those who are not familiar with the alphabet soup of military technology, that stands for automated low flying enquiry and notification system. We were told, in the Government's response to our report, that ALFENS would be in service by 1995 and it is a valuable asset, as it should increase the safety of low flying. Can we be told the current position? The Committee was also told that jet low-level flying would be reduced by 30 per cent. by the end of 1994. Has that target been achieved?

More RAF aircraft are now deployed on operations overseas than have been for 30 years—mostly for Iraq and Bosnian operations. Every front-line type in service is involved. Those detachments are now on such an on-going basis that they are not merely month after month, but year after year. Those constant operations on a major scale prove the competence and ability of the service, but also affect the people in it. While they are enthusiastically responding to the challenge, as we have seen on our visits, we must not overlook the effect of the separation on their normal family lives.

For the air crew, while the detachments involve much flying, it is often not in conditions that provide good combat training. When they return home, they are thus faced with the need for intensive combat-related flying, which often requires that they go overseas again to train on the ranges in north America, Sardinia or Cyprus. That has a knock-on effect on the time that they are away from their families.

Inevitably, the service has been faced with a period of great change following the end of the cold war. Clearly, a long period of stability is now needed and I welcome the comments to that effect in the White Paper that was issued yesterday. That is the No. 1 requirement for the service.

This is not the time to debate the recent report by Mr. Bett and his team, but there must be full consultation with the services on his numerous proposals. As the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Marhew) said, Mr. Bett stated that there should not be any cherry picking, but I think that there will have to be some. I think what Bett meant was that there should not be any financial cherry picking—it is important that there should be no financial disadvantage to the service as a result of implementing only some of his proposals—but I am not sure that all 150 of the recommendations can be accepted. I am sure that Bett's intentions are wholly worthy. He seeks to provide the best possible career for the men and women of the services into the next century and he recognises that the operational needs of the service inevitably involve a conflict between the need for mobility, which requires personnel to go anywhere at very short notice, and the natural wish of service men and women for a stable family life. Any changes that come about as a result of the report must do so with the genuine agreement and support of the services, represented by their leaders and after the fullest possible consultation with the men and women in the service.

Tomorrow, when we look back with pride on the achievements of those who served in the second world war, many of whom will be with us in Westminster Hall in the morning, we can take equal pride in the present generation who are serving so effectively in the Royal Air Force today. We can be sure that, whatever the challenges, the service will remain committed to the professionalism and excellence that it has shown throughout its 77 years of existence, which make it a standard-setter for the rest of the world. The men and women of the service are rightly proud of their achievements, they bring great credit to our country and, as a nation, they give us great cause to be proud of them.

6.22 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), with whom I share membership of the Select Committee on Defence. In so far as he reflected on the conclusions and reports of that Committee, I need do no more than wholeheartedly endorse much of what he said.

I recently heard a senior officer of the Royal Air Force say: The Royal Air Force has had a bad year. Having had the opportunity to reflect on that observation, I understand why it was made, but it is an unduly pessimistic response to some of the events of the past 12 months. One might say that, in the 76 years of its existence, the past year was not the best politically, but it certainly could not be said that it was a bad year operationally. But I will deal with some of those issues in a moment.

At this stage, some fleeting reference to the report issued this week by Sir Peter Cazalet would be right. I must repeat what I said when the report was issued—it is entirely sensible, and provides a proper balance of understanding between the place for entertainment in the armed services and the public's perfectly reasonable expectation that there will not be undue extravagance. As someone who has had the opportunity—indeed, the pleasure—of experiencing hospitality in some of the service residences to which the report refers, I can certainly say that, while it has been adequate, I have never seen any examples of extravagance.

When the report appeared, some people described it, rather dismissively, as a whitewash. Those who did so had either not read the report properly, or did not understand the significance of what they were reading. Suffice it to say that I hope that that issue, which has been prompted to some extent by the experience of the Royal Air Force, will now be put properly to one side and not allowed to deflect a mood, in the House and in the country, of determination to acknowledge that the ceremonies that we are about to experience during the next two or three days are possible only because of the skill and courage of the Royal Air Force throughout the second world war.

When the Minister of State for Defence Procurement put such matters in context at the beginning of the debate, he referred to the primary role of the defence of the United Kingdom and, quite rightly, to the role of Coastal Command, which often does not attract the sort of attention that it undoubtedly deserved. He also referred to the allied bombing campaign, which has become controversial. Controversial or not, however, there is no doubt that it could be carried through only because of the extraordinary determination and courage of the air crews of Bomber Command.

This being an occasion for a certain amount of nostalgia, I am conscious that, as the war came to an end, I was the victim of a substantial propaganda effort. I do not know whether the grandfather of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces was responsible, but you may remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I say "may" advisedly—that the legend grew that the feats of the famous "Cat's Eyes" Cunningham, who could identify German aircraft over the United Kingdom in the dark, could be attributed only to his remarkable consumption of carrots.

Every schoolboy who grew up during and just after the war was encouraged by his parents to eat as many carrots as possible—in the hope, we thought, that we would be able to emulate the famous "Cat's Eyes" Cunningham. Some time later, when the scales fell from our eyes, we realised that that great campaign had much more to do with the preponderance of carrots, compared with other vegetables, in the United Kingdom at the time, than with any eyesight-enhancing qualities that they might have.

If I might be forgiven that moment of nostalgia, I hope that I can say with some justification that the experience of all of us who have regular contact with the Royal Air Force is that the men and women—increasingly, the women—of that service display skill and courage in abundance. If we had to effect the withdrawal of the United Nations forces from Yugoslavia, let us be in no doubt that those qualities would be at a premium.

The Jaguar aircraft, which are there to provide close air support, would certainly be in use, and the importance of the Tornado F3 aircraft, which have been policing the no-fly zone, would be considerable, as would that of the TriStar tankers, AWACS aircraft, Nimrods and Hercules, which are already playing their part in the UN effort over the former Yugoslavia.

As the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) pointed out, some four years after the conclusion of the Gulf war, we still have substantial deployments in the area—Harriers operating from bases in Turkey to police the exclusion zone over northern Iraq, as well as Tornado and reconnaissance aircraft operating from the Gulf to police the exclusion zone over southern Iraq.

As the hon. Member for Tynemouth pointed out, those are considerable burdens. It is estimated that, at any one time, the Royal Air Force has around 50 aircraft operating in support of the United Nations over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. Those have become long-term obligations and, as a consequence, they affect personnel and equipment. As the hon. Member for Tynemouth pointed out, they also affect training and capability, because the operations do not always allow for the honing of those skills, which is a normal part of the training for flying Tornado aircraft.

We have been quick to recognise the problem of overstretch in the infantry, but we must look carefully at the risk of overstretch to the Royal Air Force. It is worth remembering, while change is still in the air, that much of "Options for Change" and "Front Line First" is still to be implemented. Bases will be closed and personnel reduced, and some of that may not be fully effective until almost the end of the century. Irrespective of what anyone does between now and then, there will then be a period of considerable change. So those who argue for a period of stability or for no more change have a considerable presumption in their favour.

I suffered a disappointment from a constituency point of view when the original decision under "Front Line First" to relocate the rescue co-ordination centre from RAF Pitreavie to RAF Leuchars in my constituency was rescinded and it was decided to send it to RAF Kinloss. However, my disappointment was nothing compared with the disappointment of the leader of the Conservative group on North East Fife district council, because the announcement was made some 48 hours before he went to the polls to try to become a member of the new unitary authority in Scotland. I expressed my disappointment in terms that could only be regarded as restrained when compared with those that he used.

In the defence White Paper published yesterday, the Secretary of State envisaged a more worldwide role for the United Kingdom forces. If by that we are to understand that the Government are willing to allow the UK forces to participate in United Nations operations, the proposal will enjoy ready support from these Benches.

But it means that the RAF may need to operate in areas that do not have modern ground facilities, host nation support or pre-existing industrial facilities. With aircraft like the Harrier, which is designed to operate from forward bases—its very flexibility is predicated on the view that it can operate a long way from ground facilities or host nation support—it is important that the level of maintenance and the availability of skills are kept at the highest level.

The Government should answer the serious question whether the greater civilianisation of the provision of maintenance and other back-up facilities will always be adequate. Although the proposed Bill relating to reserves seeks to address that problem, what would happen if deployment were to a hostile country or a country where there is terrorism? We should think carefully about the extent to which we can impose on public opinion the notion that those who are civilians for all practical purposes but who become reserves by virtue of the operation of the legislation should be exposed to such risks.

The use of private contractors has not been without its difficulties, as experience with Airwork and the Tornado aircraft has shown. We must be careful about the lessons that we draw from our experience in the Gulf, where there was host nation support and more than adequate facilities, and where, because of the involvement of British Aerospace in Saudi Arabia, there was a substantial pre-existing industrial base. We must be careful about the extent to which we can apply what might be described crudely as "privatisation" to the provision of support services of that kind.

As the Minister showed, no debate on the RAF is ever complete without consideration of procurement issues. I welcome the fact that the issues of the Hercules replacement and the support helicopter have now been resolved. The Minister caused me some surprise as I was driving along the motorway one afternoon, listening to him being questioned on the Hercules replacement. I heard him praying in aid my support as an endorsement of the Government's decision. Although I was flattered, it is not something that one has become used to.

At the heart of the procurement discussion must rest the question of the Eurofighter 2000. Although the hon. Member for Carlisle referred to it, I wish to put a number of specific questions. I appreciate that they may not be answered today, but I should be grateful if they could be answered in due course.

Does the Government's commitment to purchase 250 aircraft still stand? Might not the Ministry of Defence, as suggested in evidence to the Defence Select Committee, be minded to purchase more than 250 Eurofighter 2000 aircraft? Is it true, as the hon. Member for Carlisle said, that the aircraft is some two years behind schedule? What are the likely consequences for the overall defence budget if the real-terms cost of the aircraft has increased by £2 billion over the 1986 estimate?

The Minister referred to the memorandum of understanding which is to be signed in relation to the production phase of the aircraft, but can he be a little more precise about when that memorandum will be signed? We all feel that no further slippage should be allowed.

An important question to which reference has already been made is: will the UK will obtain an allocation of work proportional to its order for 250 aircraft, which allocation should be of the order of 40 per cent? How seriously does the Ministry of Defence take reports that, if the German workshare falls below 43 per cent., German parliamentary approval for the production phase may be withheld? If that happened, what would be the consequences for the project? I ask those questions because the House is united in the view that that aircraft is vital to the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Freeman

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I briefly answer those questions? Although my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces may refer to them in winding up, it might assist the hon. and learned Gentleman to develop his argument to know that 250 aircraft is our firm commitment. We may buy more in due course.

The project has been delayed; I challenge the claim that it has been delayed for two years, but the delay is largely attributed to problems which the Germans had in reducing their order indicatively from 250 to 140. We have published the latest estimated development cost at £3.9 billion for the UK, and clearly explained the reasons for the increase. Some of it is to do with additional missiles that the aircraft must carry, but some is extra development cost, which is inevitable when developing all new aircraft.

I hope that we shall sign the memorandum of understanding on development reorientation this month, as that is essential. We have had no formal discussions with the Germans about workshare, but I agree with the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) that it is important to start from a basis of workshare in production proportionate to the number of aircraft to which we have committed ourselves.

Mr. Campbell

I am grateful to the Minister for responding so comprehensively. The detailed way in which he responded to those questions shows that he is master of his brief, and I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to him for doing so. I regard the Eurofighter aircraft as absolutely vital, and that view is shared on both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) led an all-party delegation from the House to the German Parliament in 1992 to persuade our political equivalents that they should be more supportive of the project. I do not know whether we were any more successful than events might otherwise have dictated, but that experience was extremely valuable, and I hope that it had some effect.

From what I understand about the capability of the Grippen or Rafale, I suspect that if, for any reason, Eurofighter 2000 were not to proceed, we would be driven towards purchasing American equipment. As many people know, that equipment is often offered at an attractive price—to buy it off the shelf—but its through-life cost is significant. There are plenty of instances in which the Americans have offered aircraft for a cheap initial price, but have ensured that they get their pound of flesh by imposing higher costs through the life of that aircraft.

Should Eurofighter not proceed, it would have all kinds of industrial consequences, about which most hon. Members would be concerned. That serves to underline the importance we should all attach to the successful completion of the project.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), has already referred to the Tornado mid-life update, so it is unnecessary for me to say anything more about it, but, in another context, it raises questions about the procurement of weapons. I welcome the fact that a contract has been placed for Paveway.

As for the conventionally armed stand-off missile, CASOM, the Minister referred to the achievements in the Gulf. He will be aware that much of the thinking that lies behind the need to obtain CASOM arose from operational experience in the Gulf. The low-level operations carried out by British aircraft were found, after three or four days, to be too expensive in terms of the rate of attrition. As a result, it became necessary—or, to put it more fairly, the choice was made—to discontinue low-level operations, which were basically runway denial operations using the JP233.

That raises an interesting question of some technicality, upon which I do not profess to be expert, about how far the RAF now believes that it has completed its review of the low-flying tactics employed in the Gulf war. How far does it think that such tactics might be utilised on another occasion, particularly if the availability of weapons includes CASOM? That technical issue is important.

A review of the kind that today's debate has occasioned would not be complete unless some effort were made to look to the future for the RAF. During the cold war, the RAF had a number of roles. Its first and perhaps primary role was the air defence of the United Kingdom over the North sea. In that regard, RAF Leuchars played, as it continues to play, a significant part. Its second role was to provide low-level counter-air offensive against Warsaw pact airfields. Its third role was its important part in the implementation of the then NATO nuclear doctrine of flexible response. Those roles are now either much reduced, or have gone.

The decision to cancel the tactical air-to-surface missile and to withdraw, by 1998, the iron bomb, the WE177, reflects the fact that the RAF, which had, along with the Royal Navy, carried the responsibility of the independent deterrent, will, after 1998, no longer have that responsibility. I do not believe that that is an argument, or that there is any other argument, to justify the conclusion of some that the RAF should cease to have a strategic role and be equipped only for a tactical support role.

There is less chance of high-intensity warfare than there was even five or 10 years ago, but we cannot eliminate that possibility. If the RAF and other services are called upon to act in the furtherance of United Nations Security Council resolutions, they must be equipped to do so. It may not be impossible to find ourselves flying against the SU-27, the Flanker, or its derivatives, if Russia is willing to sell such aircraft without regard to the behaviour, actual or potential, of purchasers.

I therefore do not think it is right for us to consider the future of the RAF without making a firm commitment that we will ensure that it retains a capability to fight high-intensity warfare should that break out.

I do not believe that we could contemplate any further reduction in funding for the RAF, without affecting its front-line strength. There is a limit to the reductions in the numbers of personnel or the contracting out of support services that can be made, because, eventually, such decisions will have an affect on what are sometimes called the "teeth". That should not stop us trying to find savings where we can without any affect on capability.

