HC Deb 06 June 1996 vol 278 cc730-813

[Relevant document: Minutes of Evidence on the Royal Air Force taken before the Defence Committee on 1st May 1996, House of Commons Paper No. 215-ii.]

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

4.4 pm

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

I greatly welcome this opportunity to open our debate on the Royal Air Force on what is a very appropriate day to review its activities and achievements over the past 12 months.

As you, Madam Speaker, will remember, 52 years ago today—6 June 1944—the Royal Air Force was in action over Normandy helping to ensure the extraordinary success of the D-day landings and the ultimate liberation of the occupied countries of western Europe. On D-day itself, the RAF flew more than 5,500 sorties in an allied total of nearly 15,000. The contribution of the allied air forces ensured air supremacy, to such an exceptional effect that the Luftwaffe succeeded in flying fewer than 100 sorties in opposing the landings that day.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

They were great days.

Mr. Soames

They were indeed great days.

The task did not, of course, end with D-day. Throughout the summer of 1944, the RAF continued to make a major contribution to the battle to free Europe. That effort was not made without great sacrifice. Bomber Command alone lost nearly 300 aircraft in June—the vast majority in operations in support of the invasion. Such heroism and determination has inspired, and will continue to inspire, successive generations of young men and women to serve their country with distinction.

Air power today is as important a component of military operations. It exercises an often decisive influence over the broadest spread of operations. In the increasingly unpredictable strategic setting we face, we need forces capable of reacting quickly, boldly and effectively to a broad range of contingencies. The RAF is just such a force. Its speed of deployment, reach and inherent flexibility, and the very punch of air power, ensure that it is ideally positioned to make a formidable contribution to deterrence, or, in the event of conflict, military success.

The House will need no reminder of the key role of air power in the Gulf campaign in ensuring unquestioned mastery and command of the skies, and in greatly degrading the fighting ability of the Iraqi forces. The relatively light casualties—thank God—sustained by coalition ground forces was in no small measure due to that air campaign and its effect. That is, perhaps, the traditional perception of air power and its application. It remains as valid as ever, and we continue to shape our forces to meet the critical demands of high-intensity operations.

It is also clear that air power has great potential in the new scale and scope of the nature of the operations we face. Good examples of that, of course, are low-intensity operations, such as peacekeeping, which require a precise and measured application of force to achieve very specific and clear objectives. There is also a heavy demand for air transport—for deployment to the theatre of operations and mobility in the theatre. Helicopters are crucial in the latter respect. Peacekeeping activities often also require sustained operation from deployed and sometimes ill-found positions, imposing strains on people and equipment alike.

In the former Yugoslavia, the RAF has been engaged from the start of the international community's efforts to bring about peace and stability. An RAF Hercules flew the first relief flight into beleaguered Sarajevo, and, appropriately, an RAF Hercules flew in the last relief flight before the siege was finally lifted. Over that airlift's life, the RAF delivered 26,500 tonnes of vital food, medicines and other supplies to the population in nearly 2,000 sorties—some of them extraordinarily hazardous.

In August, when NATO aircraft were ordered into action to deter the Bosnian Serbs from further attacks on UN safe areas, Harrier and Jaguar ground attack aircraft from No. 4 squadron and No. 6 squadron, together with the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers and supported by E3D early warning aircraft, tankers and Tornado F3 air defence aircraft, flew some 270 highly successful bombing missions against Bosnian Serb targets. Of the 19 targets allocated to the Royal Air Force, 16 were destroyed and the remaining three gravely damaged. In addition, the Royal Air Force's information-gathering capability has been vital to the success of allied operations in the former Yugoslavia.

That demonstration of the potency of air power was enough to convince the Bosnian Serb leadership of our capabilities and our intent. It was decisive in bringing peace within the grasp of the international community. When the Dayton accords led to the creation of the NATO peace implementation force—IFOR—the Royal Air Force was again heavily involved in action, transporting about 7,000 troops and 1,750 tonnes of freight, including 500 vehicles from Germany and the United Kingdom.

The Royal Air Force is also doing exceptional work daily over northern and southern Iraq, monitoring compliance with United Nations Security Council resolution 688. To date, Royal Air Force combat aircraft and their supporting tankers have flown about 14.500 sorties, amounting to more than 36,000 hours of operations. I was delighted to see something of that effort in October, when I accompanied the Commander-in-Chief, Strike Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten, and visited Incirlik in Southern Turkey and Dhahran in the Gulf, from where operations are mounted. The House should be under no illusion; those are extremely demanding missions, and I was greatly impressed by what I saw and heard.

The quality of support for such deployed operations is extremely important, and I would like to pay a tribute to the Tactical Supply Wing, which provides supply and specialised aircraft refuelling services to national, NATO and UN forces, and to the Tactical Communications Wing, which provides support communications in the Gulf, Turkey and former Yugoslavia. Personnel from those two very specialist units spend much time away from home, carrying out those vital, but obviously often unseen, tasks. They do not get enough credit for the hard work they do, and I am especially pleased to mark them out for special recognition today.

Even more than in the past, we now perceive United Kingdom forces as required to operate on a joint basis, with land, sea and air elements integrated within a single command structure. The House will recall that we have introduced new structures to improve our ability to respond rapidly and cohesively, with force elements drawn from all three services, notably the permanent joint headquarters—PJHQ—at Northwood, and the joint rapid deployment force.

Responsibility for joint exercises, for existing operations such as those in Bosnia and the middle east, and for new operations overseas, will be transferred to permanent joint headquarters over the coming months. Air power will provide a key component within the joint forces, which we can expect permanent joint headquarters to command.

In addition to the heavy involvement in operations that I have already highlighted, the Royal Air Force has over the past year been actively involved in training and collaboration with our allies, both old and new. Air and ground crews have only recently returned from the United States where they took part in Exercise Purple Star, the first exercise involving the permanent joint headquarters.

The exercise was the largest combined United Kingdom/United States deployment since the Gulf war. It involved 12,000 personnel from the United Kingdom, including elements of the joint rapid deployment force, and 45,000 from the United States. A total—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) like to intervene?

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

I merely said, "In some very dodgy foreign ships."

Mr. Soames

What an inspired intervention. It has added a great deal of light to our deliberations. Perhaps I may continue.

There were 45,000 American troops involved, and a total of 56 Royal Air Force aircraft took part, including Harrier GR7s and Tornado GR1s, VC10 tankers, Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and Hercules C130s, which were engaged in the largest parachute drop since the second world war, involving more than 5,000 United States and British paratroopers.

Eight Royal Air Force Pumas and seven Chinooks participated in a variety of support helicopter operations, including comprehensive cross-training with the United States 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and 18th Airborne Corps. Two Royal Air Force Sea King search and rescue aircraft from 202 Squadron participated for the first time in a major exercise in the combat search and rescue role. The airlift to the United States involved some 2,550 hours of flying by aircraft of the air transport fleet. The exercise, which was on a gigantic scale, was a tremendous success. It provided fantastic training opportunities for all air and ground crews.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

indicated assent.

Mr. Soames

The hon. Lady will have heard about it from her constituents. The exercise provided training for maritime strike and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and for Tornado and Harrier aircraft in support of their offensive counter-air, battlefield air interdiction and close-air support roles. Many lessons have been learned about large-scale combined joint operations and these will be incorporated in future tasks.

Many exercises, of course, are on a rather smaller scale. As we debate today, RAF Jaguars and Harriers, supported by VC10 and Tristar aircraft, are in Alaska to participate in the Cope Thunder exercise series with US and Canadian forces. They will practise operational low flying, weapons firing and electronic warfare procedures.

The RAF has participated in nine major NATO exercises within Europe in the past 12 months, including deployments to Germany, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Norway. UK participation in such exercises demonstrates our tangible support for the alliance. It affords valuable practice in combined training, while operating alongside forces of other nations in an often unfamiliar environment. It allows the RAF to practise and assess the deployment, sustainment and recovery of our reaction forces declared to NATO.

Collaboration with our allies has also continued within the Western European Union. In particular, the Franco-British European Air Group, announced at the Chartres summit in the autumn of 1994, became operational during the past year. The air group, based at RAF High Wycombe, was formally inaugurated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Chirac on 30 October 1995.

The group, which aims to improve the capabilities of our respective air forces to carry out combined operations in pursuit of shared interests, has only a small permanent planning staff and has made excellent progress. It is showing tangible results in increased combined training and personnel exchanges, and work is progressing on contingency planning for joint humanitarian operations. We indicated that, after a settling-in period of at least a year, the group might expand to include other WEU nations. We will soon be considering further the possibilities of such an expansion.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The Minister refers to our co-operation with France. Will he devote some time to the implications of President Chirac's announcement about the future large aircraft, which could be serious for the RAF? Will the Air Force have to look elsewhere for an even larger heavy lift capacity?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman knows that these difficult and complex matters are dealt with by my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement—the brains sitting to my left. My hon. Friend will refer to that matter later. [HON. MEMBERS: "Does he mean the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin)?"] The answer is that both my hon. Friends know more about it than I do.

In November, three Hercules aircraft participated in Exercise Bright Star in Egypt, operating alongside contingents from France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft have been deployed to the Gulf for joint exercises; to Malaysia to participate in the five power defence arrangement exercise Starfish; to South Africa and, most recently, to New Zealand, where two Nimrods have been training alongside anti-submarine warfare forces from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Finally, a Nimrod and crew from 120 Squadron have just completed co-operative training with the joint international task force east in the Caribbean.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

My hon. Friend referred to Nimrods, which are due to be phased out in the near future. Will he confirm that there will be an early announcement—hopefully, before the House rises—on whether the Government intend to order replacements for Nimrod or to update it? Will he confirm that the MOD will look at the life expectancy and value of any replacement, and that he will consider the total British components of any replacement?

Mr. Soames

I can confirm none of those things, because, as I have said, I only use the equipment when it has been bought. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has those difficult decisions ahead of him, and I have no doubt that he will wish to turn to that important and expensive procurement in his extensive and already brilliant speech.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will the Minister ask the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to look carefully at the Valkyrie when he visits my constituency, especially Marshall's, tomorrow? The Valkyrie has been developed with a view to replacing the Nimrod as the maritime patrol aircraft, and it has the lowest cost, the best export potential and a high content of United Kingdom production.