I remain unconvinced of the continuing presence, even in a limited way after 1999, of the RAF in Germany. I have heard the Minister of State for the Armed Forces argue the political case for that, but I do not believe that it is as overwhelming as the Government appear to think at the moment. If one can reduce costs, as we undoubtedly would, without affecting overall capability, surely such proposals should be given serious consideration. There is a cost in maintaining the aircraft in Germany, albeit for political purposes, in that, because of low flying restrictions, much of the air crew training cannot be done in Germany and must be done in Britain or further abroad.

I have a party interest in the RAF, but, as I have already acknowledged more than once, I also have a constituency interest, because RAF Leuchars, which is home to 43 Squadron and 111 Squadron, is based in my constituency. I therefore have the opportunity to see the RAF not only as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, but as a constituency member. Everything I see convinces me that the present generation of the RAF is a worthy successor of the traditions of the force, which we shall honour this weekend.

6.46 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the RAF. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) on his thoughtful and helpful speech.

As is normal on such occasions, I declare an interest. I have worn a light blue uniform, with great pleasure and pride, for more than 50 years. The RAF still kindly allows me to fly cadet aircraft. As president of air cadet gliding, I take an active and keen interest in it.

I join others in congratulating the RAF of today on its professionalism and courage. Its personnel certainly live up to everything that was achieved by their predecessors in the battle of Britain and the battles over Germany, the Atlantic, the far east and the middle east.

The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) was way out of line when he suggested that gas masks were available only to people who could afford them. I am old enough to remember when they were available to everyone. Everyone at the public school I attended—a public school in Scotland is not quite the same as a public school in England—was issued with a gas mask.

Mr. Hardy

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) will be back in the Chamber shortly, but to do him justice I should point out that he said that gas masks were given free to people at the beginning of the second world war. He felt that should similar circumstances arise under the present Administration, they would want to charge for them.

Mr. Walker

I should have thought that, in times of national emergency, one forgets all about differences of political opinion. That is why Clement Attlee served as deputy Prime Minister during the second world war. The gas masks were available to everyone.

I begin by expressing my deep anxiety at the short time allowed for the consideration of defence costs studies and the taking of decisions. Decisions had to be taken too quickly, and we may live to regret that. I, for one, never opposed the idea of a defence costs study operation, because I believe that every organisation must, from time to time, carefully examine the way in which it operates. I therefore realised that the results of the defence costs studies might be of great value. I repeat that I was worried only about the short timeframe. Consequently, some of the matters that I wish to mention may have been judged differently if we had taken longer to decide and considered them more deeply.

First, I draw special attention to third line servicing. I am worried that insufficient uniformed personnel will be available for deployment in emergencies overseas—as when they were deployed in the Gulf—and to incorporate the necessary modifications that occur in circumstances such as those that arose in the Gulf, or circumstances that occurred when we had to send aircraft a long way to the southern hemisphere, to the Falkland Islands. No one can forget the way in which the in-flight refuelling modification was carried out in a remarkably short time.

Secondly, we must accept that, when we are required to participate in such operations, there is a need to increase the rate of servicing to meet increased demands imposed by the more intensive use of aircraft and equipment. I am worried that that could present problems without adequate uniformed personnel.

Thirdly, I am worried about how we sustain a capability for a long time. Operations in the Gulf lasted a relatively short time. We were fortunate that the ground war did not continue for any length of time; otherwise we may have exposed certain deficiencies in our capability. Some of those were offset by the fact that we had British Aerospace and other things available, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East said. Those things may not always be available.

The three problems that I have listed may be especially difficult for air transport, whether it be in the form of fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters.

I agree with the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) that, in addition, the Royal Air Force must continue to be an intelligent customer. The intelligent customer is intelligent because of the learning curve that goes with experience; the intelligent customer cannot be hoodwinked into believing that things must be done in a given way at a given cost.

I shall now comment on one or two matters that I thought that the Government did get right. I want to ensure that people do not think that I am being critical—I am not. It is inevitable that different opinions will be held about certain activities of the Ministry of Defence and the RAF.

The Government were right to buy the C130J. It was the right aircraft to carry out the job at the time that we needed it. They were also right to keep the options open for the FLA when it becomes available. I have been around long enough to know that, simply because an aeroplane is what I call a paper aeroplane, it does not necessarily fly, but I think that the FLA will fly and that it will become available.

At the time, I had strong reservations—I still have some—about the ability of the EH101 to meet the air transport demands that may be placed on the RAF. I considered that the Chinook was a better buy and had a better capability. However, the RAF must now make a decision and I have no doubt that, as it always has, it will make the mixed fleet work. Nevertheless, it could be especially vulnerable to a possible uniformed shortage in future because it will have to—as it would with the introduction of any aircraft—put the necessary infrastructure in place.

The defence costs study answer for the RAF training system can best be described as extremely high risk. It may save money now, but the cost later may be massive. Central flying school and RAF flying training units have always been centres of excellence. That has been recognised worldwide. That is why every country in the world, almost without exception, wants at some time to send people to attend Central Flying school or to be associated with our flying training operations.

The quality and ethos of that training will be at great risk as a result of the civilian programme that is envisaged. The civilian content is too great. I do not oppose the use of civilians, but I believe that quality and ethos and the gold standard that the RAF is recognised as providing worldwide may be at risk. I simply cannot envisage how the proposed structure will be capable of expansion in times of emergency.

I am deeply worried that future RAF officers who are undergoing pilot training will not see an uniformed airman for the first two years of their flying training. Fast jet pilots are much more than people who have the physical and other attributes necessary. They must also have the right attitude, and part of the attitude comes from the ethos that is developed during their flying training. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who has considerable experience of RAF flying training, knows what I am talking about. My hon. Friend and I both know something about RAF flying training and civil flying training. One does not develop that attitude in civilian flying training.

The Government's reply to the seventh report from the Defence Select Committee deals with combat readiness: It says The RAF will continue to review its levels of combat readiness. These are determined by both national and NATO considerations which require the RAF to be capable of meeting, at short notice, a variety of operational commitments and contingencies. The flying hours required are then discussed.

I would simply say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I have never been associated with the lobby that opposes low flying in Scotland. I believe that if Scotland is the only place suitable and available, it must be used, and in my constituency aircraft regularly fly low. My wife is convinced that the Walker residence is used as the turning point for all RAF sorties that go through the central highlands.

Mr. Soames

It probably is.

Mr. Walker

It probably is.

The presence of the RAF in my constituency has two faces. There is the face of the low fast jet—I am probably the only person in my constituency who will stand up and welcome it—but the other face, which is always welcome, is a yellow helicopter. There is no doubt that one of the best public relations activities with which the RAF is associated is military search and rescue.

The search and rescue capability has been stretched somewhat, and it has certainly been stretched in the past winter as a result of the vast number of people up in the mountains of Scotland. I am not opposed to large numbers of mountaineers; I am only worried that the military should be confronted with all the costs. I have always felt that other ways of absorbing the costs should be considered. That argument was made earlier by the hon. Member for Don Valley.

I have always regarded search and rescue as part of military training. I have been associated all my adult life with RAF training and with Central flying school and its activities. I cannot register deeply enough my great fears that the future of the RAF gold standard of training may be at risk.

The RAF must be congratulated on the work that it has already done in regard to manpower, before the imposition of the current demands and pressures. In particular, I congratulate Air Vice Marshal Andy Roberts: his work put the RAF well ahead of the game. I do not pretend to have read the Bett report in detail—I have not had time to do so—but, having scanned it, I am confident that the personnel side of the RAF is uniquely equipped to handle whatever the Government decide. Let me register my opposition to the idea of performance-related pay, however.

When considering manpower and structures, we must consider the impact of overstretch, and the effect of active service absence on service families. That leads me to another issue that affects families: medical services. Here again, I believe that the defence costs study has gone too far. I do not see how the tri-service structure, as envisaged, can provide adequate opportunities for specialist career appointments, training and development. Certainly service wives are very upset, as was demonstrated by the survey conducted throughout the RAF earlier this year. The likely failure of tri-service medical provision means that the 100 per cent. support that families are expected to give RAF service men may not be forthcoming in future.

On 18 October last year, I said—and I have no reason to change my mind tonight— Cuts in the medical services are affecting morale. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the viability of secondary medical care to the armed forces can be sustained and will he acknowledge that the sharp decline in the number of service consultant specialists brought about by the loss of career prospects will jeopardise the provision of secondary care? Will he make a statement regarding primary medical care and the need to provide adequate levels of health support to military personnel in order to return them to active service at the earliest opportunity? I added—and I do not apologise for repeating it now— I am standing here today thanks to massive benefits that I gained from RAF medical care after a serious accident."—[Official Report, 18 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 203.] In fact, it was a very serious crash. I shall never forget that those medical practitioners made it possible for me to become a Member of Parliament: I could well have been confined to a wheelchair.

Just how the medical services will cope in a Gulf-type war that may involve substantial ground casualties must be a matter of great concern to military planners. In the absence of adequate specialists, only a substantial number of reserves can meet the shortcomings. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I am a great supporter of reserves. I am not worried about the fact that we may have to call on them; I just want to be sure that we can get them when we want them.

Again, I have had time only to scan the Cazalet report, but I believe that it vindicates the way in which armed forces entertainment has been undertaken. If the report had been available earlier, much of the ill-informed comment about senior officers' residences and entertainment—particularly those concerning Haymes Garth—would have been entirely different. As others have pointed out, Air Chief Marshal Sandy Wilson was and is a distinguished RAF officer—a man of great integrity, for whom I have a high regard. I only wish that he and his family had not suffered as a result of the actions of the press, which did what no press should ever do and attacked a serving senior officer who could not respond.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. Will he also condemn the outrageous Labour slurs on senior officers, and the continuous "drip, drip, drip" effect of such criticism? It is wholly unjustified, and deeply damaging to the morale of the services. It does not only affect senior officers; it drips down through the rank structure, and is very harmful.

Mr. Walker

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend and I know only too well that such attacks drive a wedge between senior officers and all other ranks.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I cannot let that pass. I am genuinely bemused by the Minister's allegation that slurs have been cast on senior officers: I can think of no occasion on which that has happened. Our official reaction to the report that was issued in the past couple of days—it was not shown on any television channel, as it was thought not sensational enough—was to welcome it, and to point out that we had criticised the weaknesses in institutionalised control by the MOD rather than any of the officers involved. On the one occasion when we were involved in criticism, we did not level that criticism but defended General Sir Michael Rose against criticism levelled in the House.

Mr. Walker

I know how the hon. Gentleman feels, but I understood my hon. Friend the Minister to be referring to what happened before the publication of the Cazalet report. Everyone will recognise that the hon. Gentleman is an honourable man, and his views on military matters are frequently not very different from mine; I do not suggest that he was responsible for the slurs. We all know, however, that substantial slurs were cast on senior serving military personnel in the newspapers and other media—assisted, sadly, by some Members of Parliament. 'I find that desperately sad, because senior military people can never respond to such public chastisement: they have no means of doing so.

Paragraph 12 of the Cazalet report states: Within the Armed Forces, official entertainment is undertaken for a variety of purposes…and takes two main forms. Firstly, there is the representational aspect of the provision of official hospitality for individuals from outside the Services. Certain senior commanders and other senior personnel have particular responsibilities for entertainment of this kind and occupy specially enhanced married quarters for this reason. That is why such people have married quarters; it is not because they like to live in grand circumstances.

Secondly, there is provision for commanders at all levels to undertake some limited entertainment of their subordinates. Anyone who have ever run a large organisation knows the importance of entertaining key subordinates on a fairly regular basis, in circumstances in which relaxation is possible.

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is making an important point. Given his experience, he will agree that we are not discussing only the essential domestic entertaining that goes with service life—although that is fundamental—but the fact that, owing to the prestige of the British armed forces, the entertainment that they provide for, in particular, the many foreigners who come to learn from our armed forces is part of the glue that binds the British services with so many nations across the world and helps to render them such a golden asset to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Walker

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more, and this debate provides an excellent opportunity to put on record our feelings about the recent ghastly treatment of the services.

Paragraph 95 of the Cazalet report states: My study has led me to conclude that, despite the presentation of the lifestyles of senior Service officers in some parts of the media, the level of entertainment carried out is probably about right…In some ways, it has been unfortunate that the spotlight has been directed in this area over the last year or so, as there is no doubt that, in certain areas relating to this subject, the Services are already addressing the existing shortcomings. I feel very strongly about that matter, but I shall move on in order to address other issues.

By the end of the decade, the RAF will have closed 30 bases at home and abroad. I am concerned that there will be too few airfields in the United Kingdom and no scope for expansion in the event of a national emergency. When the defence costs study is completed, the RAF will have fewer operational airfields in the United Kingdom than at any time since 1934. In such circumstances, it would be prudent to require that airfields be retained in an operational state and not turned into housing or industrial estates.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who complained earlier about university air squadrons, will probably not agree with me, but I sincerely believe that we should retain those airfields. If we use university squadrons or other flying squadrons to keep them open, so much the better.

I welcome the assurances given by the Government in their commitment to the Eurofighter 2000. I believe that, when it is delivered, the programme will justify the investment in time, effort and money. I also welcome the proposals to invite bids for replacing the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. I am glad that the Tornado GR1 has been upgraded and that laser-guided weapons will be purchased.

I also welcome the introduction of the anti-armour stand-off missile and the fact that the conventionally armed stand-off missile programme will proceed on schedule. Those decisions are essential if we are to maintain the capability of the Royal Air Force into the future. I welcome the fact that the Harrier GR7 is in operational service and I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that all that aircraft's service requirements have been met. The GR7 is being used by the Royal Navy on its aircraft carriers and it is not the first time that the RAF have operated from Navy carriers.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister refer to the reorganisation of the Royal Air Force auxiliary units in his speech? I would like him to explain what is happening to the volunteer reserve units—particularly the public relations flight officers and the intelligence officers, who did such sterling work during the Gulf war and who currently serve in units in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

I believe that a small professional Royal Air Force—that is what we will have when the defence costs study is complete—should have a substantial reserve capability. I hope that the Government's thoughts are now turning to enlarging and widening the size and scope of the reserve forces, including the flying reserves. It will not surprise my colleagues to learn that I shall conclude my comments by referring to the air cadets.

Last Sunday Air Commodore Peter Stean, the commandant of air cadets, and Air Vice Marshal Peter Squire, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, and I attended the east midlands wing air cadets field day and review. There were 950 youngsters on parade and more than 300 adults. I wish that our media would concentrate on the good youngsters in this country; I wish that they had been there to see those youngsters and the adult uniformed staff on parade and on duty. I remind the House that those adult staff receive pay only for attending courses and camps. That means that for every day that they are paid the nation gets their services free for eight days.

As president of Volunteer Gliding Schools, I express my concern that, with fewer service airfields available, the deployment of volunteer gliding schools is an ever-increasing challenge. We are nearing the point when we may run out of airfields. That problem must be addressed if volunteer gliding schools are to be situated close to air cadet catchment areas.

Early-day motion 533, which has been signed by a substantial number of hon. Members, congratulates the Government on their support for the cadet forces, particularly the air cadets.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon drew attention to concerns about the university air squadrons and their Bulldog aircraft. He probably does not know that the air cadet air experience flights and the university air squadrons have merged and that the air cadets will fly some of the Bulldogs. That will apply in Colerne as well as everywhere else and I hope that those aircraft continue to generate noise around Colerne. I believe that when people complain about the noise of light aircraft—particularly the Bulldogs or power gliders—we should deploy a squadron of Harriers for a week to show them what life on a military base is like.

I know that other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall conclude my remarks. The Duke of Edinburgh got it right when he said: There are many ways of giving useful service to the nation, but none can be more valuable than helping young people to grow up into responsible citizens. Adolescence is a particularly difficult and challenging period in their lives, but it can be eased by offering them opportunities to experience adventure, discipline and responsibility. That is what the cadet forces do and they are a national asset. The air cadets perform a particularly important function and I am delighted by the strong support that they receive from Ministers. On behalf of the air cadets, I thank the Government for their support. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has recently visited some air cadet units. They appreciate his interest and I hope that he will make many more such visits in the future.

7.17 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I shall respond to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) in a moment. The Secretary of State for Defence said earlier that he had written the Defence White Paper. We all know that the Secretary of State's signature will appear at the bottom of it, but I believe that Defence White Papers are written by accountants with a particularly creative bent—not least because of the distinct inaccuracies which have appeared in almost all of them.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement is well aware of that and he said that there would be wider involvement in international activity. That occurs frequently and, when additional commitments are made, I am sure that the Secretary of State will offer that to the House as a further excuse for the Defence White Paper being blown off course. I shall return to that subject in a moment.

As hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have said, the Royal Air Force has contracted severely in the past few years. As many hon. Members are well aware, the contraction has gone far enough. Many of us consider that it has gone too far. We have nine operational stations in Britain, and two in Germany, for strike, offensive support, air defence, reconnaissance, and airborne warning and communication system—AWACS—aircraft.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who made a substantial speech, may be right to say that there may be a removal from Germany. That would leave us with nine operational stations in Britain and that would make the condition of the RAF far less satisfactory than it was in 1934—a point made by the hon. Member for Tayside, North. There would be only nine operational stations for the highest quality air force in western Europe.

We are concerned about not only the number of stations, but the number of personnel. The contraction continues, but the commitments may continue to expand. Perhaps the Minister will remind us of the number and names of the countries in which RAF personnel have served or are serving this year. Conservative Members may not like being reminded, but it would be useful to have that on record.

I am extremely anxious about the Government's management of the air force and their policies in respect of the involvement of the private sector. I have always believed in the mixed economy and there is certainly a place for private sector involvement in the RAF. There are benefits for the private sector and the air force, but the Government, in their slavish regard for dogma, are so eager to get rid of blue uniforms and pass business and profit to the private sector that they put the service in difficulty.

Reducing the number of blue uniforms on an RAF station weakens the service and reduces the capacity of that service to guard its own bases, or even reduces the service so that it cannot fulfil one of its obligations—to provide a full life for the people committed to that service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sooner or later, a Royal Air Force station will not be able to raise an unit football team so few will be the blue uniforms in it. That position is likely to arise unless the Government temper their attitude.

I was grateful for the Minister's reference to the fact that the position at St. Athan and Sealand may not be as fearful as some of us dreaded. The Government have gone too far and are reducing the capacity of the service to be the intelligent customer to whom reference was made.

May I begin the main part of my speech with another criticism that has not yet been offered? So far in the debate, there have been frequent references to the second world war. However, the Government have not yet perceived that their political role is not merely to administer the service, but to protect its image.

It is all very well for the Minister today to talk about the contribution of the Royal Air Force in the second world war, but when such comments are needed, and have been needed in the past few years, they were not made. In a debate in the House just after the row about the Harris memorial—one or two Conservative Members may recall that debate—I pointed out that no one put it on record that Bomber Command flew not simply to kill German citizens or destroy German morale. If Bomber Command had not flown in the war, the Germans, with the capacity for aircraft manufacture that has been referred to, would not have produced the fighters that were used to attack the bomber squadrons over German skies; they would have produced bomber aircraft that would have dropped bombs on Britain. One wonders what would have been said 50 years later about the destruction of British cities.

The bomber squadrons flying over German skies occupied more than 1 million German soldiers and scores of thousands of German guns. If they had not been kept back to defend German towns, cities and industries, they could have been deployed in Normandy, and we now know that the invasion was a closer run thing than the propaganda machine liked to admit.

Mr. Bill Walker

The hon. Gentleman might draw attention to the fact that the V2 would have been in service much earlier had it not been for the Royal Air Force knocking out that capability.

Mr. Hardy

I am aware of the successful raid on the Peenemunde establishment by Bomber Command. In February, after we had the failure of communication or protection in respect of the Harris memorial and we were listening to the laudable and commendable attempts to create reconciliation, on the anniversary of the dreadful raid on Dresden, there was another outburst of criticism of the Royal Air Force. The raid on Dresden was a terrible thing and a lot of people died. Nearly as many people died as a result of the RAF raid on Dresden as died in the concentration camps on the same day. The echoes of the VI and V2 missiles, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, were still noticeable in south-east England. The battle of the bulge had only just taken place and there was vicious hand-to-hand fighting because Germany had not surrendered. If the air raid-had taken place over Dresden after the Germans had offered to surrender, it would have been a heinous and terrible act, but war is war.

It is regrettable that Ministers with a political responsibility to guard the heritage and tradition of the service did not defend it in the terms that should have been offered. It is not simply a matter of protecting the economic condition of the RAF. When game is under threat, gamekeepers are required and the role of the RAF as gamekeeper in the national interest has eroded and withered away.

A few moments ago, the Minister of State intervened in regard to the house occupied by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson. He made a robust criticism of the role of the press in that matter. I agree that the press behaved very badly. As I said earlier, there was a great deal of attention on the Friday, when the Secretary of State appeared on television, but, a few days later, there was none when the Minister of State intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on the role of senior officers.

I do not believe that Sir Sandy Wilson received a fair deal from the press or from Ministers. Ministers did not make it clear that the house had been empty for 14 months or what its value was. Indeed, the press seems to be under the impression that the house was worth less than half the value that the Minister might like to tell us later in the debate. I do not believe that the press was adequately informed of the principal suggestion that Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson made. Because the house had previously been occupied by a two-star officer and he was a four-star officer who, because of reorganisation, was to occupy the house as one of the most senior officers in the RAF, it would be appropriate to have an internal wall knocked out, to make a large room. It would have been appropriate for the Minister to have said—the press has not been told—who was the budget holder for that property. Altogether, there was a nasty taste and a suggestion was made that Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson was a scapegoat. I understand why the Government, with their propensity to appoint people who agree with them at all costs, took that course.

I am reminded of a long time ago when I was a schoolmaster. In those days it was fashionable for my education authority to appoint as headmasters people who were willing to please the director of education at all times, sometimes from a supine position. I was responsible for quite a few things, including the school timetable. I found that I was unable to give the headmaster anything other than a first-year form. The naughty children in the first-year form were sent to me. I would much rather we had had headmasters who would stand up to directors of education—someone prepared to put his feet down firmly and speak out when necessary. If it is important for a headmaster to have that sort of character, so it should be for a senior officer in Her Majesty's forces. Unfortunately, the present Administration is looking for supine senior officers. As that is the sort of officer that the Government want, they will try to ensure that that is the officer that in future they will get. There will not be room for outspoken fighter pilots who have intelligence and a certain amount of nerve. There will not be room for those who are not prepared to subscribe to every fashion that the Government wish to adopt.

Conservative Members who have criticised the Government's policy are entitled to do so. It is in the interests of our country that we maintain a high-quality RAF. I see that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is in his place. He has played a distinguished part in the Western European Union for a long time. He will be aware that the last sitting of the WEU in 1994 saw it considering a report that I presented on the capability of the air forces of western Europe. I began to prepare the report with some anxiety about what I should find, and what I found was somewhat surprising. When it came to all-weather strike capability, air-to-air refuelling, adequate reconnaissance, up-to-date strike capacity, adequate flying training and sufficient numbers of flying hours, most of western Europe was sadly lacking.

Last year, we had parliamentarians from eastern Europe rushing to Paris understandably to express considerable anxiety about their security. If any of us represented a constituency relatively close to the newly appointed Colonel Zhirinovsky—he has just been made an honorary colonel in the Russian army—we would understand their anxiety. He has been demanding that Russia recovers its former provinces, which are now independent and sovereign states. It is not surprising that parliamentarians from eastern and central Europe rushed to Paris to ask for security guarantees.

It is surprising, however, that most western European countries listened to their neighbours from eastern and central Europe and almost fell over themselves to promise them the security guarantees for which they asked when they had no capacity to deliver anything. Some of the countries that gave eastern and central Europe the security guarantees for which their parliamentarians pleaded have little capacity to defend themselves, let alone anyone else.

I do not like it that Britain has had to bear a much heavier burden than many of its fellow NATO members. It is about time that the Government began to tell them rather more firmly and clearly that the United Kingdom should not have to bear burdens that they themselves should bear. They have done well out of ducking responsibility over the past 30 or 40 years. We, of course, have accepted the obligation to defend ourselves.

For as long as we have a seat on the General Council of the United Nations, we must accept the bill that so ensues. If we are part of the international community—I hope that my party will remain internationalist—we must accept the obligations that that brings. The obligations that the RAF has fulfilled on behalf of Britain over the past 30 years—indeed, over the past 30 months—have been fulfilled extremely impressive and a source of pride for the nation. The obligations have been costly, but they have been carried out responsibly.

How can we expect the service to maintain such commitments and roles when we have just eight squadrons of strike Tornados, six squadrons of air-defence Tornados, two squadrons of Jaguars, three squadrons of Harriers and only two major bases, at Brize Norton and Lyneham, for major transport services? The line has become extremely thin under a Conservative Government, who for 16 years in office—the same can be said of the Conservative party for the 15 years that preceded the present Administration—prattled about the need to maintain the nation's defence.

Obviously, the ending of the cold war brought about different economic demands, but the Minister will be aware that far more people in Europe have died, been maimed, driven mad or ethnically cleansed since the cold war ended than when it prevailed. Yet there is no real prospect of absolute security in Europe. There is certainly no real prospect of absolute security in other parts of the world.

It should be understood that we need to see the development of international authority. We must recognise the absurdities in the command structures of the United Nations and ensure that they are removed. If we are to get rid of them and if there is to be a proper response to crises, it is certain that Britain will have a major role to play. If Britain is to play that role, the RAF will have much to do, but I see the RAF having little capacity to expand at any speed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) my parliamentary neighbour, has already spoken about RAF Finningley. I have known Finningley since I was a boy. I was in the air training corps when I flew in an Airspeed Oxford at Finningley. I doubt whether anyone in the air force has flown one in recent years. Probably many RAF personnel would not recognise it. Finningley was an important station during the war, and remained so after the war. It was probably one of the largest aircrew training bases in NATO. It represented a substantial capital investment by the United Kingdom and it has had considerable meaning for the economy of south Yorkshire.

The Minister will be aware that I wrote to him about RAF Finningley. I think that I sent a copy of the letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. I referred to the history of the station and to its economic importance in terms of jobs in south Yorkshire. I was told, "We cannot take those factors into account". A narrow assumption has had to be made, but if needs develop, where shall we train the loadmasters, the air engineers, the aircrew electronic operators and the navigators? Will there be privatisation and greater costs? South Yorkshire jobs will be lost, the base will go, and we might find ourselves short of runways.

It is not only those consequences that cause me to be angry. The Government have not paid proper attention to the need to maintain the image of the service. When the air day took place at Finningley—the last one was held in September 1994—more people attended it to express, directly or indirectly, their appreciation of the service as it is today and as it was, than attended the St Leger horse race a week earlier. It was an enormous attraction. It was probably the most important attraction in the social calendar of south Yorkshire. Yet it is to be taken away for the narrowest of considerations.

We know that the Government can throw enormous sums away without batting an eyelid. Against that background, one wonders about the closure of Finningley. Will the Minister therefore explain a story that I read in The Daily Telegraph a little while ago? It said that £5 million had been lost on a failed project to transfer married quarters to a housing trust and mentioned three—year contracts for the chairman and financial directors of that trust, who were in place for only a very short time. They received getting on for £500,000. The article said that the failure of the trust, which has virtually been wound up, meant that the Ministry of Defence was left with a budgetary shortfall of £500 million. I am not an expert in creative accountancy, but when a budgetary shortfall of £500 million can simply be ignored, I can think only that the attitude towards RAF Finningley is quite dreadful.

The Government may feel that they are well equipped to run the nation's defences, but the experience of the RAF over the past few years does not justify their claim. I hope that the Minister will pay some attention, if not to Opposition Members, to his hon. Friends, who are capable of giving advice which should be heard and to which he should attend. As I said, the line is too thin. The needs are likely to increase and the dangers are enormous. We are right to point out that present policies are not succeeding; they are creating dangers which should be acknowledged. A new approach is necessary if the Royal Air Force is to be able to guard the skies of Britain and to contribute to world stability and peace in the years ahead.

7.40 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

As we have this debate on the eve of our commemoration of victory in Europe, we may appropriately ask ourselves how best can we keep faith with those who died that we might be free? I suspect that those who died would say, "Do not make the same mistakes again in government which made our task so difficult. Look resolutely forward and help to build a Royal Air Force, whose structure, strategies, manpower policy and equipment will stand the test of time."

In the middle of this decade, as throughout the history of the Royal Air Force, we are experiencing dramatic change. In the air force's earliest days, in the great war, which culminated with the birth of the service on 1 April 1918, air power in four brief years moved from Army co—operation to the deployment of an independent air force; a striking force that could hit the Ruhr and the western part of Germany. Very quickly thereafter, we had the Geddes axe, the dramatic retrenchments and then, all too soon, the hasty build—up that, of course, ended, in the second world war. When that war ended so thankfully in May 50 years ago, the bombers that had dropped bombs were rapidly redeployed to drop food for starving civilians and, in some instances, to repatriate prisoners of war.

We thought then that we could enjoy a period of peace, but all too soon the cold war broke out. We should recall the deterrent role so successfully played by the Royal Air Force throughout that war. To recall such a role is fitting because, only a few days ago, Her Majesty's Government announced that about three years from now the Royal Air Force will relinquish its last nuclear weapons.