Mr. Soames

The hon. Lady is a formidable ambassador for the Valkyrie. I have studied her during the debate. She has looked like a wise owl on her Bench, and I knew that she was pregnant with question. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will have heard what she said and will pay attention to the excellent opportunities that Marshall's have at present and will have in the future.

Mrs. Ewing


Mr. Soames

Oh my God!

Mrs. Ewing

The Minister seems to be concerned by interventions from women. The replacement of Nimrod is critical, because many small and large businesses may be involved in the result of the decision. Can the Minister give us any information about when the decision will be taken and announced?

Mr. Soames

I am doing my best to explain to the House that I am here to speak this afternoon about the operational matters of the Royal Air Force. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will, I am sure, address such questions. I do not wish to make light of the matter, not only because those aircraft are important to the overall operations of the RAF and the defence interests of the United Kingdom, but because the programme carries many commercial implications, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said. I know that the decision will be taken with great care.

The RAF contributes both to NATO's partnership for peace initiative and to the United Kingdom's outreach programme. Last October, Tornado F3s took part in the first ever partnership for peace flying exercise, Co-operative Jaguar, which was held in Denmark. Those exercises, together with the essential preparatory work on flight safety, language proficiency and effective airspace management, are excellent opportunities to reap the benefits of co-operative training, as well as to build confidence and familiarity with potential allies.

The past year has seen a great expansion in bilateral contacts with the countries of central and eastern Europe under the outreach programme, many of which form the basis for successful participation in partnership for peace. It is a testament to the extraordinarily high standards and professionalism of the RAF that we receive daily requests for advice from countries in central and eastern Europe, covering topics from flight safety and airspace management to aviation medicine. The Chief of the Air Staff plans to visit his counterparts in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary later this year, and I greatly enjoyed the discussions that I had with the Hungarian Chief of the Air Staff a few weeks ago.

The RAF has also been active in providing assistance to the civil community both at home and abroad. Last year, RAF Hercules aircraft carried humanitarian aid to the dependent territory of Montserrat and neighbouring Antigua to help set up evacuation centres and to airlift those local people who chose to leave the island. With the volcanic activity continuing in Montserrat and elsewhere, the RAF stands by to provide whatever further assistance may be required.

Closer to home, personnel from RAF fire rescue teams, who usually provide crash cover at RAF airfields, were deployed to Merseyside, where they helped to provide emergency fire service cover during the industrial dispute. The RAF is ready to provide similar assistance elsewhere if required. Earlier this year, when bad weather isolated many parts of the country, helicopters took emergency supplies to villages that had been cut off, and ferried people with emergency medical conditions to hospital.

The yellow helicopters of the search and rescue teams continue to be a welcome sight to many an imperilled or incompetent yachtsman or stranded mountaineer. Although established to rescue downed military airmen, the RAF's search and rescue fleet, stationed at eight different locations around the country as well as in Cyprus and the Falkland islands, also provides assistance to the civil community. With the mountain rescue teams, the search and rescue teams were responsible for saving more than 1500 lives during 1995.

By July, the last remaining Wessex helicopters on front-line squadrons will be replaced with the much more capable Sea King, which will increase still further the RAF's ability to help the civil community.

A rather less eye-catching, although nonetheless essential, service to the civil community is air traffic control. My Department co-operates closely with the civil authorities in providing air navigation services to all aircraft in United Kingdom airspace. Last year, some 230,000 military and 82,000 civil flights were provided with air navigation services by military air traffic controllers. In addition, 1,400,000 flights were provided with ATC services at military airfields. The close co-operation between military and civil air traffic controllers is truly essential to the maintenance of this country's safe, efficient and effective air traffic control arrangements.

In Northern Ireland, the RAF continues to fulfil an important role in the support provided by our armed forces to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. At present, approximately 1,100 RAF personnel are deployed in the Province, operating Chinook, Wessex and Puma helicopters, and an RAF field squadron, which provides security at RAF Aldergrove, the Province's main military airhead.

As in the rest of the United Kingdom, the RAF also provides invaluable assistance to the wider Northern Irish community in times of emergency. RAF aircraft have often been called out to help rescue people, either at sea or on Northern Ireland's inland lakes, or to airlift the injured to hospital. The RAF will, like the other two services, continue to assist the police in countering terrorism until all terrorist organisations make a commitment to end violence permanently.

Before I leave the subject of operational activities, the House would, I know, wish me to say something about the recent spate of aircraft accidents, which has seen the unfortunate loss so far this year of nine RAF aircraft. Flight safety is a fundamental part of operational effectiveness. While there has been understandable concern about the recent spate of accidents, there has also been much unfounded, and some wholly irresponsible, speculation about their potential causes.

There have been suggestions that those accidents are connected with the reduction in the size of the RAF following the end of the cold war. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reductions in the number of aircraft and personnel have been carefully planned, and they are consistent with the RAF's commitments. They do not—nor would they ever be allowed to—compromise either RAF training or safety.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does not the incorporation of the prestigious, and hitherto separate, Queen's flight, no less, into an existing RAF squadron—32 Communications Squadron at RAF Northolt in my constituency—demonstrate the high level of flight safety that the service maintains? If RAF Northolt were required to become a civil airport and a satellite of Heathrow, as the Select Committee on Transport proposes, would that not be incompatible with its royal duty, and its communications role in flying Ministers and senior offices—roles which are important, in both peace and war?

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who rightly wishes to raise an important matter. I confirm that no decisions have been taken on the recommendations in the report of the Select Committee on Transport on airport capacity. I reaffirm to my hon. Friend the Ministry of Defence's continuing requirement to fulfil its core tasks through the use of the facilities at RAF Northolt. My Department currently has no plans to change either the status of the station or the nature of its operation.

I was saying that it would be folly to compromise either training or safety, and we would never countenance it. It is arrant nonsense to suggest that we would do anything to jeopardise the safety of aircrew by allowing an unserviceable aircraft to fly. No aircraft is permitted to leave the ground unless it is judged entirely safe to do so. The ground crews that service RAF aircraft are dedicated professionals, and are amongst the best in the world.

At the same time, the RAF continues to maintain the most rigorous training standards, which every other country in the world wishes to come and learn from. Average fast jet flying hours are well above minimum NATO levels. Operating levels and skills remain at an exceptionally high standard.

There is no reason to believe that there is any fundamental problem in the way in which operations are conducted or supported, or that this is anything other than a truly, deeply and very unfortunate coincidence. It would be premature to infer that the overall accident rate for 1996 will reveal any new or disturbing trend. There have been similar clusters of accidents in the past, but they did not reveal any new trend. Overall, the general accident rate has continued to decline since the early 1980s.

I assure the House, nevertheless, that there really is no complacency. As the House will know, boards of inquiry are set up to examine the circumstances of each crash. Those investigations are extremely thorough and exhaustive, and although the work is still in progress, I can tell the House that there is no definite pattern to link any of these accidents.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

Those who put about the scaremongering stories should be reminded that one should look at the number of accidents per 10,000 flying hours rather than just the number of accidents, because in the 1950s we had hundreds of accidents—and I mean hundreds—in a year. In one year, 1956, there were 156 aircraft accidents, of which more than 100 were Hunters and Meteors. Again, those accidents had to be measured against 10,000 flying hours. The RAF operates the finest and safest military operation anywhere.

Mr. Soames

Plainly, as I said at the beginning, much of the comment on these accidents has been extremely ill informed, and on one or two occasions comments from the Labour party have been downright irresponsible.

The RAF is and always has been a forward-thinking operation. I have spoken of its achievements and activities over the past year, but the House will also wish to hear of the heart and spirit of the service, and how they are being sustained through a period of profound structural change and reorientation.

In last year's debate on the Royal Air Force, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), who was then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, explained the effects of rationalisation and restructuring following the "Front Line First" and "Competing for Quality" initiatives. The RAF is now well on its way to completing these processes of change, and although clearly it has been an unsettling and worrying time, it is greatly to the credit of all RAF personnel that they have accommodated these changes while continuing to do their jobs in the excellent way we have all come to expect.

One of the most painful aspects of the changes has been that the RAF of the future will undoubtedly require fewer people. In 1990, the RAF's trained uniformed strength was 83,500 people; today, it is 62,500. By April 1999, it is planned to be 52,200. Sadly, 8,300 redundancies have been necessary over the past and current financial years, although fewer than 1,000 have been compulsory.

I can assure the House that the redundancy programme is being very carefully and sympathetically managed to ensure that the RAF retains the best mix of skills and abilities to meet its future commitments. The needs of those who are being made redundant are also being given high priority. People chosen for redundancy are given every assistance to prepare themselves for life as civilians, including retraining and careers advice. I am glad to say that we do not expect to need any further redundancies to meet our current manpower targets.

Mrs. Ewing

All hon. Members with RAF bases in our constituencies are concerned about these issues. Will the Minister give further evidence, perhaps in a written answer or information placed in the Library, as to how this will impact on particular bases, because in my area, at RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, people just do not know what will happen to them. That causes a great deal of uncertainty, not just for them but for their families and for the local economy. Will he give us further information beyond that which appears in the 1996 defence estimates?

Mr. Soames

I will see what I can do for the hon. Lady. I thank her for the great support that she has always given the Royal Air Force. I think she will find that, in the bases to which she referred—indeed, in all the bases of the RAF—everyone knows what their future is following the announcements made in early March. I do not know whether I will be able to give her the figures she requires, but I will try to give her a note to that end.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for keeping in close touch with me over recent months about the closure of Stanmore Park and the plans arising from that. I ask him to keep up that excellent record. I thank him for the close consultations that we have maintained. Will he now keep in touch with me about the projected changes, bearing in mind that he wants to avoid compulsory redundancies and we want to maximise the redeployment effort?

Mr. Soames

I was grateful to my hon. Friend for taking the trouble to see me to ensure that we were carrying out the restructuring operations in the correct way. I assure him that we will keep in touch with him about the restructuring that is taking place in his constituency.

The Government recognise that morale is extraordinarily vulnerable during a period of restructuring and redundancy. The higher command of the Royal Air Force deserves a great deal more credit that it gets for piloting the service so successfully through what has been an extraordinarily difficult time. I utterly reject the criticisms that have been voiced that the Royal Air Force is a demoralised force, lacking direction and feeling, abandoned by its military and political masters. That is a gross and unfair distortion.