With a great sense of responsibility, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the V bombers—my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) knows more about them than I because he served on them—were the first custodians of our independent strategic nuclear deterrent. Thereafter, the Royal Air Force maintained a tactical capability which is soon to be phased out. I ask the House to bear with me if I question the wisdom of phasing out that capability.

One of the inherent advantages of air power is its basic flexibility. I doubt whether a sub—strategic Trident system will ever deter as effectively as multi—role combat aircraft—that is to say, dual—capable strike aircraft, which can be deployed to a theatre and, by their deployment, send a signal to an adversary who would otherwise behave aggressively. I have said before that I believe that the threat of bluff being called is greater when we deploy deterrent forces which, by their submarine nature, are invisible and less apparent in the theatre of emergency tension or potential war. So I regret the decision not to press ahead with the tactical air-to-surface nuclear missile—the TASM—and I wonder too whether the studies into the proposed conversion of the strategic submarine nuclear, the Trafalgar class for Tomahawk cruise missiles, will prove costly and can be effectively done. I suspect otherwise.

I take heart, however, from the modernisation of the Royal Air Force's front line. I am delighted with the decision to buy the HerculesC130 J transport, with the new support helicopters, with the procurement of the European fighter aircraft, with the weapons systems that we are buying, such as the conventionally armed stand-off missile, the intelligent anti-armour weapon and much else besides, such as the replacement maritime patrol aeroplane. There has been, in short, an effective re-equipment programme—not yet completed—in which we can take great satisfaction.

Of course, to make that possible, there have been reductions in support, the rationalisation of the headquarters and staff structures and massive redundancies. We have seen proud stations close. How eloquently the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) spoke about Finningley and the loss of multi-engine and rear-crew training from that station. How sad it is as well that RAF Chivenor, where so many fast-jet pilots converted to Vampires and in later years to Hunters, and more recently did their tactical weaponry on the Hawk, is closed yet again. It is hard not to be emotional about the closure of RAF Scampton, the war-time home of 617 Dambuster squadron. Everybody who cares for the history of the Royal Air Force will find that closure very emotional, especially as it has been in recent years the home of the central flying school and the Royal Air Force aerobatic team the Red Arrows.

With those changes have come not only improvement in equipment, but certain redeployments in which we can rejoice. I must thank my friend the late Air Chief Marshal Sir John Thomson, who was one of the Royal Air Force's outstanding senior officers in recent years. One of the last things which he did as outgoing air officer commander-in-chief of strike command was to approve the decision to incorporate the Queen's flight into the 32 Communication squadron at RAF Northolt, in my constituency, to become the Royal squadron.

We take great pride in that locally, as we do in the fact that RAF Northolt is one of the oldest flying stations in Royal Air Force service. It was opened first as a Royal Flying Corps base in 1915–80 years ago—and it played a proud and important part in the battle of Britain. As we commemorate victory in Europe, it is important to note that it was the home not just of RAF fighter squadrons, but of the gallant Poles who went into action at the height of the battle of Britain, whose memorial stands at the threshold of my constituency and whose gallantry, along with that of the Czechs and others who served alongside British service men in world war two, we must commemorate. We must also commemorate the role of the auxiliaries and volunteer reserves and I am pleased that No. 1 maritime headquarters unit of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force is at RAF Northolt.

In the changes that have occurred, there has been a risk of concentrating on managerial imperatives rather than on the prime necessity for our armed forces, which is to be ready to fight at all times. This is the cardinal criterion for the creation of effective armed forces. As we allow ourselves this historic perspective, I wonder whether, in world war two, Bomber Harris at Bomber command, Hugh Dowding at Fighter command or Jack Slessor at Coastal command, could have been effective commanders in chief had they, at the same time, had to be members of the Air Force Board wrestling with policy problems in Whitehall.

It may be all right in peace time for commanders in chief to combine, as must the board of directors of a big company, executive and policy functions. However, I do not believe that it would be possible in war.

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is a former serving officer. He knows as well as I that the two tasks must be carried out. It is not an option for management. Good management of resources, as my hon. Friend is well aware, is not an optional extra. In my judgment, the astonishing success of the three services is that they managed to combine in the same officers, the absolutely unbelievable ability to be extremely good managers and very good war fighters.

Mr. Wilkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, but that was not really the point I was making. I was trying to suggest that it might be all right in peace time in a period when there is no serious risk of an emergency or war for commanders in chief to have a role on the Air Force Board as well. However, in war, when they have operations to conduct, I do not see how it could be possible for them to combine their operational responsibilities at headquarters with policy direction in Whitehall alongside Her Majesty's Government. That was my point and I think that it is valid.

At the beginning of my speech, I said that we should look resolutely forward. I hope that the RAF is paying sufficient attention to the crucial necessity for ballistic missile defence. We are conscious from our television screens of the horrendous sight of Zagreb being attacked with ordinary Katousha-type rockets. However, in the Yemen civil war only a few moths ago, Scud ballistic missiles were launched from North Yemen to South Yemen and vice versa. We must address the problem and set up an effective theatre ballistic missile defence architecture.

I recognise that the Government have initiated studies on a bilateral basis with our French friends and the Americans. I am aware of the NATO studies and of the time scale within which analyses are being carried out by British Aerospace and others. All that is welcome. However, with Islamic fundamentalism on the march, with great uncertainty in the Balkans, the Maghreb countries and in nations which are within ballistic missile reach of these islands, we must address the problem.

As a further lesson from the Gulf war, we should address more seriously the benefits to our defences of a military space programme, particularly with regard to reconnaissance, confidence-building measures, surveillance, early warning and signals intelligence. I hope to hear that we are co-ordinating our efforts with our European and American friends in those areas.

With regard to co-operation with our allies, I must state that I do not believe that it is politically necessary for us to retain two RAF bases in Germany. I would withdraw the Harrier wing and support helicopters from Laarbruch and the Tornado wing from RAF Bruggen. After all, the problems with low flying in Germany have been mentioned. There are no longer any Russian armed forces—thank God—anywhere in central Europe. We should redeploy the RAF units to which I have referred back to the United Kingdom, and thereby keep vital bases in this country open and improve employment prospects here.

The key to the future of the service lies, as ever, with its personnel. At a time when numbers of armed forces personnel and uniformed men and women are decreasing, we must compensate by improving training rather than cutting training. It is a very false economy to cut training, particularly at a time of numerical retrenchment and reduction.

I urge that we create a tri-service cadet college at Greenwich where young men and women can spend a year together in prestigious surroundings, in the public eye, learning the discipline necessary for a service career, the history of the services and military science. That would be a better induction to service life than the 24 weeks of initial officer training at Cranwell. When they have completed cadet training and have proved that they have the necessary qualities, we could then send them to Cranwell for proper professional training, both elementary flying training and basic, because they could both be carried out at Cranwell.

I query the service plans with regard to multi-engine training because they do not appear to be defined. There will be a study in Canada into training by civilian contractors. The experience of the service has always been that it is better to do it in a uniformed and disciplined environment.

Finally, if we are going to have a Royal Air Force which is capable of expansion, there must be effective reserves. I am glad about the progress that has been made in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Combining it with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve was wise. The regiment squadrons have done well. The aero-medical section at Brize Norton is a success as is the movements auxiliary unit at Brize Norton. I am glad that reserve air crew have an opportunity to fly the Wessex and the C130. I hope that in 1996 Royal Air Force reservists may have an opportunity to fly fast jets.

Let me remind the House, however, how inadequate our response is in this area as compared with that of the Israelis and the Americans. Jane's Defence Weekly on 11 March 1995 states: US Air Force Reserve F16s on 'Deny Flight"'— that is, over the Balkans— Deployment of two US Air Force Reserve squadrons to Aviano Air Base, Italy, to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia has enabled"— regular F16s to return to the United States for advanced training. That is the kind of measure we need to reduce some of the overstretch and strain in our regular units and to enable better use to be made of trained manpower when they leave the service.

All in all, the Government have done well with regard to the RAF. I am hopeful for the future and we would keep faith with those who died in the service of our country in the RAF, and to whom we pay tribute, if we continued the modernisation of the service which is, broadly, on the right lines.

7.59 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I am surprised that no one has quoted Sir Winston Churchill's famous phrase about the Royal Air Force at the time of the Battle of Britain. I suspect that that is because the phrase is copyright, and any money derived from quoting it would go to the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) or his trustees, in addition to his lottery windfall. In the circumstances, a more appropriate quote may be, "Never has so much been paid by so many for so little." However, that is more relevant to the lottery than it is to the RAF.

I pay genuine tribute to the RAF. I have said in previous RAF debates that its professionalism and standards are of the highest quality, and I reiterate that.

I wish to make two brief points. First, there is the question of the use of information obtained by the RAF Turkey in the invasion of Iraq. I am concerned at reports that Turkish forces invading the safe areas for Kurds in northern Iraq were able to use images obtained by RAF aircraft to help plan their operations.

I have a report dated 30 March this year, which states: Royal Air Force officials admitted yesterday that high-quality security photographs of the Kurdish safe areas in northern Iraq, taken by RAF and French warplanes, have been shared with Turkish military officers. The officials said only that they will continue to monitor the situation and that Ankara has been told to respect the principle of territorial integrity. Turkey did not respect the principle of territorial integrity because 35,000 Turkish troops, backed by warplanes and tanks, attacked those safe areas. They have left that area only in the past day.

That was a gross abuse of the images obtained by the RAF. If the use of those images by Turkey is proven beyond doubt—as I said, RAF officials have admitted it—I call for Turkey to be prevented from having any further access to such images. The Minister should say what the Government's response has been, and whether they have made or will make representations to Turkey on the issue.

Mr. Hardy

The Royal Air Force is based in Turkey. Turkey is its host and also a part of NATO. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Royal Air Force cannot refuse to co-operate with a partner, and that if there is to be criticism and blame, it should be directed at the Administration in Turkey, and perhaps to our Foreign Office?

Mr. Cohen

I half agree with my hon. Friend. I am not blaming the RAF in this matter. There must have been a political decision to hand the images over to the Turkish authorities. I blame the Turkish authorities for invading the safe areas in Iraq. My criticism is of the Government. Somebody at a high level acceded to a request, if one was made, for the images.

The upshot is that the images were used for an operation for which they should not have been used—a national military operation by Turkey against safe areas. The Government should rebuke the Turkish Government on the matter. Will that be done?

Lady Olga Maitland

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, while Turkey did go over the border, it was attacking PKK terrorist camps? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not aware that the PKK has killed thousands of innocent men, women and children in Turkey. The invasion was an attempt to combat international terrorism.

Mr. Cohen

There is a lot of argument about Turkey and its war against the Kurds and the PKK and the slaughter of the Alavi people. However, what has happened is that Turkey has used RAF images to help invade another country, northern Iraq, and the safe havens that were guaranteed by the United Nations. Indeed, the Prime Minister took credit for setting up those safe areas. RAF images and information should not have been used, in those circumstances, to help bomb and attack those areas. We need a ministerial response.

Secondly, I wish to discuss cluster bombs, and particularly the definition of cluster bombs. I want to query the compatibility of the BL755 cluster bomb with our obligations under international law, and with what could become our obligations under international law after the United Nations weaponry convention review in September.

About a month ago, I asked the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis), about land mines. He enunciated a new Government policy to the House of the responsible use of mines, by which he meant that they should be mapped and later removed.

In a letter to me of 21 April, the Minister claimed: the BL755 is not a land mine and does not include an anti-personnel land mine as a component. That raises the issue of what the definition of a mine is.

I like simple, clear definitions, because they are the easiest to keep to. I suggest that anything that is on the ground and is triggered by a person coming into contact with it to cause that person death or injury is an anti-personnel land mine. That is precisely what the anti-personnel element of the BL755 does, and that is contrary to what the Minister stated in his letter to me. The bomblets, to use the military's term, in the BL755 are scattered when the cluster bomb is deployed, ready to kill and maim people who enter the affected area.

The Government are playing around with meanings and definitions. Most people recognise a distinction between a bomb and a mine. The former explodes on impact with the ground, while the latter waits—this is the key point—on the ground for the victim to come into contact with it. That is why the BL755 produces a minefield by any other name. The weapons within it are clearly mines under the definition that I have used.

If the weapon were to be used, would the RAF go along and drop a team of sappers to mark the resulting minefield behind enemy lines? Of course not. How can the weapon be used responsibly and in compliance with protocol 2 of the inhumane weapons convention as the Government claim?

There is a further important question. We exported such weapons to the former Yugoslavia, and they are now in Serbian hands. In the past couple of days, Zagreb has been attacked with cluster bombs—perhaps the bombs that we sold. Can the Minister confidently tell the House that he expects the Serbs not to use those weapons indiscriminately if the no-fly zone is ever rescinded? Will they use them "responsibly", in the Government's parlance?

The BL755 blows up—or, if hon. Members can excuse the pun, undermines—the responsible use of mines policy that the Government enunciated only a few weeks ago. Ministers can get around the problem only by pretending that the BL755 does not have a mine element at all, but it does. It waits on the ground for somebody to come into contact with it.

The Government's approach will fool no one, but many tyrants around the world will do likewise, and say that they do not have any mines when they do. It could put the protocol, the effort to ban or reduce the number of land mines, and even the Government's desired "responsible" use of mines, in jeopardy. I therefore urge the Government to think again about the BL755 cluster bomb, especially in relation to our international obligations.

8.9 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

The lesson of the events that we commemorate this weekend is that the price of peace is eternal vigilance. Had that lesson been learned following the first world war, the second could have been avoided.

I shall use this debate on air defence to enlarge on the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and the warning that I gave in a previous defence debate, which is that this country and Europe are not prepared for ballistic missile attack. In support of that warning, I paint what I readily accept is a worst case scenario but which I believe to be wholly plausible.

No one doubts that the future of Algeria lies on a knife edge, and that today's civil war could lead to an Islamic fundamentalist Government. Within weeks, perhaps days, that revolution could be exported to neighbouring Tunisia, where the Ben Ali Government could be replaced by the banned Islamic Renaissance party. Before Europe and the United States of America had time to respond, Muslim radicals in Egypt could have incited the mob to overthrow the Mubarak Government. Immediately, the border between Egypt and Gaza would be pulled down. As Islamic brothers embraced, Israel would mobilise, and the peace process would be dead.

In response, President Clinton and NATO would order ships to the eastern Mediterranean and send troops to support King Hassan in Morocco, which is fast becoming destabilised by the flood of refugees from Algeria, and is itself threatened by revolution.

Unable to believe their luck, President Gaddafi and the ayatollahs in Iran would promise to reinforce the new regimes, which would request the immediate supply of missiles of all kinds. Of course, Iran and Libya have more than enough to go around, having recently taken delivery of large quantities of RoDong ballistic missiles from North Korea. In addition, they have long held hundreds of Scuds B and C, Al Fatah and Tondar medium-range missiles.

They would no doubt press North Korea to speed up the development and supply of its larger longer-range NoDong missiles, which Libya is co-financing and which would put this country within range. Apart from Israel, there is only one direction in which these missiles located along the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean would face, and that is Europe.

The question to which I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will respond is, are we prepared for such a threat today and in the immediate future? Also, are we prepared for accidental, unauthorised or even deliberate launches from the growing number of countries that possess or that are developing and acquiring ballistic missiles?

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to the initiatives for the future missile defence of Europe which are now under way, such as our two-year programme of pre-feasibility studies, parallel studies in NATO, informal discussions with allies and close links between the Ministry and the United States Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation.

None of that suggests that we are prepared now. It does suggest, however, that there is some overlap, and that this country is hardly at the centre of co-operation between the United States of America and our allies in preparing for the future missile defence of Europe-quite the reverse.

Why is the United Kingdom not part of the agreement made three months ago by the United States of America, Germany, France and Italy to co-operate in developing an extended air defence capability against ballistic missiles, which is known as MEADS, or the medium extended air defence system? Why are we not considering the development of a European space-based observation system and an early warning system, which are essential for effective anti-missile defence and which should surely be on the agenda of the forthcoming intergovernmental conference of the European Union in relation to the future European defence community?

As ballistic missiles are at their most vulnerable before their descent, which was the central argument in support of President Reagan's strategic defence initiative, should we not be pursuing and sharing with our allies the research into an interception system that is space-based, as well as a ground-based theatre missile defence system, which has effectively replaced star wars?

On a parallel tack, what plans do we have to strengthen the missile technology control regime, which is what President Clinton prefers to star wars? It needs a formal, well-researched secretariat, and its guidelines need to take account of payload as well as range. Many of its members need to strengthen in their national laws the principles of the regime.

New attempts must be made to bring in the major suppliers of ballistic missile technology, such as Russia and China, that remain outside the regime. Certainly, future membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development should require it. Potential suppliers from the former Soviet Union, such as Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, should be encouraged to join, while second-tier suppliers such as India and North Korea should continue to be pressed to adhere to it.

As the war was coming to an end 50 years ago, London and the south-east were still living in fear of the first ever ballistic missile to be used in war against which we had no defence—the V2. Today, some 38 countries already have or are developing increasingly reliable and longer-range successors to the V2. That fact, combined with the spread of weapons of mass destruction to be used with those missiles, is giving our regional adversaries a political and military leverage that was inconceivable at the beginning of the decade.

If we do not have the capability to respond effectively to these threats, we will be deterred from taking action against Saddam Hussein and his kind in the future, and our enemies will know that they can have their way without a shot being fired. This represents the greatest challenge to the defence of Europe today, as well as to our ability to defend Europe's interests anywhere in the world, most notably in the middle east.

Mr. Freeman

As we are not as pressed for time as we are in some other debates, it might be convenient for the House if I comment briefly on the matters that my hon. Friend aimed directly at me.

The Government take ballistic missile defence extremely seriously. Nothing should be read into the fact that we are not participating in the United States MEADS programme. We are pursuing parallel initiatives, and I maintain a very close connection with my opposite numbers in the Pentagon on this matter.

When we have the conference in London in June to discuss ballistic missile defence, I shall be announcing on behalf of the Government not only the progress being made on the feasibility study led by British Aerospace but, more important, the fact that we have recently authorised the investment of some £8 million in technology demonstrators, especially in the sphere of radar defence against ballistic missiles.

I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend. I shall be sure to tell my hon. Friend the Minister of State who is winding up the debate, and who might not be able to respond to the points that my hon. Friend has made and has yet to make, that I have taken the liberty of dealing with some of them.

Mr. Atkinson

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has responded to some of my concerns. I am grateful to him, and I look forward to any further responses from my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am also pleased to hear about the announcement to be made at the eighth multinational conference on theatre missile defence, which is to take place at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre next month.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for the considerable role that he is playing in the organisation of the Government's programme of official VE day and VJ day events that are forthcoming this weekend and in August. That they are appropriate to the historic occasions they commemorate, and that they will be a considerable success, there is no doubt, and I believe that the whole House should acknowledge that today. Of course, we expect nothing less from the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill.

8.19 pm
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not follow the lines of their contributions, as I wish to concentrate on RAF Valley, which is in my constituency.

The Minister of State will know that I corresponded with him in September last year about the Government's proposal for market testing certain services at Valley. I asked him whether it would be possible for an in-house bid to be made for those services. He wrote to me in September last year and said that there was an opportunity for a bid to be considered, although there were certain constraints about that bid. That was a less-than-fulsome assurance, but at least it confirmed that the in-house bid team at RAF Valley was to be given some assistance in preparing that bid.

On 20 April, the Ministry of Defence announced that it proposed not to allow an in-house bid to proceed, and that decision was greeted with anger and frustration by not only RAF personnel at the station and the civilian work force but the local community. I shall address some of our concerns about the proposal and, I hope, persuade the Ministry to think again during the consultation period.

RAF Valley was established in 1941 as a fighter base. It is now the only fully operational RAF airfield in Wales. The Ministry of Defence concluded that its future as a flying base should continue, at the expense of other locations, in 1993. Currently, 1,100 service personnel and 200 civilians are employed at Valley. They contribute about £20 million annually to the local economy. Many of the service personnel live in the camp village of Llanfihangel, but a significant number live in the adjoining villages of Caergeiliog, Rhosneigr, Llanfaelog, Trearddur bay and Holyhead. When I became aware that Valley was to be subjected to the market-testing exercise, I felt that it was incumbent on me to take up the matter with the Minister.

The market-testing exercise involves a total of 771 posts—573 are service personnel and 198 are civilians. The in-house bid team commenced work on the premise that the 771 posts would be reduced to 580, with 300 service personnel, the current 198 civilians, and the balance recruited as civilian staff. The fact that 300 service personnel needed to be included in the in-house bid at the outset was a clear demonstration of the need to retain sufficient staff with the appropriate skills in aircraft-related tasks.

Alongside the market-testing proposal, as the Minister of State has explained, we had the publication of the White Paper, "Front Line First", with its requirement to reduce RAF manpower from 73,000 at present to 52,200 by March 1999. Given the time scale for the market-testing proposal and the manpower service reduction requirements, the in-house bid was clearly damned from the outset. Set against that background and that time scale, it could not possibly succeed.

The Ministry made it clear that a total of 300 service personnel, although it would mean a reduction of 273 on the current levels, was unacceptable because it could not otherwise meet the manpower reduction requirements. Therefore, for all those months—from September last year until January this year—the in-house bid team worked with one hand tied behind its back, and a trawl of the whole of north Wales for people with the appropriate skills in aircraft-related tasks and in specialist aircraft-related tasks produced the inevitable results: there were simply not enough people with those skills available so that they could be included in the bid.

The next step, of course, was to see whether sufficient people could be trained in time to be included in the bid. That, of course, is where we came up against the time scale constraints. The time scale for the implementation of the contractorisation programme meant that it could not be achieved. The original timetable was: May 1995, the invitation to tender—I understand that there might he some slippage—then November 1995, the choice of contractor; January 1996, a six-month handover period to commence; and July 1996, total handover to the contractor. Even the most optimistic person would have to agree that, if 300 service personnel with specialist skills had to be taken out of the bid, it would be impossible to train 300 people from the local community within 14 months in time for the handover.

Because there are no aircraft-related industries within the local community, there is no pool of ready, available labour to take the place of the service personnel. If the work were handed over to an outside contractor, the loss of jobs in Anglesey would be catastrophic, and the impact on the local community enormous. Contractors will say that they will do their best to employ local people, but the reality is that, because some of the jobs require specialist skills, many people from outside the area will have to be brought in.

The RAF station is located in the north-west quadrant of the island, which is part of the Holyhead travel-to-work area. The population of that part of the island is 53,000, with unemployment at 15.4 per cent.—the second highest in Wales; nearly 60 per cent. have been unemployed for more than six months. In March this year, there were 269 unfilled vacancies, which would meet 10 per cent. of the current demand. Average incomes in the area are substantially below the United Kingdom average.

The tremendous problems that the community faces—structural, economic and social problems, low incomes, and so on—will be significantly compounded if an in-house bid is not allowed. We will see not only the loss of 573 service personnel and their purchasing power in the community but 198 civilian jobs in jeopardy. That will have a significant impact, as I have said, on shops, schools and the housing market. I have already said that a significant number of service personnel live in several villages surrounding the base at Valley. If all those service personnel were transferred to other locations, the impact on the housing market in those areas would be unbelievable. When, on 20 April, the Ministry of Defence announced the decision not to allow the in-house bid, the condemnation in my constituency was universal. Morale at the station hit a new low, and people were angry at the way in which they had been treated.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who I believe is to wind up the debate, sent me a reply saying that, apart from the global in-house bid covering both civilian and service personnel, the Ministry had also considered the idea of a separate in-house bid for the civilian staff alone, but it had rejected that as well. Unfortunately, the Ministry had not discussed that option with the trade unions representing the civilian staff, and the first they knew about such a bid having been considered and rejected was when they received the letter from the MOD.

I do not believe that the civilian staff should have been treated like that. They should at least have been given the opportunity to mount an in-house bid on their own, if that was what the Ministry was considering. Will the Minister ensure that during the consultation period the civilian staff and their representatives are fully consulted at each stage, so that they know what is planned for themselves, their jobs and their families? I should welcome that assurance.

What is the way forward from here? I realise that the Ministry applied certain criteria that made it impossible for the in-house bid to succeed, but I want the Minister to give us an assurance that, because of the impact on the local economy and community of a decision not to allow the bid, the Government will think again. I want the Minister to reconsider the criteria that meant that the bid could not have succeeded.

In my constituency there is not only universal condemnation of the way in which the original bid was treated but universal acceptance of the need to do everything that we can to retain those jobs in the area. In my eight years as a Member of Parliament this is the most serious problem that has faced one workplace.

The consultation period was originally set to finish on 5 June, but it has been extended until the end of that month. I understand that the Welsh Office has intervened and tried to ensure that we now bring people together, such as the Ministry, Targed—the training and enterprise council—the Welsh Development Agency, other agencies and the local authority. We are conducting an urgent skills review to find out what is possible in the area, because we want the Ministry to accept that some service personnel who accept redundancy might want to return as civilians later, although not within the current time scale.

Clearly we shall have the opportunity to discuss matters in detail at the meetings, but I ask the Minister now whether he will consider our case according to the following principles. First, the market-testing programme within the current time scale should be withdrawn. Secondly, the target date for achieving the manpower service requirements should be relaxed in the interim. Thirdly, we should assess the number of skilled service personnel in RAF Valley who may wish to convert to civilian service in the area. Next, we should allow the technical college, Coleg Menai, and other training agencies to set up courses in engineering and other disciplines to train enough people within the local labour pool to take on the jobs at Valley. Finally, the Ministry should be sensitive to the impact of any decision on the area.

If, without giving a commitment on the detail tonight, the Minister will assure us that we can agree on those principles, I shall ensure that the local committee puts up a strong case to persuade him and his Department to think again, so that the impact on the local community can be minimised.

8.34 pm
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words—but I hope that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) will forgive me if I do not follow his speech. Although I am familiar with the airfield at Valley, on Anglesey, I am not familiar with the matters that he was discussing. I also apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for not having been here for his opening speech. I warned him beforehand that I could not attend then, and I have managed to be here for most of the debate.

I very much welcome the White Paper this year—more so than many previous White Papers—and I am especially delighted by the section on air cadets. Perhaps at this stage it is appropriate for me to declare an interest as a pilot in the Royal Air Force Reserve. The cadet movement is most important. It is not only a recruiting ground for RAF airmen, but a link between the services and the civilian community—that applies to the other two cadet movements too. As is dwelt on in the White Paper for the first time, there is also the importance from a social point of view of encouraging worthwhile pursuits for youngsters, who learn initiative and self-reliance, and do all sorts of things that we should encourage tomorrow's citizens to do.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will know that there is something else in the White Paper that I welcome—the firm commitment to no more defence cuts. I should probably have preferred us not to have gone quite so far as we have; none the less, I am delighted that we seem finally to have come to the end of the session of defence cuts that has taken place over the past five years.

It is worth while to reflect on what has happened so far. A few years ago, the Royal Air Force was just under 90,000 personnel strong. This year, the number will be down to 66,500, and, as has already been said, by 1999 it will be only 52,200. That is a dramatic change, a 40 per cent. reduction over about seven years.

Alongside that reduction in numbers, there has been a large reduction in the amount of equipment. Across the range of aircraft in RAF service, there has been a reduction of between 30 and 40 per cent. in the front line. We now have a total of 72 strike attack aircraft, 65 offensive air support aircraft and 80 air defence aircraft. Those are the teeth of the Royal Air Force.

We should take into account all the things that those aircraft, their air crews and the supporting ground staff are doing now. They do not operate simply from one or two bases; they are deployed all over Europe and further afield. There is no doubt that, just as the British Army has suffered from overstretch in the past, the air force, as other hon. Members have said, is on the point of suffering the same fate.

Many hon. Members have also mentioned the shutting of RAF stations. I support those who have suggested that we question the retention of our two stations in Germany. We should retain some presence in Germany, but I favour withdrawing most of the front-line units to the United Kingdom. I am thinking especially of the Tornado squadrons.

Now that the cold war is over, the RAF can no longer operate down to 250 ft or even 500 ft over Germany. Therefore, most of the training of the Tornado air crews has to be done elsewhere. They have to move away from their base in Germany to train. We must therefore question whether there is any point in keeping them there. Moreover, if they returned to this country, there would at least be the possibility that we should not have to shut quite so many RAF stations in Britain.

Although we have stopped the cuts, it must be recognised that the effects of previous defence reviews will remain with us for some time. I very much welcomed the comments by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement on the Bett report. I would have liked to have seen Mr. Bett as a member of a team led by a service man, rather than the other way round. I know that the way in which the report has been produced has caused a certain amount of concern in some quarters of the three services.

Having said that, there is much good in the report. It has made people look afresh at a number of matters. My right hon. Friend will know that, during an earlier RAF debate, I questioned the need for so many ranks in the RAF, and I was interested to see that Mr. Bett himself asked the Ministry of Defence to look at that matter. I hope that that will be done.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments that there was a need for considerable reassurance and consultation following the Bett report, and that must happen. We must use the opportunity given by that report to allow people within the armed services to give their views freely and fully. That is the best way to reassure people that the report is not just another review or another part of the series of cuts which have had a dramatic effect on the RAF in the past seven or eight years. The Bett report has provided us with the opportunity to do precisely what I said.

Mr. Martlew

Does the hon. Gentleman support performance-related pay?