It is true that the Royal Air Force has experienced a great deal of turbulence, and it has, like the other two services, had to get to grips with profound change. However, it is also true that it is a force of immense professionalism, which has responded in a good spirit to the challenges it has faced. There is no evidence to link any change in working practices with a degradation in skills in the air or on the ground.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

A few moments ago, the Minister said that the Royal Air Force was a forward-looking body. Will he learn from experience? Does he remember that, during the Gulf war, we lost a number of aircraft because they had to overfly the airfields that they were attacking? Will he give us an assurance that he will look carefully at the provision of stand-off weaponry for the future?

If he does that, will he look carefully at the team put together by Shorts for the stand-off weapons programme, which includes British Aerospace, British Aerospace Systems and Equipment, Royal Ordnance, Lucas Aerospace and MSA in Scotland? We believe that it creates a unique opportunity for us to tie in the skills that are being developed in the United States in relation to its stand-off equipment and for the United Kingdom to reap a considerable transfer of technology and high-quality jobs.

Mr. Soames

That was a formidable intervention from the hon. Member. Mr. Deputy Speaker, the only thing that can gladden your heart and cause your spirits to rise is that it means that he will not have to make a real speech during the debate. I have tried to persuade the hon. Gentleman that these are matters for my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, and I am sure that he will deal with them.

I correct the hon. Gentleman on one point: the aircraft losses during the Gulf war occurred because the Royal Air Force was charged with dropping munitions of a certain type, which caused it to have to undertake the most dangerous and difficult missions—during which, very sadly, a number of aircraft were lost. They were not lost because they did not have the weapons to do the business; they were lost because they were delivering the weapon of the moment, which required them to be positioned right over the runway.

Our main concern, of course, must be to ensure the health and fighting efficiency of the service. We have an active recruiting campaign, and training that is among the best in the country. These are not hollow words. I saw some excellent training under way when I visited RAF Cranwell, RAF Honington and RAF Shawbury recently.

The Government have announced a number of important decisions on equipment procurement and upgrading—a matter that my hon. Friend will deal with at much greater length later—which is a measure of our firm support for the Royal Air Force and our determination to maintain its position in the premier league. We continue, and will continue, to drive down overheads through rationalisation and restructuring. We are making use of competition from the private sector in the delivery of support services—as is every other air force in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. As part of the search for greater efficiency, we shall continue with this search for savings. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will have more to say about that when he replies to the debate.

However, I am pleased to announce that, following a competition, a five-year contract has been placed with Brown and Root and Marshall Aerospace Ltd.—BRAMA—to provide support services at Royal Air Force Valley, including Hawk aircraft maintenance. After an extended implementation period, this contract will come into effect on 31 March 1997. It will result in savings of £25 million during the contract period, and will provide 400 new civilian jobs at the station—a welcome boost to the Anglesey area.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys MÔn)

I thank the Minister for that announcement, and for his co-operation and courtesy during the time that we have been discussing the issue with him. Now that he has been able to make the announcement that BRAMA has secured the contract, can he confirm, first, that it is aware of the requirements—of which it has been informed informally by ourselves and others—to ensure that the maximum number of local people are employed at Valley in the 400 jobs announced, and, secondly, that it will co-operate with the agencies and the Welsh Office to ensure that, where those skills are not currently available, training programmes will be put into place and it will co-operate with us?

Mr. Soames

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, for representing so clearly the views of his constituents and for being so positive at what has been a difficult time. I am happy to give him the assurances he seeks. I know that the consortium has been closely in touch with all the agencies concerned, and I believe that obviously this will be an astonishing success and will bring great benefit to Anglesey and the wider area. I know that it will be welcome news to local people who were worried about the future of the station.

The terms of the contract ensure that the very high standards set by the Royal Air Force for the provision of support services will continue when BRAMA take over. To that end, BRAMA intends to set up training arrangements to equip personnel with the necessary skills and to establish a long-term training programme to provide individual development and continuity of supply of qualified personnel. Initial discussions with the local training and enterprise council and college regarding provision of training began during the tendering process, and will now be pursued further.

Mr. Spellar

Does the provision with regard to training apply only to upgrading skills of existing trained personnel, or is there provision for apprentice training to ensure a continuing throughput of skilled personnel?

Mr. Soames

I am not able to answer that question, but I will happily let the hon. Gentleman have a detailed note later.

Following the implementation of this contract, Royal Air Force Valley will still employ more than 300 Royal Air Force personnel. I am fully confident that they will, in partnership with BRAMA, continue to deliver advanced fast jet training to the high standards for which they rightly have a fantastic reputation.

We are pressing ahead with the work following on from Sir Michael Bett's independent review of the armed forces' manpower, career and remuneration structures. Good progress is being made. I emphasise again that this is not a savings exercise. Rather, it will lead to better structures and better management of our people. I hope to make a further and more detailed announcement on this subject later in the summer.

Changes following "Front Line First" have highlighted the vital role performed by our reserve forces, and we have been looking closely at how we can make better use of the tremendous enthusiasm and great array of skills that people bring to the Reserves. As I announced on Third Reading of the Reserve Forces Bill on 20 May, we have now decided to form a Royal Auxiliary Air Force support helicopter squadron at RAF Benson in October. I hope that this will prove an innovative concept for the wider use of reserves, and I hope to give the House further details later in the year.

Before leaving the subject of reserves, I mention in particular the members of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve currently called out for service in the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. I have seen the exceptional service and support they give to our regular forces in the provision of intelligence, photographic interpretation and meteorological forecasts. We are extremely fortunate to have such high-quality people on the reserve list.

The Royal Air Force is emerging from a period of great change. This process has inevitably imposed strains and tensions on individuals and the organisation alike. It says a lot for both that these changes have been carried through in a period of exceptional operational activity. I am extremely conscious that we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

I am very proud of the Royal Air Force. It is equipped with modern, capable aircraft, and manned by professional, extraordinarily skilled and dedicated people. It enjoys a superb reputation at home and abroad, and anyone who has the honour to travel in the name of the United Kingdom on defence business knows that that is no idle boast. It is one of this country's great assets, and we intend to ensure that the means are made available to retain and enhance that asset for the future.

4.44 pm
Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

I thank the Minister for a comprehensive report on the current operations of the RAF. I convey to the House the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the shadow Defence Secretary, who is today out in Bosnia, meeting our troops, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who is in Camberley, meeting other troops.

I am sure that we were all shocked this afternoon by reports in the evening paper that the beating retreat ceremony in Horse Guards parade was disrupted by a raucous party of hooray Henrys in the Office of the Secretary of State. I am sure that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces deplores that as much as the rest of us, and I was slightly surprised that he did not take the opportunity, on behalf of the Department, to issue an apology for those unfortunate events.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Would it not be appropriate to ask Mr. Terry Venables to investigate and to conclude that the doctrine of collective responsibility should apply?

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)


Mr. Spellar

Or, in line with certain civilian air companies, that perhaps handcuffs should be provided for the occasion.

This is the third and last of the services debates in this Session. Like others, it provides a fitting opportunity for the House to pay tribute to the illustrious history and valued current role of our troops. Since the last RAF debate in the House, we have had the 50th anniversary of VJ day, which was so memorably and dramatically highlighted by the Lancaster bomber dropping a million poppies. Recently, we have had a tremendous display of Spitfires, reminding us of another epic period in the last war.

As the Minister mentioned, by chance or good parliamentary management, today's debate is on the anniversary of D-day, when the domination of the air by the allied forces played such a considerable part in the success of that operation. Those events reminded us graphically of the key front-line role played by the RAF in the defence of these islands and our liberties.

As the Minister said, the RAF is still very much in the front line. In former Yugoslavia, it has played a full part in the campaign to restrain the Bosnian Serbs, in a variety of roles including successful bombing missions, combat air patrol and reconnaissance missions. For four years it has been part of the longest humanitarian airlift in history. That humanitarian role has been to the fore again in the continuing flights from our base in Turkey over northern Iraq as well as flights over southern Iraq.

Closer to home, as the Minister said, the RAF has played a valuable role in Northern Ireland, and we all hope that the current talks and engagements in the political process will lead towards a normalisation of the position. We must not take too much for granted and, as the Minister said, must maintain our preparedness.

This year also marked a major break in a long tradition when it was announced that the Tornado squadrons at RAF Bruggen were being redeployed to existing operational bases in the United Kingdom. We all recognise the logic behind that decision, but we should also take the opportunity of paying tribute to the vital role they played in maintaining the peace during the long era of the cold war.

We should also use the opportunity of this debate to pay tribute to the work of the Reserves, which was covered in much more detail during the extensive debates on the Reserve Forces Bill.

The Minister mentioned, and undoubtedly other hon. Members will also discuss, the considerable concern that has been expressed at the spate of crashes earlier in the year, with the loss not only of aeroplanes but of human life. Thankfully, that appears to have abated slightly, but we all recognise that any service can have a run of bad luck. The RAF had a similar spate in 1994. I understand that the United States navy has recently had a similar experience with Phantoms. There will be individual inquiries into the crashes and no one would want to pre-judge their outcomes. However, we are asking for a broader inquiry in order to consider the crashes collectively and see whether there are any common factors and any lessons to be learnt.

We must ask whether aircraft availability and the cost of flying are restricting pilot training. When I asked the Minister on 12 March what was the current average period for completion of fast jet training, I received the astonishing reply that it was 259 weeks and that that would be reduced to 109 weeks by the end of the year. When my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields asked on 25 March about the average air crew training hours for Tornado aircraft, he was told that the monthly average for 1991–92 was 17 hours 45 minutes and that that had been reduced to 13 hours 55 minutes in 1995–96.

I do not pretend to be an expert on pilot skills. There are those in the Royal Air Force—and indeed some in this place—who are better qualified to make an informed judgment in that regard.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

Perhaps I can assist the hon. Gentleman. The difference results from the fact that, in the last year that he mentioned, there was more operational flying and less training. In the first two years that he mentioned, there was less operational flying and more training.

Mr. Spellar

I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the Royal Air Force is determined to retrieve those training hours precisely because it perceives the difference between training experience that is aimed at particular tasks and skills and operational experience. There is concern that the disparity should be redressed, and the RAF's appearance before the Defence Committee last month reinforces that point. I believe that the Select Committee was correct to press the RAF about the issue, and we await the outcome of its deliberations.

Mr. Soames

I must clarify that point. Is the hon. Gentleman calling for another review over and above the individual crash inquiries, which obviously do the same thing as would an overall review?

Mr. Spellar

I hoped that I had made it clear, but I am happy to reinforce that point. I said earlier that proper, individual inquiries are conducted into each crash. We are asking for a broad review that examines features common to those crashes rather than simply looking at each case in isolation. We ask the Minister to undertake that review to see whether there are common faults and lessons to be learnt. I hope that I have clarified my request.

I hope also that the Ministry of Defence will look more critically at contracting out training. We would be alarmed at the prospect of extending civilian training schemes to fast jet pilots. Even in areas of greater compatibility, we should be concerned about eroding the RAF training base. The RAF cannot be simply a project manager: it must have strength in depth and retain an all-round competence. It is important that the RAF provides a proper career structure for its personnel while delivering continuity and security.

The same considerations apply to the maintenance side of the RAF in logistics command and the many skilled civilian staff. We are concerned about the retention of trained personnel in these rather turbulent times to which the Minister referred. For example, 11 out of 12 Tornado flight commanders in Germany intend to exercise their option to retire early at the age of 38. It is from that officer pool that the future station and squadron commanders are drawn. Perhaps the Minister will say what measures the Government intend to take to correct that worrying problem.

In spite of the Minister's bluster on such occasions—we all accept that the Minister in full bluster is quite an impressive sight—the fact remains that people inside and outside the forces cannot understand why billions of pounds are spent on redundancy, including compulsory redundancy, while hundreds of millions of pounds are spent on recruitment and the armed forces remain undermanned. Only last week I received a letter from a man who asked why his son was to be made compulsorily redundant from the RAF next year while it continued to advertise for new trainees.

That is not only a great waste of training and experience—I am not sure whether those factors carry much weight with the Government—but the worst possible advertisement for new recruits. When major international companies such as the Rover Group—which announced its profits today—proudly proclaim their job-for-life concept, does the Minister believe that the RAF, with its hire-and-fire mentality, will be able to compete for the best recruits? That is a real problem for the RAF.

Mr. Soames

Although the hon. Gentleman has extremely limited experience in such matters, he should realise that the services have never been job-for-life organisations. The question of recruiting balance and structure is a matter for the Royal Air Force. It must decide what staff age profile it wants and needs. It must constantly refresh its staff and bring in new and younger blood at all levels and in all ranks. Finally, we cannot compel people to join the Royal Air Force, the Army or the Navy. Therefore, we must spend a great deal of time, money and effort ensuring that we get our message across.

Mr. Spellar

I thank the Minister. I am not entirely sure how long he served in the armed forces. Perhaps he will tell us whether he served as long as Lord Craig, who expressed concern yesterday in another place about flight commanders. The Minister should move away from cheap personal abuse and answer properly the questions that are asked not only by the Opposition but by many in the forces and by their families. They are extremely concerned about the uncertainty of careers in the forces and they are not impressed by the large-scale handing out of compulsory redundancies.

Mr. Bill Walker

The hon. Gentleman is correct to refer to the views of Lord Craig, who has considerable experience in that area. He will know from his own service that flight commanders of that age often leave the forces in order to enter the civilian field and earn large salaries working as captains for major airlines. We must recognise that the reduced size of the Royal Air Force means limited opportunities for flight commanders to become station commanders and air chief marshals.

Mr. Spellar

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he would accept that 11 out of 12 is a high proportion.

The Government do not seem to have time for continuity and competence in maintenance. How else can one explain the decision to contract out the Tornado repair work at RAF St. Athan, whatever the cost? Hon. Members have questioned the Minister about that matter, but he will not come clean about how much damage was done and what the final bill will be. Perhaps the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who knows more about such things, will expand on that issue when he replies to the debate. If he does, we shall be able to evaluate the effect of that decision on the alleged savings to be derived from contracting out.

The Government are also considering contracting out maintenance work elsewhere in Wales at RAF Sealand and RAF Valley. The Minister made an announcement to that effect this afternoon. However, he did not answer the question that I put to him regarding longer-term training and apprentice training. Contractors will be able to use redundant RAF personnel to fulfil the contracts and they will be able to bid on that basis. If we are to retain long-term competence through the contracting route, the real question is what training efforts will be made to ensure that we have the skills in this country.

That is the difficulty that the Minister faces, and we must continue to press the Government on that point. When we asked whether contracts would include the requirement to ensure proper training, we received no reply. There has been mention of additional funding to the local training and enterprise council to provide conversion training. That is most welcome, but we still need to look to future competence.

The danger is that such measures could lead to a hollowing out of the logistical capability of the RAF. We are concerned about the potential weakening of our surge capability, particularly if we became involved in two theatres of operation at the same time. We are also concerned about the reduction in the RAF's benchmarking ability, which enables the proper evaluation of bids for contracted work. We firmly believe that any decisions on contracting work must be determined by pragmatism not dogmatism and we shall impose a moratorium on new contracts while we evaluate the schemes that are currently in the pipeline.

In that context, I shall move on to the story of the sale of the married quarters estate—a quite extraordinary saga that is drawing increasing public attention. Frankly, there have been some problems with the estate over the years, particularly with the high number of voids for long periods and the condition of some of the properties—mainly Army properties, but to a lesser extent in the Navy.

It was sensible and pragmatic to examine the forces' long-term requirements and to consider whether all the properties involved were suitable and whether, due to their location or for other reasons, some were surplus to requirements. That process seems to be continuing separately from the overall sale. However, the main sale of the married quarters estate does not appear to be driven by any of those considerations or by anything other than a desperate attempt to fill the Treasury coffers for a pre-election giveaway. It is a "live now, pay later" deal. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be living it up and the service men and women and their families will be paying—not only in money, but in the loss of mutual support between families in the service community.

The purpose of the scheme cannot be to introduce private sector skills because the management of the estate will continue to be carried out by the defence housing executive, as will the repairs. Only this week The Times carried a substantial advert for positions in the defence housing executive to deal with the management of the estate. The problem has been identified as follows by one of the losing bidders, Johnson Fry: If this is viewed as a purely financial transaction then problems will emerge if there is not serious housing management experience in the team". The only housing management side seems to be with the defence housing executive.

Nor can the scheme benefit the troops of all services. Under the current review, they are faced with rent increases between 10 per cent. and 25 per cent. this year alone, with worse to come as they move up towards market rents. As the MOD pays market rents to the new landlords, there will be increasing pressure to make up the deficit. Individual service men and their families will be paying for that and financing this dubious deal.

We should also recall that service personnel will have lost their rights to the discounted sales scheme that was of considerable benefit to those leaving the service. They are also concerned that the better-quality property—much of which is with the RAF—will be sold and service personnel will be moved into the less desirable properties. Some hon. Members may wish to draw attention to that during the debate.

Nor can it be to the benefit of the services in general. I mentioned earlier the return of Tornados from RAF Bruggen, and the services are obviously considering the return of other units. The sales may close that option. Perhaps that is why the sale is not only unpopular with the service men and families, as was shown by the recent evidence of the Army wives to the Select Committee, but of concern among those in the higher ranks of the forces who are planning for the future.

Looking to the future, will the Minister tell us what will happen after 25 years? According to the prospectus: At the end of the 25 year period MOD will be able to renew its leases, subject to a specified right for the landlord to obtain vacant possession for redevelopment or on provision of comparable"— that is an interesting word— alternative accommodation. Where will that leave the MOD and individual service men and women and their families? What certainty does it give them? That is also why it caused such uproar in the other place earlier this week when peers from all parties expressed serious concerns and reservations about the scheme.

What is the driving force behind the sale? It is fair to say that in some of the press publicity some chaff has been dropped to suggest that it is to pay for repairs. If that is the case, perhaps the Minister can say in his reply that the total proceeds of the sale will be devoted to upgrading service houses over and above current expenditure. That seems to be causing some humour in the ranks, so I presume it is not the answer. If he cannot say that, will he tell us what percentage of the money made from the sales will be spent on upgrading the properties? Perhaps he would like to intervene now.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)

This is such drivel that it is hardly worth intervening. If the hon. Gentleman were not in a position of supporting the sale, would he find the money to upgrade the properties which need upgrading from somewhere else? In other words, will he commit himself now to spending more on the defence budget?

Mr. Spellar

When Ministers are slightly short on argument, they resort to personal abuse.

Mr. Soames

Certainly not.

Mr. Spellar

"Drivel" seems to me to fall into that category. It is interesting to note that, although the Minister put up a smokescreen, he did not answer my question. I shall answer his question, but I would be interested in an answer to mine. What percentage of the overall sale will be spent on upgrading the property?

Mr. Arbuthnot

As the hon. Gentleman should be aware, it is not possible to know what percentage of the overall sale proceeds will be spent on the property because we do not yet know what the sale price will be. As I told the Select Committee yesterday, the defence housing executive has estimated that it will cost £100 million to upgrade the property to grade 1 standard. Therefore, the overall sale expectations will be more than the defence housing executive could possibly spend on any property. That was why I described the hon. Gentleman's remarks as drivel.

Mr. Spellar

I thank the Minister for that reply. That figure makes it quite clear that the money that could be released by the sale of surplus properties—much of which is taking place at the moment—could easily cover the cost of repairs. Therefore, the overall sale is unnecessary because repairs could be paid for at the margin. That gives us a clue as to the real business of the sale.

Mr. Arbuthnot

How would the hon. Gentleman pay for it?

Mr. Spellar

There is a problem of communication here.

The MOD has already given instructions for the sale of a number of surplus properties. Undoubtedly, more properties will be declared surplus to requirement. The proceeds would go a considerable way towards paying for the repairs. I said earlier that we accepted the need for the sale of surplus properties. If the Minister believes that the sale of surplus properties will not raise sufficient funds, perhaps, instead of hiding behind commercial confidentiality, he will tell us how much was raised from the sale of surplus properties. However, the number of properties being sold suggests that the MOD might not be getting a very good deal if it had not managed to raise £100 million.