Mr. Mans

It would be perfectly acceptable to consider performance-related pay in some parts of the RAF, but I would not support it if it were applied universally throughout the RAF. There are areas where the use of performance-related pay could be of benefit, and that is what I meant about considerable consultation. It is totally wrong to rule out something which may create greater efficiency and better operational effectiveness simply because it happens to be performance-related pay. It should not be discarded without being considered.

Bearing in mind the size of the RAF now, it is vital that it has the right equipment. In this context, I would like to say a word about my right hon. Friend's job as the procurement Minister. We have seen some considerable changes in the past year in the way in which we look at those matters. Decisions have been taken which may not have been to my liking, but they have been taken in a much more practical, clear-sighted and understandable way. I am thinking in particular about the decisions on the future large aircraft, the C130J and the EH101.

I have been particularly encouraged by what my right hon. Friend has done in terms of looking at procurement in partnership with other countries, which must be the right way forward. Weapons systems are hugely expensive, and when other nations want similar weapons themselves, it is pointless for us to try to produce something on our own. I have been encouraged by what has happened—particularly in Europe—and by the merging of companies on an international basis, which avoids the awful choice that has to be made between a national project and one brought from overseas.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as I have only just walked into the Chamber. The Select Committee on Defence has just been in Italy looking at the southern flank of NATO, and I am glad to see so many members of the Committee in the Chamber.

My hon. Friend has just referred to the EH101 and the importance of co-operation. We gave the Italians 50 per cent. of the manufacturing of the EH101 helicopter, which was a very good arrangement. Notwithstanding Italy's severe financial difficulties—it is trying to cut its defence budget even further than we are—would it not be nice if the Italians were to place some orders for the EH101? They have not yet done so.

Mr. Mans

I can answer that with one word—yes. It would be a very good idea indeed.

I have been encouraged also by the moves taken towards the future offensive aircraft, or FOA. We are always dealing in these three-letter abbreviations, and a number of similar abbreviations are associated with the studies on the successor to the Harrier aircraft. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to look not just to the United States in that context, but at what collaborations we can have with Europe. I do not think that we should go for one or the other, but we should look at both at the same time if possible.

There is one decision, however, with which I and a number of earlier speakers have decidedly disagreed—although it was taken before my right hon. Friend filled his present post. I refer to the decision to cancel the tactical air-to-surface missile. The RAF may have been partly responsible for that decision, as it wanted a weapon that was probably too grand and too expensive.

I am convinced that we shall be in considerable difficulty in the future if we cannot provide the RAF with some sort of stand-off nuclear capability after the WE177 is withdrawn from service in the next two or three years. My reasons for that view follow on from the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) a few minutes ago. If one looks at the threats that may be posed to this country in the coming decade or two, one must take account of something possibly going wrong in Russia and the appearance of a regime there that is much more militaristic and belligerent. It is right that, through NATO, we should have a deterrent that is capable of meeting that threat.

I would submit that a more likely risk to this country comes from precisely the nations which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. We must not just think about the conventional threat, as there is the potential for a nuclear threat as well. Until we have a system that is capable of defending us against such a threat, the only mechanism for defence is deterrence.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) rightly pointed out, it is much easier to deter effectively if one can deploy an air-launched nuclear capability which can be seen by the whole world for what it is. The potential aggressor can then see for himself that this country is serious about being prepared to go to the brink to avoid being attacked. I feel that giving Trident a sub-strategic role to meet that threat is less credible than providing the Tornados or the Eurofighter with dual capability into the next century.

I shall say a few words about air power in general. It is always said that it is very expensive to have air power, but it is even more expensive not to have it. We have seen in the past few days and weeks on our television screens air power in action during the second world war. A clear message has come out of that footage. From 1942 onwards, our troops operated on the ground with air superiority, while the German troops did not. If one speaks to German and British soldiers, one can see that that fact made a big difference.

In virtually every conflict since the second world war, with the possible exception of the Falklands—although I would argue that we at least had local air superiority there—the NATO armies, and the British Army in particular, have been able to operate in the knowledge that they had air superiority. I do not want to make a point in favour of the Royal Air Force versus the Army, but as a result the Army has become a tiny bit complacent about keeping an extra battalion of troops rather than procuring an extra squadron of aircraft. There is no point in having an extra battalion of troops if we do not have the air cover, because that will result only in considerable extra casualties.

Media coverage today is so pervasive that the results of a battle, for example in Iraq, are often on our television screens before the military commanders know what has happened. As a result, we constantly have to reduce the number of casualties, because otherwise what we are doing becomes politically. unacceptable. It is vital to ensure that we incur the minimum number of casualties when we carry out military operations. In the Gulf war, we saw a graphic illustration of the effectiveness of air power in the slaughter on the roads out of Kuwait as the Iraqis streamed out. The war was probably stopped at that time as a result of the pictures of that slaughter on our television screens. That was a clear demonstration of the effectiveness of air power and of the way in which it can prevent casualties on one's own side.

I have pointed that out because I strongly believe that, if we are to prevent such conflicts, we must ensure that we have adequate air forces to secure air superiority, so that we can do what we want. Without adequate air forces, we would just have to accept much larger numbers of ground casualties.

We have also to accept that modern weapon systems and air platforms need a fair amount of support. One of the unfairest manifestations of the defence debate in the national media was the implication that the air force had a larger tail to cut. Keeping a Tornado aircraft airborne for three or four sorties a day requires a huge amount of back-up. If one does not keep the aircraft airborne for those sorties, one has wasted the investment. The only way round the problem is to increase the number of aircraft and reduce the sortie rate—one can balance one against the other.

I am pleased that we are not making any more defence cuts. As hon. Members have said, we have to look very closely indeed at the amount of support that we give the front line, especially in terms of spares and training. I get the impression that we are operating at very close to 100 per cent. and that there is not a great deal of flexibility if, for instance, we need to expand our air effort for any reason.

We have to be careful about using commercial systems of spares provision. If something goes wrong and we do not have what is needed close by, £20 million worth of aircraft could be sitting on the ground unnecessarily. The 48 aircraft that make up the four squadrons at Bruggen are our strike attack wing. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces might like to write to me to let me know what the serviceability of those aircraft is and how many can be expected, on average, on the front line every morning for people to fly. I suspect that it will be less than 50 per cent. of the 48.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

The hon. Gentleman must have inside information.

Mr. Mans

I do not. I am basing the assumption on my own experience. If there are 12 aircraft in a squadron, six are likely to be available to fly on any one day. I am merely saying that we are down to such small figures that we need to up that rate so that a greater percentage of the aircraft available are able to fly at any one time, to give people the training that they need.

I must say a few words on Opposition defence policy. For the past 30 years, I have been a member of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies. Indeed, I think that I have every quarterly magazine that it has produced. Every so often, an Opposition spokesman—normally the shadow Defence Secretary—speaks to the institute about Opposition defence policy.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on the Opposition Front Bench today because he spoke to the institute not too long ago. I read his speech and there was very little in it. I also looked at what all the predecessors who had filled his role since 1962 had said when they spoke to that illustrious institute. Without exception, by this stage in a Parliament, they had a defence policy that they were prepared to put before the nation. The hon. Gentleman clearly did not have such a policy. I strongly believe—I am not speaking on a party political basis—that it is important for the nation to know what the Labour party feels that we ought to be doing.

The only thing that came over in the speech of the hon. Member for South Shields was the need for another defence review, which is the one thing that the armed services do not need. There is little point in Opposition Members suggesting that they must wait and look at the books when they supposedly get into office. There is no need for them to do that.

The available options are very clear. Do the Opposition want this country to continue to have a worldwide capability—perhaps to deploy troops to support peacekeeping operations anywhere in the world? Do they still want our armed forces to be able to take part in high-intensity operations, or would they consign them purely to peacekeeping? Do they want a comprehensive capability, or are they prepared to allow someone else to provide a particular element of that capability abroad? Those questions can easily be answered now and I strongly believe that they should be.

I shall end my speech with a comment made by Air Chief Marshal Slessor many years ago. He said that the first social service that any Government should provide for its people is to make certain that they remain alive and free. I strongly believe that the Government's defence policy will guarantee precisely that, but I doubt whether the defence policies of the Opposition parties could do so.

8.58 pm
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I apologise to the House for being absent for the best part of the debate. As our acting Chairman already explained, the Defence Select Committee was on duty this week in Italy and has only just returned this evening. I repeat the complaint that I made in the Chamber some time ago: all defence debates seem to be timed for periods when it is known that the Defence Select Committee will be elsewhere doing its job. When I registered that complaint in the Chamber, I was subjected to ridicule, not least from my hon. Friends, who seem to think that we toddle about on freebies enjoying ourselves. I freely admit that my job is one long holiday. I enjoy doing it, it is a great privilege and I shall continue to enjoy it and work hard at enjoying it. However, it is a bit much when every single defence debate is timed for a period when the Defence Select Committee is abroad.

I wish that I could leave the topic there, but next Tuesday when the House is to debate Bosnia, the Defence Select Committee has a long-standing engagement to attend Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. That may be so, but the hon. Gentleman must make his complaints elsewhere, not in this debate. We are supposed to be debating the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Cook

I am deeply grateful for your admonishment and advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I accept it. I thank you for giving me the chance to complain anyway.

The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) provided me with some material that will help to substantiate my arguments about defence policy, but, first, I must pick him up on two points. The first is his remarks on the desirability of performance-related pay. Some grades may be entitled to performance-related pay and I simply ask that we start with war widows. Perhaps they could be given adequate pay as a reward for the contribution of their kin folk in times past.

Mr. Mans

The hon. Gentleman may have misheard me. I said that we should not simply discard the idea of performance-related pay without examining it. I did not suggest that we should definitely introduce it.

Mr. Cook

Then perhaps we might start examining it in respect of war widows.

The hon. Member for Wyre made an effective argument based on our memories of the scale of slaughter on the road to Baghdad. I agree that the scale of that slaughter was shocking. Indeed, it resulted in some American and British air crews refusing to go out on further missions because they were simply murdering people who were not even taking the trouble to fire back. As that was done with conventional weapons, which can deliver an impact with exceedingly precise accuracy, why does the hon. Gentleman want to put on the end of some of those vehicles a weapon of mass destruction in the form of a nuclear warhead? How many people do we want to kill?

I therefore ask the hon. Member for Wyre to reconsider not only the result of performance-related pay but the scale of slaughter that one needs to vent on a potential enemy.

Mr. Gallie

Having followed closely the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), I remember that he said that he saw their value as weapons of deterrence, not of mass destruction.

Mr. Cook

I understand that and I repeat the point that I am making: if it is a deterrent, it will deter anyway and we do not need the precision of a tactical air-to-surface missile to deliver it. Our old enemy, Russia, already possessed our nuclear deterrent. We could have hit Chernobyl or any one of a dozen other such plants whenever we liked and vented destruction and catastrophe on that nation, and we could have done it with conventional weapons with laser precision. We do not need nuclear warheads on a TASM; we already have them in Polaris and will have them in greater strength in Trident. How many more times does the hon. Gentleman want to multiply them at a time when we are supposed to be actively involved in extending a nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Where is the logic in that?

I have not even begun to discuss what I came here to discuss. I cannot put a theme together in such a short time, because I must conclude soon.

Hon. Members

Sit down then.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order.

Mr. Cook

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I appreciate your guardianship.

The Select Committee has just come back from Italy, where we saw the incredibly impressive results of the co-ordination between Agusta and Westland. The standard of workmanship and engineering on the EH101 is astonishingly good. I say that as an experienced engineer who used to work for Richardsons Westgarth, which was capable of the finest fine limits engineering.

As has already been said—it almost shot my fox—although we have ordered variants of the EH101, the Italian Government have yet to do so. I suggest to the Minister, if he can draw his attention from the documents that he is looking at, that he might write a letter to the Italian Government expressing our gratitude for bearing half the cost of the research and development on that helicopter. He should stress that it will make a superb contribution to the resource of the Royal Navy and draw attention to the fact that the Italians have not decided to acquire it. Such congratulations might be an incentive for the Italians to contribute further to the production and to make the helicopter—not just the military version, but the civil and search and rescue ones—even more attractive to other countries. I know that the Italians are seeking to extend their role in search and rescue.

Mr. Colvin

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are not just looking for purchasers of the EH101 from the United Kingdom—we know that we now have them—and from Italy, which we hope we will get, but we need the stamp of approval from both nations that are building the helicopter for it to succeed in selling to third countries? If Italy refrains from giving it that stamp of approval, other countries—for instance, Japan, which probably has the biggest and fastest expanding market for military and civilian helicopters—will hesitate before purchasing.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman shot my first fox earlier and I thank him for shooting my second one now. I agree with him, which saves my repeating the argument.

The attack helicopter, which has little to do with the RAF, but a lot to do with air power and strike power, is now under consideration. We saw a version of it this week, the 129, which is not on the tender lists in this country.

In reply to the hon. Member for Wyre, I say that as responsible politicians of whichever party—it is not a party political point—we have a moral responsibility to see to it that the young men and young women we send out to do our bidding, regardless of how sensible that bidding might be, have the right kind of equipment to do the job and receive the right training to use that equipment. Those men and women could be involved, as the hon. Gentleman said, in a high intensity conflict or in a lower profile activity, to which the hon. Gentleman made a rather demeaning and unfair reference. He spoke about "only peacekeeping". One does not refer to it in such terms, because peacekeeping is a most essential operation in today's world of greater instability. If we are not going to do it, who is? Do we leave it to others to sort it out? Do we wash our hands of all the slaughter that we see? Have we been to Bosnia?

We must not give our service men and women second-best. If we provide attack helicopters, we must have a weapons platform that is capable of hitting at the longest range, of inflicting great injury and of delivering the biggest punch. It must carry out that function with the greatest effect, having selected its targets with absolute accuracy. Frankly, only one aircraft could do that. There is only one helicopter that can fly from London to Bosnia, select 256 targets and take out 40 of them in one strike.

I shall close by quoting Lewis Mackenzie, the Canadian United Nations commander of Sarajevo. When he came out of Sarajevo, with all sorts of question marks hanging over him, especially over what he had said, he made a remark that struck home to me at an informal briefing of the Defence Select Committee in 1992. He said, "When you go into a knife-fight as a peacemaker, you don't go in with a knife—you go in with a bloody gun".

If we expect our young men and women to go to war on our behalf, we must ensure that they are trained with the best gun, and that they have the best gun in the homestead. There should be no half measures.

9.10 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

The publication of the defence estimates must come as a relief to our airmen. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming that the size of our armed forces is stable and will remain so. That is the good news. The other side of the coin is alarming.

Our airmen now have every right to be deeply worried about where the Labour party stands on defence policy. They have a right to know, and what little they have learnt could only cause the deepest despondency. Much greater dangers lie ahead for them in the Labour party's proposals on defence than could ever have been the case when they worried about cuts in the past.