Mr. Frank Cook

It might help my hon. Friend if I were to inform him that—as I understand it—11,000 voids are available. If they were sold for £10,000 each, which is not a great deal at today's market values, that would raise £110 million, perhaps allowing an extra £10 million for the Conservative party election fund.

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend has put some figures on that, but I would not want to give the Government ideas, as we wish to retain some flexibility within the system. Certainly my hon. Friend has clearly identified that the sale of surplus properties would be sufficient to pay for the rolling programme of repairs.

Let us get down to the real reason for the sale. Its handling gives us a clue. Why did the Secretary of State make a surprise announcement in November and why, with Christmas and the new year intervening, did he require replies by 25 January? That seems an extremely short period. How could one seriously expect considered replies on such a complex project over that period? The sale comprises 60,000 properties over 800 sites. Who would have the resources to evaluate it in that time?

The sale of individual properties is a sweetener, but the real attraction for any bidder is rent payments. The prospectus talks of a guaranteed payment or aggregated market rents, whichever is the higher, and we know what the Government have been doing to market rents. It appears, however, that even that is not enough. Reports in the Financial Times show that the MOD has been asked to consider index-linked payments. And the reason? It is believed that that will enable it to raise the upfront price.

So there we have it in a nutshell. This is not a proper privatisation or a service agreement using private sector skills. There is not even any competing for quality. It is a straightforward sale and lease-back scheme. If it were happening in a company, we would immediately conclude, unless there was a proper reinvestment strategy, that it had cash flow problems. It is a live now, pay later, deal.

I gather that the Minister seemed reluctant yesterday at the meeting of the Select Committee to say who was buying, which is surprising as it has been in nearly every business section of the quality press in the past couple of weeks. It informs us—who knows if it is right, but I suspect that it might be close to the truth—that Nomura bank, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and ING are buying. A couple of weeks ago, another Secretary of State created considerable fuss about flying the European flag over public buildings for a day. Now, without a murmur from those Ministers, the stars and stripes or the rising sun will be flying over our married quarters estates, airfields, camps and naval bases. It is an extraordinary and disgraceful situation. A previous Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, talked about selling the family silver. This lot are taking out a second mortgage on the house.

Some procurement decisions need to be mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) drew attention to the future large aircraft project, which I know is of considerable concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones). We are receiving confusing messages from across the channel. We and the aircraft industry hope that the Minister can shed some light on the subject, especially the French Government's attitude on development and production of the aircraft, and on their intention to purchase.

I am sure that the Minister heard last week that Volker Rube, the German Defence Minister, was speaking encouragingly about the FLA' s development. We have also noticed heavy advertising in the defence press from German industry about the FLA. I hope that the Minister will give us further encouragement on that important project and on working more closely generally with the French air force and industry, which is to be welcomed.

We all recognise that, after some difficulties, Eurofighter 2000 is increasingly emerging as a success story, especially in terms of its capabilities. It is a tribute to British and to European industry, but the Government can also take some credit, not only over the work-share issue, but over the partnership with industry.

Since taking on this portfolio and more recently on a visit to Warton, I have been impressed by the substantial co-operation and collaboration between the RAF and equipment manufacturers at all stages. The result seems to be an extremely pilot-friendly aircraft. The Government should be claiming more credit for their role, but perhaps this level of Government sector collaboration is slightly politically incorrect in this Administration and they feel constrained from doing so.

Finally on detailed procurement, will the Minister comment on what appears to be the successful thermal imagery airborne laser designation update on the Jaguar aircraft? We have all read reports on a rapid and cost-effective update. It appears that, again, pilots are heavily involved in the process through the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Again, we could be looking at a significant breakthrough in methodology. The House will be interested in such a report from the Minister.

More generally, all Governments must recognise the impact of purchasing decisions on the size and configuration of the defence industry. The joint Trade and Industry and Defence Select Committee report outlined that succinctly. Let us note that report's conclusions: Since the Government is the only significant UK purchaser of defence equipment, it cannot ignore the impact of its decisions on the UK's defence industries. We welcome the changes in MOD's attitude towards procurement, such as the greater willingness to take account of the future of MOD's supply base, the move towards partnership relationships with suppliers, the increased emphasis on dual use technologies and the greater emphasis on collaboration within Europe. However, these changes are tending to be reflected in procurement decisions in an ad hoc way, chiefly in the major decisions. Our recommendations are designed to change this, particularly through taking account of industrial interests more systematically, a longer term approach to the retention of capabilities and leading-edge technology, an increased emphasis on the technology base of the defence industries and related civil industries, and recognition of the importance of the defence industries and their technology and skills to the UK economy. I would especially emphasise the phrase particularly through taking account of industrial interests more systematically". That is reinforced by the recognition in the defence estimates, which state: The Department is British Industry's largest single customer. Our procurement decisions can therefore have a significant impact on the shape of the Defence Industry. We recognise the need to take defence industrial factors fully into account in our decision-making and have reviewed our procedures to ensure that this is done systematically as part of our programming and project evaluation process. That and the paragraphs that follow are all reminiscent of last year's Labour party document "Strategy for a Secure Future" and a considerable move away from previous Government doctrine.

As the MOD moves towards making key decisions on both aircraft and missile purchases, it must start to develop a view of how those will impact on relationships and the corporate structure of the British and European aerospace industry, as well as our relationship with the United States defence industry. It appears that there may be some divergence of opinion between the MOD and the Department of Trade and Industry on the question of vertical or horizontal integration, but, if it is accepted—and it should be—that there is some urgency about rationalisation, the resolution of this becomes imperative, especially in the light of the rapid consolidation of the United States industry. Labour's policy document "Strategy for a Secure Future" points the way ahead to a more positive and realistic policy.

In that context, I suppose it would be churlish not to congratulate the Government on the decision to proceed with the Tornado upgrade rather than following the option that was trailed of leasing F16s from the United States, but the question that we must ask, as with the extraordinary saga of the Army field ambulance and the contest between Land Rover and the Austrians, is simple: why were those options considered in the first place? It is no wonder that, when defence manufacturers were giving evidence to the joint Select Committee, they said: The UK MOD's procurement policies are seen as verging on the hostile to the indigenous industrial base". Can we imagine that being said in all seriousness about the American, French or defence ministries and their industrial structures? Perhaps that explains the Minister's facile response on the unsuitability of foreign chartered ships for Operation Purple Star, one of which was a Ukrainian ship which, after it arrived in America, was tied up, and then substantial fines had to be paid to get it repaired.

The industry could have gleaned some hope on 23 May 1995 when the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), said: The Ministry of Defence needs to continue to give due consideration to the possible consequences of procurement decisions for the defence industrial base. With his departure, however, we seem to have slipped back again to relying on two legs of the stool—operational effectiveness and price—rather than also considering the third leg of industrial capability.

Let us be clear. When we buy abroad without proper reciprocation, we pay twice: once for the equipment and then for the people thrown out of work. Then we pay again because of our reduced ability to sell into third markets, so any national purchasing policy should be mindful of the industrial implications.

That is shown by the case of the defence helicopter flying school. Let us leave on one side whether the privatisation is a good idea and concentrate on the procurement process. It appears evident that all the aircraft options would be from abroad. I accept that that seems to be for straightforward availability reasons. When I asked the Minister what level of offset or industrial participation we would be seeking, I was informed that it was being put out to tender, so industrial participation was not appropriate. I pointed out that the formalities of the contractual relationship would not have deterred the Minister's French counterpart.

I am pleased that the position has been reviewed and that bidders have been advised that industrial participation will be sought. Obviously I am pleased about that, and the Minister can take credit for being open-minded and receptive. The question remains why that was not done in the first place. Why do not the MOD Procurement Executive and Ministers get into the frame of mind to buy British first wherever possible?

Will the Minister take the opportunity to make a statement about the replacement helicopters for transporting the royal family? Will the Westland EH101 be chosen, or will we once again be advertising another country's wares? It is bad enough having Lady Diana charging around in a BMW, without providing a flying advertisement for our competitors.

The Minister's opening speech was vintage Soames—full of detail, and rightly proud of the RAF's record through history and in the past year. However, the hon. Gentleman was a little light on analysis and future vision. We need to examine the new role and priorities of the armed forces in the wake of the ending of the cold war.

Is not that just what the Joint Chiefs of Staff are doing, in developing the doctrine for our component of the joint rapid reaction force?

Mr. Soames

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind words—and I mean that. I fully appreciate that he had to write his speech before hearing mine, but did not the hon. Gentleman listen to my points about the changes to air operations, adjustment to peacekeeping operations, creation of the permanent joint headquarters, rapid deployment force and the new range of joint and combined operations?

Mr. Spellar

Certainly I did, and rightly drew attention to the re-examination by the Joint Chiefs, particularly with regard to the joint rapid reaction force. However, a broader analysis is needed than the Minister described. We must evaluate where our troops might go, how they would get there, what they would do when they got there, the back-up that they would need, how and at what point they would come home, and the role that aircraft would play in the projection of power. We owe such an evaluation not only to our forces but to equipment manufacturers, who need a clear indication of our future intentions. The Minister may believe that he has produced such an evaluation, but that is not clear to outsiders—particularly in industry.

Dean Acheson said that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Over the past 50 years, our role has been defined by the raw realities of the cold war. We no longer face the single unified threat, but the world is still a dangerous and difficult place. We have the opportunity to redefine Britain's place in that world and the role of our armed forces.

It would be of considerable value to the country if, in arriving at that redefinition, we could maintain broad national consensus on defence policy objectives—which we had in the past under Labour and Conservative Governments. Such consensus would not stifle political conflict or debate. We will still argue about the effectiveness and competence of Ministers in implementing the policy. I am sure that next year, Conservative Members will make such criticisms of us, but less effectively.

We need consensus on broad objectives and policy outlines. That sentiment will find an echo in all parts of the House, apart from the hon. Member for Crawley, and throughout the country. That is the challenge facing us. I hope that the Minister is big enough to rise to it, and I hope that the rest of us will—because that is what the country needs and the forces require.

5.23 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

The part of the speech of the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) that I liked best was his opening remarks about the Spitfire, which were appropriate on a day like today. Some of the Schneider trophy races that took place during the Spitfire's development were held in my constituency, at Calshot Point. Mitchell worked at Southampton university; Spitfire prototypes were flown from Eastleigh, which is close to my constituency; and during the war the Spitfire was made at North Baddesley, which is in my constituency. It was appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to begin his speech with references to that fine and romantic aircraft, but then he lost the thread, and my support for many of his other remarks.

I want to put on record the name of Tom Paravicini, who served on our district council with me for many years. He was a modest man and a good councillor. We knew that he had something to do with Rolls-Royce, but we were never sure what it was until we buried him the last year. From the funeral oration, we discovered that Mr. Paravicini was a leading engineer at Rolls-Royce and was given responsibility and credit for making the Merlin engine more powerful, enabling the Spitfire and Hurricane to fly 30 knots faster. We pay credit to pilots and ground crews, but we often forget the people who designed the aircraft and gave our pilots the leading edge in combat. I am glad to use this opportunity to digress from the general theme of the debate to pay tribute to that remarkable man.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Minister and of the hon. Member for Warley, West that it is appropriate to hold this debate on 6 June, which is the anniversary of D-day. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks, and give him credit for being a Minister who is more enthusiastic about his Ministry and the armed forces he serves through the MOD than any other Minister of State that I have known during my time in the House.

The only unfortunate thing about the timing of the debate is that the Defence Select Committee is halfway through one of its regular inquiries into the Royal Air Force. It is a bit too early to quote any conclusions that we may reach, but we have been given plenty of indicators that are worth mentioning without risk of upstaging our report. I will concentrate on two fundamental components of any successful armed force: manning and morale.

I acknowledge that, although the RAF may be the youngest of our armed forces, during and since world war 2 it has been the key to winning battles and wars. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned D-day. Air supremacy—I use that word rather than "superiority"—was vital to that victory. Air supremacy is often difficult to achieve, but it was achieved in the latter part of world war 2 and in the Gulf war—when it undoubtedly led to the low loss of life on the allied side. Air supremacy was not so easy to achieve in the Falklands war, which meant that it was always going to be a close-run thing. Argentina should have achieved air supremacy, but did not—largely due to the vigilance and efforts of the sentinel ships, which ensured our control of upper air space and denied the Argentines the one vital advantage that they could have possessed, being so near the Falklands.

Air power is involved much more in all aspects of the United Nations "Agenda for Peace", in both peacemaking and peacekeeping. The ability to precision-bomb military targets without harming civilians is a useful political weapon: a big stick to back up soft talk. United Nations operations may occur anywhere in the world, but often it is not until they become NATO operations that they are effective. We have seen evidence of that in the former Yugoslavia and then in Bosnia.

It is particularly good news that, at the recent NATO council meeting in Berlin, agreement was reached in principle between the United State of America and its European allies on the proposed joint task force. That must bring France closer to full NATO membership, because French forces will be included in the task force. France may also be signed up to NATO's military committee, which would be extremely welcome.

Since 1989, we have seen the advent of the so-called "new world order". The other day I spoke to people at Jane's Defence Weekly, who described the new world order as world disorder. They said that we are entering the most dangerous decade of human existence, a sentiment which I believe is shared by analysts and political scientists on every continent. Almost a decade after the Berlin wall fell, the world is still gripped by conflict, tension and mistrust. There are 17 major conflicts under way around the world, and a further 20 areas of special concern in which conflict could break out at any time.

Our armed forces still have very important roles to play, and they are currently being deployed in 33 countries worldwide. They must be mobile to meet today's requirements. That is why I am pleased that so many references have already been made to the need for heavy-lift air transports. I see in the statement on the defence estimates that, on the future of large aircraft, the Secretary of State said: We continue to work with partner nations and industry to establish a satisfactory basis for the United Kingdom to rejoin the European Future Large Aircraft project, to meet the requirement for the balance of the Hercules replacement programme. In his closing remarks, I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bring us up to date on the European future large aircraft, on exactly who our partners are likely to be and on whether there will be sales to third countries.

When the hon. Member for Warley, West referred to procurement matters, he said that we must as a priority buy British. I support that in principle, but buying British need not necessarily mean buying a primarily British product. It may be better to have a share in a bigger project that will enjoy wider world sales than to buy a product that happens to be British but will not sell anywhere else in the world.

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

As my hon. Friend and other interested colleagues know, the subject of the maritime reconnaissance aircraft replacement is currently very much on everyone's minds. I wonder how he would fit what he has just said into that framework. There are obviously a number of contenders. We perhaps have access to the Minister's ear, and decisions may soon be made. Does my hon. Friend accept that the most important matter when considering that project is that there should be the maximum amount of British involvement, that the overall lifetime cost should be a primary consideration and, obviously, that the best equipment for the job should be procured?

Mr. Colvin

I am delighted to have given my hon. Friend an opportunity to intervene to make that good constituency point; there will no doubt be headlines in his local paper this weekend.

I am not in the business of trying to prejudge the outcome of these contests because I acknowledge that, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green said, many of the projects are collaboratory. In the case of the Nimrod proposal, Boeing is very much a partner in that exercise and may well help to sell the British Aerospace proposal to third countries. One must bear that in mind, which is why I think that the decision to replace our aging Hercules with the C130J aircraft, built by Lockheed, was the right decision.

I am particularly pleased that the 100 per cent. offsets that were provided for in that contract—the so-called "industrial participation"—are being honoured. Now that the C130J has successfully made its maiden flight, it would also be of interest to the House if the Minister would tell us how many third countries are likely to buy that aircraft and what the world sales might ultimately amount to. Bearing in mind the very large British component in that aircraft—which is ostensibly an American aircraft—the prospects for British jobs are very good. Thus, while I accept the proposition of the hon. Member for Warley, West that it is a good idea to buy British, that does not necessarily mean always buying British aircraft.

Mr. Mans

My hon. Friend mentioned the C130J. I wonder whether he is aware that Lockheed has decided to review its subcontractors for any export orders that it may obtain for that aircraft. It may well be that the British contractors that are working on the C 130J for the Royal Air Force will not be those selected if other exports are produced. That should be borne in mind when a decision is taken on the project that he mentioned.

Mr. Colvin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. A certain amount of rumour is going around and there are press reports to that effect, but again the Minister must have better knowledge about this matter than we have. I have certainly been told by Lockheed that the provision for British work on that aircraft will be honoured for sales to third countries, which is why we would like to know to whom those sales will be made. Obviously every country buying the aircraft will also fight very hard for its own offsets. There must be some flexibility, but we would like to know what the C130J project will ultimately deliver in terms of British jobs.

It has never been more important to have an air force that is fully manned—recruitment is currently not bad, according to the RAF—well trained, with high morale and with the best equipment that money can buy. To my mind, leading edge technology equals the killing edge in battle.

RAF manpower has dropped from 83,000 in 1992–93 to 63,000 next year. It will descend even lower thereafter, to 56,000. On 13 March this year, which I have referred to as "brown envelope day", RAF service men and women received the news about redundancies or premature voluntary retirement. Reportedly the terms were very generous, but slightly more than 3,000 people who asked to leave under the voluntary redundancy terms were not fortunate enough to be granted it. They wanted to leave and were told no. I should like to know what will be the effect on morale of their having to go on serving and how they are regarded by their unit commanders, superior officers and warrant officers.

Morale is very important. Out of a total reduction of 8,300, there are to be 5,500 redundancies this year, of which 1,000 will be compulsory. What about the promotion prospects for those who remain? That question is often asked of the Select Committee by airmen when we visit RAF stations—as are questions on the consequences of contractorisation. When the Committee took evidence from the assistant chief of the air staff on 1 May, he said: over the last few years there has certainly been a dip in promotion opportunities as a result of the turbulence that we have gone through. That dip is now coming to an end and we are now returning to the historic levels of promotion opportunity across the board for airmen and officers. The Committee has for some time taken note of the turbulence that the RAF has been through. Over the years we have been increasingly concerned about the stresses and strains experienced by service personnel and their families. Last year, in our report on the statement on the defence estimates, we said: The development and publication of detailed measures of turbulence in the RAF is long overdue; we will expect such measures to be available by the time of publication of SDE 96. We now have SDE 96, but we have no reference to the RAF's objectives or targets on turbulence or tour intervals. That is a worry. The Army has managed a target, as has the Royal Navy, and I really think that the Royal Air Force should be able to do so. That would have a marked effect on morale.

I should also like to know the effect on morale of the Government's plans for the sale of married quarters, a subject mentioned by the Opposition spokesman. When the Minister of State for Defence Procurement gave evidence to the Select Committee yesterday, he was batting on a very sticky wicket but he carried his bat and carried it well and he managed to allay some of the fears expressed. I hope that he will be able to tell us today that the Treasury is not going to plunder all the proceeds.

The Minister issued to his parliamentary colleagues a letter which states: In defence terms, our need is to provide the services with the right housing, in the right places, at the right time. I would also suggest that it should be at the right rent. The letter goes on to say that there are two key misapprehensions: Misapprehension number one. It has been suggested that recent rises in Married Quarter charges are somehow linked to the Sale—almost as though there were some 'hidden agenda' to discourage Service families from living in married quarters … Misapprehension number 2. It has been suggested that the Sale will lead to the break-up of Service communities, and the introduction into Service housing 'patches' of undesirable neighbours. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to allay such fears today, as he did yesterday when giving evidence to the Select Committee. That, too, would have a marked effect on the morale of our armed forces.

Germany has now taken over responsibility for the defence of German air space. Two Phantom squadrons have already been disbanded, withdrawal is planned from RAF Bruggen which is closing in the year 2002, when four Tornado GR1 squadrons are to move back to the United Kingdom. The other station, at Laarbruch, is due to close in 1999. What savings will be made as a result of those closures and of those squadrons returning to this country? A figure of £25 million has been mentioned, but is that the gross figure—simply the expenditure saved in Germany—or is it a net figure for the savings made after the provision of additional facilities for the squadrons in this country has been taken into account?

The changes will mean, for example, that 2,500 RAF staff and their families will return to the United Kingdom. Where will the squadrons be based? Will an adequate number of married quarters have been retained in close proximity to the bases to enable them to be manned at an appropriate level?

I am sorry to ask a barrage of questions, but that is what these debates are for. Are we negotiating with our German allies for the use of their airfields in the event of our participation in NATO or United Nations operations, even if Germany may not be involved in them?