The time has come to place the Labour party under a severe spotlight on defence. The public have a right to be fully aware of what it believes. It is not a great deal. Will Labour really stand up for Britain's interests far and wide? Even if it wanted to, I very much doubt that it would have the capability.

I found it hard to take to hear the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) weeping crocodile tears about the capability of the Royal Air Force. Would his party make a commitment to support the Eurofighter 2000? Would it update the Sea Harrier, the Nimrod? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Labour Members say that today, but I am certain that, come a Labour Government—God forbid that it happens—they would cancel it all.

Labour will always be shackled by the Labour party motions that have been passed every year since 1988, which have supported the reduction of British defence spending by £6 billion a year. That would be an insult to all our security responsibilities. In the end, Britain's role as a force for good would disappear; our commitments in Bosnia, Rwanda or other places far afield would be seriously jeopardised.

It is not valid to argue that we should reduce our defence spending to the western European average. We are not an average nation. We have much wider overseas interests and commitments to secure. Labour therefore tries to dodge the issue, demanding a defence review, destabilising the whole of our armed forces just when they are settling down. We are told by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that such a review would specifically match commitments to resources. Therein lies the truth. Labour will run down our defence capability to dangerous levels. It will not have the resources available to safeguard the national interest.

The RAF will be especially at risk. As the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said: The Labour party will consider our overseas commitments and the … role for the forces, including the RAF."—[Official Report, 27 January 1994; Vol. 236, c. 449.] If that is not a threat, what is?

A future Labour Government will be met with heavy demands from powerful lobby groups who, in the interests of political correctness, will receive priority. It would be hard to envisage their refusing the disability lobby's demands for extra cash, even though there is ample provision today. Signing up to the social chapter and introducing a minimum wage will put thousands of people on the dole.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I would very much like to hear something about the Royal Air Force.

Lady Olga Maitland

The point that I am trying to make, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that Labour's threat to pour thousands of pounds into other areas means that there will not be sufficient resources for defence, let alone the RAF. The truth is that defence spending will fall.

We must look carefully at Labour's defence policy. It stands for nothing. The only firm views that we have heard so far from Labour Members are their views on homosexuality. Those views will delight Peter Tatchell of OutRage! and all the other gay rights groups—

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

A poofter's charter.

Lady Olga Maitland

Stonewall, the lesbian and gay equality group, was thrilled, saying: this ban is widely recognised as cruel. What will that do for the RAF, however?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it right for the Minister's parliamentary private secretary to describe the Labour party's views as "a poofter's charter"?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I did not hear that. [Interruption.] However, I think I hear the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) saying that he did not make the remark. The Chair will accept that.

Lady Olga Maitland

The Labour party's policy on homosexuals appals everyone. Chiefs of the armed services have expressed deep concern, and I think that Labour should note what has been said. If this is the Labour party, it is hardly the stuff of serious government. Perhaps Labour should take the hint from President Clinton: when he tried to remove the ban on homosexuals and admit them to the armed services, he ran into a load of trouble with a furious debate that has not yet ended. Labour, however, seems to know better. Not surprisingly, its views have been condemned by respected figures in the armed services. I can only say that I think it disgraceful that a party that claims to be responsible for security and defence should have such a policy on homosexuality.

Our airmen deserve much more. They have a great history. They honoured us during the last war, and we owe them a great debt. The last thing that they need now is an undermining of their standing by the policies of the Labour party.

9.17 pm
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I shall attempt to raise the debate above the morass of primitive prejudice to which it seems to have sunk.

Approaching the Dispatch Box on occasions such as this, one has a genuine sense of humility and privilege. We realise how insignificant we are when we think that 50 years ago today our predecessors would have been debating not the comparatively minor issues that we have debated today, but the fall of Rangoon, the meeting of the fifth and seventh armies, the crossing of the Brenner pass and the advance on Berlin. At that time, we would have celebrated meeting our allies on the Elbe a few days ago, and looking forward to the "sunlit uplands" for which so many sacrificed their lives and on which so many hopes rested. That is the spirit in which we should approach today's debate, and—within the limits placed on us by traditional party antagonisms—I shall try to do so.

I apologise to the Minister for being unable to hear most of his speech. As he knows, I was collecting my mother and my aunt—my father's sister—for tomorrow's VE day celebrations. Like millions of people throughout the country, they lost kith and kin who were fighting in the armed services. We remember all those people tonight.

I welcome the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who has been on a day trip to Germany with his chum. I am not cynical enough to say that if I were a Conservative Member and had been asked to work in the local elections I too would have chosen a locality in Germany. But the Minister's visit, with his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, was significant: I think that the presence of a member of the royal family, along with the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, will be widely appreciated, and is a measure of how far we have gone on those sunlit uplands—although we have not yet seen the full light of day.

The debate has raised a plethora of questions of both a strategic and a general nature. I will try to answer them all, but if I do not it is because I also wish to respond to some of the challenges that Conservative Members have issued. I always find the speeches of the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson)—who unfortunately is not in his place—fascinating and informative, and tonight he raised one or two strategic issues to which I think we should give much thought.

The hon. Gentleman questioned the value of a sea-based sub-strategic nuclear system. I am not sure that I agree with his views, but the Labour party has considered that matter. More importantly, he raised the question of nuclear deterrents. In one sense, like the generals, Members of Parliament are always fighting the last war. We all accept that the nature of the risk and the threat has changed, but I do not think that hon. Members on either side of the House have applied themselves to the full implications that that will have for our nuclear deterrence policy.

The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood referred to the extension of ownership of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Rather than the 11,000 prospective Soviet missiles, we are now talking about maverick missiles in countries which did not have that capability previously. As the risk becomes more complex, we must pay further attention to that area. Significantly, the hon. Gentleman also mentioned anti-ballistic missile systems.

The important question of the balance between personnel management and war fighting was raised again. The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) posed a problem which preoccupies us all: striking a balance between high and low intensity conflict. We must strike such a balance. As a member of the Security Council, we must fulfil our role on the world stage. We have a moral and a political imperative to retain the capacity for low intensity, peacekeeping operations. However, if our armed forces were applied only to peacekeeping operations, we would undermine our defence role and the first obligation of any Government: to defend their own shores, their dependent territories and their interests.

As always, the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) raised a number of interesting points, including the future of high standard training. I will return to his other points in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond), who has always been a forceful advocate for his constituency, spoke out against the closure of RAF Finningley. In a very good speech the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) mentioned the Cazalet report, which was issued a few days ago.

As to the report, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) made the Labour party's position clear in various television interviews which the producers chose not to broadcast—mainly because they were not as sensational or as forceful in attacking individuals as some others. My hon. Friend spoke on behalf of the Labour party in broadly welcoming the report. The criticisms that he made were not levelled at any individuals or the officer group within the armed forces, but at the obvious deficiencies of financial management and control in the Ministry of Defence. I am glad to put that on the record.

I also record my admiration for the present and past officer corps in the British armed forces. It may amuse Conservative Members to hear me express my admiration for what was traditionally an officer class. However, I believe that they were the only members of the upper class who were prepared to make some sacrifices in return for the many privileges that they enjoyed. From a good class position, I express my admiration for the upper classes as represented in the British armed forces.

A number of hon. Members mentioned performance-related pay. I know that the Government will not take a blinkered view and say that, as it has been recommended, it must be accepted. For all the attractions of efficiency and cost-cutting, it must be obvious that simply to impose market-related performance pay on the armed forces is not only a dangerous precedent, but undermines and undervalues the reasons why so many people join the British armed forces—to serve their country—a much unappreciated and undervalued attitude today.

Search and rescue was mentioned by the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), specifically the move from Leuchars and the delay in response time. A large number of issues were raised and the theme running through the debate was inefficiency and waste.

One speech which did not deal with that theme was that by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who is not in his place. He spoke about land mines. We all agree about land mines, but my hon. Friend seeks a simple definition of a land mine which is so broad that it includes almost everything that lands or sits on the ground. The issue is more complex than he makes out.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) mentioned Eurofighter. We have always supported Eurofighter, but we would not be doing our duty—and nor would Conservative Back-Bench Members—if we did not point out that it is two years behind schedule, it has overrun planned expenditure by £2,200 million and it is still dogged by difficulties. Raising those important questions does not diminish our commitment to Eurofighter.

There are political problems, because, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), after that overspend and delay, many of us would not be happy if the Germans, having reduced the number of Eurofighters that they ordered, were to insist on maintaining their 33 per cent. of production. According to convention and practice, we get production in accordance with the resale of the fighters that we buy. I see no reason why we should not stick to that precedent.

Mention was made of the Tornado midlife update, which is a classic example of the lack of financial control. It is now five years late; it is £270 million over budget for fewer aircraft than planned to a lower standard than envisaged. The Government cannot point to anyone who shares the responsibility for that, as they could for the Eurofighter.

We need a clear definition of the criteria for the Government selling off land. When the Minister of State for Defence Procurement was asked why the highest bid was not accepted, he said that money was not the only criterion, yet when he was questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) about the rather bizarre case of RAF Bentwater, which was sold off to the Maharishi Foundation, presumably as part of the transition from Tornado flying to yogic flying, the only excuse that the Minister gave was the money that we were to receive. We need a clearer definition.

A number of hon. Members mentioned overstretch. We should bear that issue in mind, particularly because it was examined by the Select Committee on Defence, several of whose members are here tonight. We commend them for making the effort to get here and speak.

The Select Committee on Defence issued a warning, saying that it was disturbed at the extent to which decisions on United Kingdom participation in military operations are henceforth to be distorted by the availability of scarce resources rather than taken primarily in the light of the dictates of national interests and international obligations. We all must bear that in mind.

On market testing and contractorisation, once again I urge the Government to listen to what was said tonight and to the Select Committee, which recommended that any proposals … into future RAF support arrangements must have due regard to the operational needs of the front line for timely reinforcement and equipment support.". It is fine to have the garage at the corner carrying out market-tested contractorisation during peace time because that will show enormous savings and will probably be reasonably efficient. To do that in circumstances of war or the prelude to war, or times of high tension, is another matter. I am sure that the Government would not find such an approach cost efficient in those circumstances. It would certainly not be operationally successful.

I have tried to do justice to the detailed criticisms that have been made. They have been heightened, naturally, by our style of parliamentary politics. I understand that defence is a polarised issue because it has served both parties well to debate it on that basis. Circumstances are arising, however, that facilitate and, indeed, necessitate a more consensual approach to our debates on defence and to defence itself.

The armed forces have enough enemies. There is no good purpose in having debates when one side of the House calls the other side warmongers and the response of the accused is to chant "appeasers". The reality is that we have all made mistakes. Despite their rhetoric, the Government have made substantial cuts. Some of the ideas that we, the Opposition, have advanced have grudgingly been accepted by the Government, often not publicly. Some of our ideas are gradually creeping into their thinking. It does not serve the armed forces well for us intentionally, for party political purposes, to continue to polarise defence issues.

Mr. Gallie

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to make such statements. I recognise that his commitment to defence is wholehearted and that over the years his words have been pretty consistent. In the main, however, the Members who sit behind him—this is true especially of the annual conferences of the Labour party—continually undermine the hon. Gentleman's words. It is difficult for us to accept his words now.

Dr. Reid

When the hon. Gentleman was saying that about the Labour party conference in 1988—that Labour was calling for huge defence expenditure cuts of up to 30 per cent. and that it should be reduced to the European average—he expressed great criticism. The reality is that the Government have done what the Labour party was urging. The Government have reduced defence expenditure by 30 per cent. Defence expenditure has been reduced over 10 years to 2.8 per cent. of overall expenditure, which in 1988 was the average for our European allies.

I am asking only for an absence of hypocrisy. Let us admit that the Government have cut defence expenditure massively. They have cut it like no other element of their budget. I see Conservative Members nodding in agreement. What I have stated is a fact. If we can begin to get rid of party political sloganising and paranoia, perhaps we can adopt a more consensual approach.

We welcome parts of the Statement on the Defence Estimates, for example, the explicit statement that foreign policy is becoming increasingly interlinked▀×"interleaved" is the word used on page 9 of the statement—with defence policy. We, the Opposition, have been saying that that is one of the three elements of a defence review. We welcome the Government's recognition of that.

We say also that there are two other elements that have not been recognised. One of those elements is the strategic industrial nature of the British defence industry. The second is the matching of resources and commitments. Without sufficient study, analysis and ammunition, we shall have no strategic argument to deploy from the Ministry of Defence whenever the Treasury comes knocking on the door, as it will after the general election, whichever party is in power. The MOD will, in those circumstances, be unable to resist the Treasury's whims. I ask Conservative Members to accept that a full defence review is not a recipe for the Treasury taking money. That has happened anyway. It is a recipe for the strategic ammunition to argue against it happening.

As for the Labour party having no policy, it is not true. Labour Members have argued with the Government over policy issue after policy issue. We argued that we needed more infantry. The Government said that we were wrong and then they were forced to make a U-turn and accept that we needed more infantry. We argued that it was a waste of money, in the harsh financial circumstances, to spend up to £2,000 million on a new tactical air-to-surface missile. The Government said that we were wrong. We said that we were right. Two years later, the Government did a U-turn and accepted that we were right.

We argued that, in the spirit of the approach to non-proliferation, the Government should consider decommissioning the WE177 nuclear bomb. They said that we were wrong; we were appeasers; we were all in CND. Three years later, the Government accepted that we were right and they did another U-turn. We told the Government that they were wrong in their personnel policy towards pregnant women. Just as we saw tonight, the primitive prejudices came out and Conservatives Members told us that we could not possibly be right about that. That decision has taken £47.5 million out of an already overstretched defence budget and it was all because the Government would not accept that the traditions of prejudice could be overcome by some European-wide legislation.

Incidentally, one of the main reasons why we want to look at the issue of homosexuality is to prevent a similar problem from occurring. I see several Conservative Members nodding. Let me repeat that we in the Labour party have never given the green light to homosexual activity, conduct or relationships in the armed forces. It is a malicious misrepresent tation to suggest that. We fully accept the particular conditions of the armed forces and that homosexual, indeed, in some circumstances heterosexual, relationships, can undermine and be prejudicial to good order and morale. However we also accept that because the present policy discriminates against the person and not their conduct, activity or relationships, it is being taken through the courts and may leave us wide open to exactly the sort of claims of discrimination as were made by pregnant women.

Conservative Members may not want to review the situation, but I can tell them that we will review it on that basis. We do not want to introduce relationships that will undermine good order and morale, but we want to ensure that the armed forces cannot be accused of discrimination against persons. I will tell Conservative Members another thing. The Ministry of Defence, under this Government, is conducting a review as well. Therefore while the policy is being reviewed by the MOD, it is sheer hypocrisy for Conservative Members to pluck at their primitive prejudices. In this case, prejudice, not patriotism, is the last refuge of scoundrels in such an important debate.