Reference has already been made to the difficulties experienced with spares and the support for aircraft. The Committee has visited stations and talked to ground crews to whom the Minister has already paid proper tribute. The ground crews are working longer hours, especially on Tornados. Surely it is just as important to ensure that they do not get over-tired as it is to ensure that aircrews are not over-tired. The ground crews complain about a lack of spares and about having to rob other aircraft for spares to keep the front-line aircraft flying. Perhaps "borrow" would be a better word than "rob", but, however one describes it, it involves double labour costs—crews have to take the spare part off one aircraft, put it on another and then replace the part on the first aircraft. At some stations we heard the expression the "rolling rob" because it is a continuous process. Why is it necessary?

In spite of these and other difficulties, we still have the world's finest Air Force, which is looking forward to a period of greater stability so that it can get on with the job of defending the realm, as it did with such valour exactly 52 years ago.

5.42 pm
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I am surprised to be speaking in today's debate on the Royal Air Force, but I am pleased to do so. I have always enjoyed contributing to what is usually an interesting and informative debate. I am glad to see that the usual suspects are here, plus one or two others. It is an important debate and we should have as many contributions as possible. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) on his excellent speech. I do not wish to detain the House for long, but I have a serious constituency problem that is entirely the Government's fault, and it is my duty to bring the matter to the attention of the House.

During the 1992 general election, the Conservative candidate in my constituency claimed that a Labour Government would close RAF Carlisle, but that, if the electors voted for him and there were a Tory Government it would be kept open. Just as the Conservatives broke their tax pledge, they broke their promise about RAF Carlisle, and it is to close in March next year.

Mr. Hargreaves

The electors in Carlisle voted for you.

Mr. Martlew

Yes, but I did not decide to close RAF Carlisle; it was the Minister's decision. The blame lies not with the Labour party but with the Tories. However, as the Chief Whip has just reminded me, we must not get too excited.

The Government then undertook a sham consultation. It started in December 1993 and finished in June 1994. During that time, the trade unions suggested some very good alternative proposals that would have saved 50 per cent. of the jobs and still have provided the Ministry of Defence with the savings that it required. The Government rejected those proposals, but delayed the decision until the week after the European elections for political reasons. The Tory candidate in those elections was heavily defeated anyway, so it made no difference.

During the consultation process, several delegations went to see Ministers, who said that, if it was decided to close the base, they would help to provide alternative employment and to make the best use of the site, which is very large and in a prime area next to the motorway.

I remind the House that, in November 1994, the Select Committee on Defence said of site disposal that criteria other than the highest price should be taken into account, and the Government accepted that aspect of the Committee's report. The Government therefore accept the importance of community provision. Nevertheless, we have a major problem with RAF Carlisle.

After the decision to close the base was taken, the local authorities, although they were very angry, decided to work with the Ministry of Defence and English Partnerships to develop a scheme to market and manage the site. There was talk of creating a joint venture company. It appeared to be working and the MOD was very enthusiastic. Four major companies are interested in moving to the site.

This spring, however, a bombshell was dropped. The Government decided to pull out of the joint venture and to sell the site in one go to the private sector. This has created tremendous problems in my constituency. At the very least, it will mean serious delays in getting businesses on to the site. It will mean the loss of European money and a loss of money from English Partnerships. I have grave doubts about whether the whole of the site will be developed, because the private sector will cherry-pick, selling the good parts of the site and leaving other parts derelict. That is not a sensible way to develop the land.

I informed the Minister that I would be asking this question and I am hoping for a reply this evening. Will he reconsider the decision to market-test the site, so that we can return to the previous plan, whereby the local authorities, the Ministry of Defence and the private sector will work together to get the best deal for my constituents and to make up for some of the 800 jobs that we have lost?

As if all that was not bad enough and my constituency had not suffered enough, the Government suddenly came along with a new idea. I accept that they have problems with the culling of cows due to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but I blame them for the BSE problem. They had originally decided to store bonemeal and the end product of the rendering of cull cows at a former RAF base, RAF Quedgeley in Gloucester, but the decision was then changed. One wonders whether it was changed because Gloucester is an extremely marginal Tory seat and the idea was not very popular with the people there.

Will the Minister confirm that, instead, hundreds of tonnes of bone meal will be sent to RAF Carlisle? He must realise that not only will there be a smell in Carlisle that we do not want, but we shall have a terrible job trying to market a site with hundreds of tonnes of stinking waste in its hangars. In his winding-up speech, will he give Carlisle some good news for a change—first, that he will reconsider his decision on market testing of the site and, secondly, that the bonemeal will not be sent to RAF Carlisle?

5.50 pm
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I should like to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) in saying many things about the Royal Air Force, of which we are all very proud, but I shall not, with reluctance, because of the amount of time that I promised to speak. I am very grateful for catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so early in the debate. Although I would be very glad to follow my hon. Friend in his argument, I shall refrain from doing so, and will concentrate on two local matters that affect the RAF and are connected with the forthcoming closure of a local base.

In echoing what other hon. Members have said, I am very proud of the RAF and rightly regard it as the greatest air force in the world. It does not matter intrinsically if it is not necessarily the biggest. I am full of admiration for the way in which it has coped with its retrenchment, the inevitable reductions following the end of the cold war, and its changing role.

As I said in an intervention, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for keeping closely in touch with me on the forthcoming closure of RAF Stanmore Park, on which I shall concentrate my remarks. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and the House—it is another reason for my deliberate brevity—for being unable to be present at the tail end of the debate due to constituency meetings. I shall therefore read the debate in Hansard carefully. I would not expect my hon. Friend to respond to the questions I ask if I am not present. Perhaps they can be answered later by letter and I hope that he will keep in touch, as I shall with my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

It is obviously very sad for us to accept that, as has been expected for many years, RAF Stanmore Park is to close. It is to close on 1 April 1997, although it will function in a residual way for at least a few months after that, with some RAF and civilian personnel carrying on working there, as it is gradually run down. The closure is sad for all sorts of reasons. The base has a 60-year history since it was created in 1936, which has been a most wonderful period. All the people who have worked there over many years—RAF personnel and civilians—are rightly proud of what has been done, but, again, I shall not go into detail. The greatest sadness is caused not only by the sentimental history of the base, although that is important, but by the loss of jobs, even though the number may seem small in comparison to what has happened in the private sector over many recent years and in other RAF facilities and installations.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces wrote to me on 23 May to confirm the most recent stage of the plans, having considered all the options and having taken option 3B. The reality, even in an area that is considered traditionally prosperous—the outer London borough of Harrow—is daunting. We have had enough job losses in all respects and do not want any more. In his letter, my hon. Friend the Minister said: In addition to the closure, and in keeping with the RAF's overall manpower plans, we propose to contractorise that catering function at RAF Bentley Priory and RAF Stanmore Park while it remains in use. The total number of posts assigned to RAF Stanmore Park is currently 146 Service and 62 Civilians. Of these 57 Service and 25 Civilian posts would transfer to RAF Bentley Priory, RAF Northolt and RAF Uxbridge". Although I am glad that some of my hon. Friends will benefit from those changes, naturally I am sad that the emphasis, changeover and shift of physical and human resources will not concentrate overwhelmingly and exclusively on RAF Bentley Priory. My hon. Friend goes on to say: 36 Service and 20 Civilian posts would be subject to contractorisation and 53 Service and 17 Civilian posts would become entirely surplus to requirements. My hon. Friend said that RAF Stanmore Park will officially close as an independent unit, but Bentley Priory will be expanded, in a modest way, but at least creating some additional RAF and civilian jobs. New facilities are also to be built for NCOs and other ranks in respect of catering, accommodation, and so on.

I naturally welcome that. Since RAF Bentley Priory is the not only primordial base of the two bases concerned but one of the main important bases or sub-bases in the entire RAF panoply—at least in southern England, if not nationally—I welcome the fact that it is not only to be preserved but enhanced.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that a period of consultation with trade unions and other interested parties is beginning. I should very much like to keep closely in touch with him and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence as the stages unfold. I am willing to assist in any way in the painful process to ensure that we minimise as much as possible compulsory redundancies—I hope that there are none at all—and create the most enhanced redeployment so that everybody is placed elsewhere. Indeed, I am more optimistic about that possibility than I was a year or 18 months ago.

I should be grateful for regular and intensive consultation and contact as the matter unfolds and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the contact so far. Even though I am unable to be present for the end of the debate, for which I apologise again, I would be grateful for anything that can be said, and shall keep in touch.

This is a good opportunity to put on record another local matter that is of great concern, even though it is proceeding out of the hands of the MOD and the RAF to other Government Departments and local agencies—mainly the Department of the Environment. I mention it in this debate because one of the principal buildings on the site concerned, Government Buildings, in London road in Stanmore, was the old RAF directorate of recruiting building, which dealt with a considerable number of personnel about five years ago and is now closing down, like all the other buildings. The site has become surplus to requirements and available for redevelopment.

Naturally, there is enormous anxiety among residents in the area about what will happen. As the Member representing their interests, who is in regular and frequent touch with them and the newly created residents association in the north-eastern corner of Stanmore, I should like to make a plea. Since the Ministry of Defence has a residual involvement and there are connections with the Department of the Environment and consultations between officials about the site, I very much hope that any redevelopment will be kept to the very minimum. It would be right to return most of the site to its original green belt designation. Since it has such a designation, there cannot be other than a marginal change of use under the regulations.

It is very important that the public agencies responsible for the disposal of the land ensure that the wishes of the local residents are the most important. It is quite legitimate, regular and important for me to request that of the relevant Government officials in this debate. If there is any development, I hope that it will be extremely marginal, only at the southern end of the area, and that the rest of the site will be returned to its original green belt usage.

There is no need for the Treasury to become over-obsessed with the apparent possibility of maximising every disposal to the detriment of local residents, who want only marginal, high-quality housing that is consonant with the existing housing provision. That would be right and proper for all concerned.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, once again for your indulgence in calling me early in the debate.

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

I begin with a proposition that I believe will enjoy support in all sections of the House—that the Royal Air Force needs a period of stability. Even the bald numbers by means of which the Minister explained the changes in Royal Air Force personnel at the beginning of the debate are themselves sufficient to justify that argument. In 1990, when "Options for Change" was first discussed—at almost exactly this time of year, if my memory serves me correctly—there were 90,000 people in the Royal Air Force. As the Minister told us, by 1999 that figure will have been reduced to 52,500.