Finally, I shall give Conservative Members some policies. I have outlined our policies already, but still more is demanded.

it is impossible for an Opposition to draw up a detailed and fully-costed defence policy when in Opposition. It cannot be done. Hon. Members should not demand the impossible.

Such a process can be carried out only after full consultation with the Services, with our Allies and with industry."—[Official Report, 31 March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 1353] Those are not my words. I was quoting the words of Sir Ian Gilmour, the Conservative defence spokesman in 1976. I hope that we can let that matter rest.

To end in the spirit in which we started, tomorrow is VE day and VJ day. Tomorrow we shall commemorate the end of the war. Let us not be accused of forgetting the forgotten army once again. I say to those of us for whom responsibility has passed that it may serve us all well—the RAF and our armed forces—if, somehow in the present conditions, we could try to attain some measure of agreement. The legacy of those who struggled, to whom it was not given to live through those awful yet glorious days, passes to us and we bear a heavy burden of responsibility on our shoulders. Let us hope that all of us, on all sides of the House, can so bear ourselves—if I may put it that way—as to discharge that responsibility in a manner that does justice to our predecessors.

9.39 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

It is always a great pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) on these occasions. It is a source of great angst to my hon. Friends and to me that he does not sit on the Government side of the House. Indeed, he must feel the same.

Mr. Cohen

He will sit over there after the next election.

Mr. Soames

I would not bank on that.

As is so often the case, this has been a stimulating and wide-ranging debate. A number of wider defence issues have been touched upon, not surprisingly in view of the publication yesterday of the annual Defence White Paper. I shall do my best to answer the points that have been raised. If I do not do that in the time that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North has kindly and generously allotted to me, I will write to hon. Members.

I should like first to take up the theme with which the hon. Member for Motherwell, North started his speech in such a genuinely moving manner. Tomorrow we begin our commemorations of the end of the second world war. It is fitting to remember the RAF's contribution to secure peace in 1945, a peace that was hard won with more than 70,000 of our young air men killed in action. Their sacrifice helped to ensure the freedom that we have enjoyed since and that perhaps we now so often take for granted.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North was good enough to mention the visit that the Prince of Wales made yesterday to Hamburg. That was a very moving and extraordinary occasion. When he went to lay a wreath at the Commonwealth war graves in the Ohlsdorf cemetery, knowing that I was going to speak in this debate today, I came across the grave of Sergeant J. A. Ward, a holder of the Victoria Cross at the age of 22. He was killed on 15 September 1941. He was a member of the Royal New Zealand air force attached to a Royal Air Force squadron and he lies between Britons, Canadians and Australians. Truly we have a great deal of remembering to do this weekend.

The themes of this weekend's events will include a thanksgiving for the end of the war, 50 years of peace and reconciliation in Europe and the benefits that the wartime generation, through their toil, service and sacrifice, won for us.

More than 50 Heads of State representing those countries that contributed major formations to the war in the European theatre on either side of the conflict will meet in London to mark the occasion. There will be three days of ceremonies, performances and exhibitions in Hyde park, culminating in the lighting of a beacon by Her Majesty the Queen on VE night, Monday 8 May.

A fitting centrepiece to the commemorations will be the service in St. Paul's cathedral on Sunday. At the same time, the Government have sponsored events which will take place in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The House will pay what I am sure will be a very moving tribute of its own tomorrow.

The RAF will provide its own unique contribution to the VE day commemorations with every type of operational aircraft participating in more than 100 events throughout the United Kingdom. As for the Government programme, the battle of Britain memorial flight and the Red Arrows will be in the skies over London. The sight of RAF uniforms and the sound of RAF bands will be much in evidence on the ground and, in view of the tremendous and almost overwhelming support that the air cadets have rightly received tonight, I am particularly pleased to tell the House that the air cadets will also be heavily involved in the commemorations.

Veterans all over the land and, I am sure and hope, many young people, will mark the anniversary in their own towns, cities and villages and remember with us the great debt that we owe. I draw the attention of the House to just one of those events outside London. The special ceremony at the United States war cemetery at Cambridge will remember those members of the US air force stationed at bases throughout East Anglia who lost their lives flying so many day-time raids, particularly in the period leading up to the Normandy landings.

Mention of the United States air force brings to mind the many other allies with whom the RAF worked during the second world war. The wartime RAF was a force that included many nationalities. Among the most famous squadrons were the Polish and Czech squadrons of which my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) spoke so movingly. At the very gate of his constituency stands an incredibly beautiful memorial to them. One of the welcome benefits of the end of the cold war has been that the RAF is now able to rebuild closer ties with the air forces of those countries.

There were, however, also Belgian, Dutch, French, Greek, Norwegian and Yugoslav squadrons and, of course, the very many from the Commonwealth who fought and died in the air battle. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that this weekend's commemorations will have a thoroughly international flavour.

The Royal Air Force of 1995 may be vastly different from that of 1945 in many respects, but today's service still maintains the devotion to duty, the professionalism, the determination and the ethos that characterised the service's contribution to the second world war and helped to establish an enduring peace between the major powers.

In the six years of that war, air power grew from adolescence to maturity. Fifty years on, air power continues to provide an ultimate insurance in high-intensity conflict and increasing flexibility for peace support operations. I wholly endorse the sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) on the question of peacekeeping operations. Incidentally, the reason why British troops, our Air Force and, indeed, the Navy are so very good at such operations is that they are trained to fight in high-intensity conflicts. It is only by training to keep those standards that we shall continue to be able to meet our obligations.

We should not let anyone say that peacekeeping is a soft option. What is happening in Bosnia now represents a difficult and challenging form of soldiering made all the more difficult by the requirement to exercise constant and almost unbelievable restraint.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Other members of the Select Committee on Defence and I have just returned from Naples where we briefed at NATO headquarters. I wish to put on record our gratitude to the men and women of the Royal Air Force who are playing their part in the conflict to which my hon. Friend referred. May I also point out that we have a new ally in Italy, and it is becoming increasingly strange that Italy is not a member of the contact group. As we shall rely increasingly and almost exclusively on Italy in that enterprise, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that fact.

Mr. Soames

I thought that my hon. Friend had been to Italy because of the colour of his trousers. I take his point and will bear it in mind when the contact group and associated discussions come about again.

The Royal Air Force meets the vital requirement for mobility and the rapid projection of power. Its inherent flexibility makes it well qualified to react to a broad range of contingencies. The RAF today has a proud tradition to maintain, a tradition that was forged in the skies of Europe, Africa and Asia and that continues daily, most visibly in the skies over Bosnia and Iraq.

I know that Opposition Members are always amused by the fact that, whenever I speak, I catalogue the places where I have visited our armed forces, so I shall not let them down this time. I have just returned from visiting British forces deployed in Italy, although I restrained myself in my trouserwear.

I visited the aircraft carrier Illustrious in the Adriatic and the various deployments in Yugoslavia. As always, I was hugely impressed, as hon. Members of all parties have been, by the commitment and dedication of the service men and women and the civilians who work alongside them.

I was struck by the progress that had been made at Gioia del Colle since my previous visit there. There is no doubt that, with the increased experience of the operating environment, the Royal Air Force organisation at the base has become extremely impressive. I met the ground crews and support staff, who sustain the Tornados and Jaguars in their very important roles.

Since April 1993, when the Jaguars and Tornados started operations at Gioia del Colle, the Tornados have flown more than 2,300 operational sorties, the Jaguars more than 2,800. They are doing a wonderful job, and I know that the whole House will wish to pay a warm tribute to them.

I would also like to take this opportunity, in the spirit that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) mentioned, to pay a warm tribute to our Italian hosts. It is quite plain that they value and enjoy the presence of the Royal Air Force. No trouble has been too much for them. I am extremely grateful particularly to the base commander and his immediate staff for all their kindness, help and support for the British forces, which is greatly appreciated.

We should also remember the wonderful work that the Hercules detachment has been doing from Ancona. Since February 1992, it has dropped 24,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid in more than 1,700 sorties. Two TriStar tankers provide air-to-air refuelling. Royal naval and allied aircraft taking part in operations over the former Yugoslavia are sustained by them, while sentry aircraft fly from Aviano in northern Italy, as part of the NATO airborne early warning force monitoring the air exclusion zone over Bosnia.

The RAF has also played an important part in the crisis in Rwanda, and has helped to deploy our troops to Angola. In fact, not a single front-line operational aircraft in the Royal Air Force has not been deployed somewhere in the world on operations.

Mr. Hardy

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Soames

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way. I am trying to deal with the points that have been raised.

The value placed on those prolonged and demanding activities by the international community is testament both to the efficiency of the Royal Air Force and to the commitment and efforts of those who serve in it. That ethos of dedication and professionalism binds aircrew support staff and their families, and forms the very backbone of the Royal Air Force.

I pay particular tribute to the families of those who are deployed overseas. They make real sacrifices, and the Government recognise and understand the difficulties that separation can cause. We have a firm commitment to try to bring a greater stability in order to shorten such separations. Certainly, the Jaguar squadrons at Coltishall, for example, have had an extraordinarily demanding year and have spent a great deal of time away.

Closer to home, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Royal Air Force, as you will know only too well, continues to provide the most splendid support in Northern Ireland. Although the ceasefire arrangements are to be welcomed and have allowed some relaxation of our security arrangements, it remains necessary to maintain a high state of vigilance.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, as a result of the ceasefire, for the first time in 25 years, RAF Aldergrove will hold an open day for members of the public at the end of May, and the Queen's Colour Squadron will parade through the streets of Belfast.

Since RAF matters were previously debated in the House, we have had the "Front Line First" exercise, to which several hon. Members have referred. For the RAF, it has meant a period of very extensive and profound change. It has meant that some airfields that have played a prominent role in the past, such as Scampton and Finningley, will close and flying training will be concentrated at four stations. We now no longer need two RAF bases in Germany, and the Harriers and support helicopters currently based at RAF Laarbruch will be redeployed.

We do not underestimate the very hard work that is required at all levels if the ambitious targets that have been set are to be achieved. I have been fortunate to visit a large number of Royal Air Force establishments, at both command and unit level, and have been hugely impressed by the attitude and quality that I have seen.

In the time remaining, I propose to try to deal with some of the points that have been made. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) for his gracious and kind words about my presence at the Dispatch Box. Indeed, it is genuinely a source of huge pride that, 50 years on, I should be able to speak in this debate from the Dispatch Box. I also warmly endorse the hon. Gentleman's views on the quality of our aircraft, and I join his tributes to Dowding and Harris. I also join his warm and handsome tribute to all those who serve in the Royal Air Force.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will write to the hon. Gentleman about the questions that he asked on the procurement side, about the European fighter aircraft and Tornado, although he has already dealt with some of those points. The hon. Gentleman also asked about search and rescue, with which I shall have to deal at greater length in a letter. I shall write him one tomorrow.

I accept the anxieties that we all have about the Bett report, but the whole point of that report is that it is a Green Paper. Nothing in Bett is cast in tablets of stone. There is still a great deal of work to be done on it—but no one should be deceived into thinking that there is any element in it that is not worthy of the most serious, worthwhile, hard work and staffing to find out whether its recommendations are suitable for our services. I believe that the report represents a sensible way forward in many respects, although plainly there will be areas that we are less happy about than others.

I do not wish to break the consensus in the debate, but the remarks of the hon. Member for Carlisle about the attitude of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in his dealings with Sir Sandy Wilson were wholly strange to the truth—I shall say no more than that. I shall deal in more detail with Sir Sandy Wilson when I respond to the hon. Gentleman, so I am afraid that I cannot say such warm words about the end of his speech as I did about the beginning.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who is extremely knowledgeable about the aviation industry, praised my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for the successful policies that he has put in place to sustain the defence industrial base.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon also spoke about the university air squadrons. I am well aware of his close interest in that subject. He and I have engaged in a protracted correspondence about it, and I have high hopes that if that continues we may yet be able to have a meeting to discuss the matter. Work is in hand to find out whether greater cost-effectiveness and efficiency can be achieved in the air squadrons, and I take note of what my right hon. Friend said. I assure him that we have much detailed work to do yet, and that I shall ensure that his views are fed in.

I understand the views and feelings of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) about RAF Finningley. He was good enough to bring a delegation to see me, and we had an interesting conversation. I listened carefully to what the delegation said and I assure the hon. Gentleman that our people will work closely with the local authorities to come up with what I hope will be the best solution for Finningley. I greatly regret that such historic stations are being caught up in the great sweep of change that is taking place, and I praise the hon. Gentleman for his vigorous fight to try to retain Finningley.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) was good enough to take the trouble to alert me this morning to some of the points that he intended to raise. If I may, I shall deal with some of them by correspondence. The findings of the board of inquiry into the tragic Chinook accident are still under consideration, and a summary of findings will be published in due course, but not until they have been carefully considered and the next of kin informed.

My hon. Friend also mentioned ALFENS—the automated low flying planning enquiry and notification system. Again, I shall write to him about that. He then talked about separation and stability, both of which are matters that exercise us greatly. He also referred to the Bett report, and I hope that he will feel that I have already dealt with that. Of course, I wholly endorse the tribute that he paid to the Royal Air Force.

As usual, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) made an extremely good and well-informed speech. As the Member of Parliament for Leuchars, he knows a great deal about the RAF. I endorse the tribute that he paid to the work and the report of Sir Peter Cazalet. The hon. and learned Gentleman's speech was knowledgeable, and what he said about the role that the RAF would play in the event of a withdrawal from Bosnia is most important. I take all his points about the essential balance on civilianisation, concerning the need to get it right and not to go too far. Indeed, I wholly endorse all the views that he expressed on that subject. I shall write to him about the changing tactics that have evolved since the Gulf war.

As one would expect, my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) paid a warm tribute to the Royal Air Force. Understandably, he has concerns about the defence costs studies. I shall leave his questions about procurement matters to my right hon. Friend, but plainly I take to heart what he said about RAF training. He is a commissioned RAF officer and I note what he said. He believes that there are high risks, and plainly it is true that we take risks with some of those decisions. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend on low flying, and it is extremely good that people are prepared to put their money where their mouths are. I noted also my hon. Friend's remarks about Bett and overstretch.

The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) made an extremely well-informed speech—as one would expect from a former RAF service man—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood. I noted my hon. Friend's warm tribute to the Poles and the Czechs, and I agree. Other hon. Members made distinguished contributions to this debate with which, I am afraid, I do not have time to deal. It was a pleasure, however, to welcome those members of the Select Committee who managed to come back in time. I was glad that they got here.

The RAF faces huge challenges, as it has done in the past. We are supremely conscious that we owe the RAF a great debt of gratitude, and we will continue to support it in every way we can. The nation can be proud that it has such a splendid RAF.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.