By reason of "Options for Change", the defence costs study and other minor reviews, those in the Royal Air Force must sometimes have felt as though they were engaged in a perpetual cultural revolution—and it is a revolution that still has three years to run. The "turbulence"—the euphemism that is sometimes used to describe such change in the services—has a long time to run before we shall be able to say that it has been overcome. In that context it is reasonable to say that, to manage those changes properly, a period of stability is required.

As well as the reduction in personnel, there has been substantial restructuring of the Royal Air Force itself. There has been the merging of 11 Group and 18 Group, the moving of 1 Group headquarters to High Wycombe, and the total disbanding of 2 Group. If we considered the effect of changes of that sort on any comparable civilian organisation, we would not have to think for long before realising that they must have consequences affecting efficiency, capability and morale.

When those changes are coupled with the commitments that the Minister explained in detail—commitments to the implementation force in the former Yugoslavia, to the force keeping guard over Kurdistan and northern Iraq and to that engaged in connection with southern Iraq, plus our continuing commitment in the Falklands and other places—it is hardly surprising that this has been a period of perhaps unprecedented change for the Royal Air Force.

In such a debate it is important to recognise those difficulties, and not simply to pretend that they do not exist, or that they would not in any circumstances have serious consequences. One consequence has certainly arisen. Questions have been asked about the readiness of Tornado squadrons in particular. We are told that, on one day in September last year, only six of the 36 GR1 Tornados stationed at Bruggen were serviceable.

For many of us that raises eerie recollections reminiscent of the state of British armoured units in Germany at the time of the Gulf war, when we were able to meet our requirements in the Gulf only by substantially cannibalising the tanks and other armoured vehicles left behind in Germany. The capability of the Royal Air Force is right at the centre of the justification for its existence, so in such a debate it would be wrong not to recognise that the present situation gives rise for concern.

We know that Royal Air Force NATO inspections have been suspended during the transitional period, as have what are called tacevals—tactical evaluations of particular units. RAF Leuchars, a front-line air base in my constituency, used to be subject to regular tacevals, but they have been suspended in an attempt to reduce the burdens on Royal Air Force personnel dealing with the dramatic changes that I have already mentioned.

That is understandable, but inevitably it affects our degree of knowledge about the state of readiness of those units. If we take away regular assessment, we cannot know which areas of activity or potential activity are up to standard and which are not. That is why I say that in such a debate we should not conceal the difficulties. Difficulties can be managed properly only when they have been acknowledged.

Our natural admiration for the Royal Air Force, which has been expressed by almost every hon. Member who has spoken, and I guess will also be expressed by everyone who speaks later, should not lead us to conclude, rather after the manner of Voltaire's "Candide", that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

I remain, as I suspect does the whole House, wholly committed to Eurofighter 2000. It is vital for the Royal Air Force, and unquestionably vital for the United Kingdom aerospace industry. It is a matter of some relief to many of us that the work-share agreement now appears rather more firmly based than previously, and that the co-operation and agreement, between ourselves and Germany in particular, appears to be at a much more acceptable level than it has seemed to be on some of the more fraught occasions since 1992.

As others are, I am attracted by the idea that there may be an additional purchase for the Royal Air Force of up to 70 more Eurofighters than those for which we are presently contracted. I understand that that would mean that, by about 10 years into the next century, the fast jet fleet of the Royal Air Force would consist of the Eurofighter and the Tornado GR4. I can see economies of scale arising from that arrangement. We would not have to retain such a wide range of spares, and we would also have the advantage of specialisation. There would be a whole range of advantages for us if the fleet were configured in that way.

However, there might also be disadvantages in terms of operational capability. If the fleet consisted only of Eurofighters and Tornado GR4s, the flexibility that we presently enjoy would be prejudiced. I therefore hope that, when we think about whether to purchase a further tranche of Eurofighters and to proceed as I understand is under consideration, serious attention will be given to the effect that such a decision could have on the operational capability of the service.

The single big procurement issue of the moment is the replacement maritime patrol aircraft.

Mr. Arbuthnot

No, there are lots of issues.

Mr. Campbell

In the minds of those who are beating a path to the doors of members of the Defence Select Committee, the RMPA, and perhaps CASOM—the conventionally armed stand-off missile—and the anti-armour weapon, are the three issues of the time.

It is generally accepted that the RMPA has long been needed, and clearly the resolution of the three competing bids will take great sensitivity and require very careful and accurate decision-making. One of the difficulties is that all three bids, in different ways, have substantial United Kingdom components. In that sense, they all involve our national interest. As we have already heard, for some Members they involve acute constituency interests, which have conditioned and coloured some of the contributions that we have heard today.

When dealing with such an issue, it is relatively easy to state the principles; it is in the application of those principles that the difficulty arises. The first principle is that the Royal Air Force should get the best aircraft for the job. The second principle is that that should be done at reasonable cost, and that acquisition cost and through-life costs should both be considered. The third principle is that we should support United Kingdom industry.

Again, I doubt whether there would be much dissent from those statements of principle. It is when we come to make the decision, and to decide how much weight to attach to any one of the principles, that the difficulties arise. The same principles apply to the CASOM and the air-launched anti-armour weapon.

I do not know what other Members' experience is, but, as I have hinted already, I do not think that any projects have ever produced such intensive lobbying of those of us in the House who have an interest in defence matters. That is no reflection on the companies involved, because they have a clear and legitimate interest in trying to put their agenda before those Members.

However, if we do not have access to the information that is normally considered commercially confidential, much of that lobbying, however sincere it may be, has little significance. Unless one has access to the detailed acquisition and through-life costs of the project believed to be the most economical, how can one make a judgment? That is an advantage that the Minister enjoys—perhaps it is a burden that he carries—that is simply not available to others.

I share the reluctance of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, on the matter. How can those of us who do not have access to all the information make informed and intelligent judgments about decisions which, by their nature, are extremely complex? Therefore, like the hon. Gentleman, I have avoided making a commitment in any direction. Of course, I have the good fortune not to have a direct constituency interest, and that has rather assisted me to adopt this purist position.

I do have an interest, in that RAF Leuchars is based within my constituency. Two squadrons of F3 aircraft are based there, and I had the privilege of being flown in the back seat of one of those aircraft nearly 12 months ago.

It was a remarkable experience that I recommend to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although the white knuckles that you find yourself subject to during the flight are likely to stay with you for some time after.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here at the moment, because I wished to offer him my personal and uninhibited congratulations on the fact that he was responsible for an outbreak of common sense in the Ministry of Defence. We have now put aside what many people regarded as the wholly intolerable suggestion that we should not have the mid-life update of the F3, air-to-air missiles and avionics, and that we should embark upon what most of us thought was the improbable course of action of leasing from the United States F16 aircraft, some of which would have to be updated anyway.

In addition, these aircraft were not in any way compatible with the existing tanker capacity of the RAF. We would have appeared peculiar if, while being the landlord and leasing F3s to the Italian air force, we were simultaneously being the tenants by leasing F 16s back from the United States. More seriously, that would have raised substantial doubts in the minds of many people about our commitment to the Eurofighter. I congratulate the Government and the Ministry of Defence on the entirely sensible decision, although I have the suspicion that it was more than a little influenced by the attitudes of hon. Members.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement has received so many requests to respond during his reply that it may end up being of almost marathon length—if I can say that within three or four weeks of the opening of the Olympic games. Will he tell me, however—either now or later—the precise state of the Jaguar upgrade? When will the thermal imaging and laser designator be brought into service? Will he confirm that the Hercules replacement is still on schedule? In particular, what is the position with regard to the EH101?

Some reference has been made to the married quarters estate. I do not presume for a moment to try to anticipate the conclusions that the Defence Select Committee will reach on that matter, but the Minister may feel that the questioning on it was not so much friendly fire as intensive cross-examination. I have not been persuaded that the Government's proposed scheme is appropriate.

There is some attraction in the proposition by the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), who is no longer in the Chamber, that the Government consider selling those properties and those parts of the defence estate that are superfluous to requirements, and applying the sums raised to the rehabilitation of the existing housing stock. That would bring about the required improvement and would reduce the burden of management that the MOD bears in relation to the overall defence estate. In addition, it would have the advantage of placating those wives who have been fired up by the proposals, and who may make a formidable enemy for the MOD.

More seriously, there is no doubt that the proposals have caused a great deal of apprehension in all three services, and the Government should be slow to proceed unless they can satisfy themselves that that apprehension has, in all substantial parts, been alleviated. So far, I do not feel that the Government have reached that state of grace.

I also offer my congratulations on the decision to withdraw the RAF from Bruggen. As recently as the previous RAF debate in May last year, the Minister of State was making a most robust defence of the need to maintain RAF Bruggen because of the political and military significance of the base. Not much has changed in politics or in the military in the past 12 months, but the arguments in favour of retaining the RAF presence at Bruggen have long since been diluted. In particular, the fact that low flying is inhibited in Germany—meaning that the aircraft had to return to the United Kingdom anyway—raised substantial questions in the minds of many people about the utility of maintaining the RAF presence at Bruggen. It will be the end of a remarkable historical connection, but, in my view, it is entirely justified.

Two questions were asked by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside on the matter. First, where will the squadrons go? That is, obviously, a matter of some concern. Secondly, from a tactical and strategic point of view, what facilities will be available to UK aircraft in Germany if the squadrons are required for operational reasons in the future? Germany is our partner in NATO and is taking an increasing responsibility within it. It also has an increasing ability to support UN operations because of the views taken by its constitutional court. There is nothing difficult about that, but it is clearly an important matter when considering the consequences of the withdrawal.

On an occasion such as this, it is right to look ahead. The issue of procurement is one about which we should have some concern, as it relates to the future of the RAF. Remarkable though it may seem—as the first Eurofighter is not due to come into service until 2000—we must now consider what will replace the Eurofighter, and we should certainly consider the replacement for the Tornado GR1, or GR4 as it is to become. The Government have signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States to participate in the JAST programme.

I have been gratified by some of the observations made by the Secretary of State, who has now joined us, about a greater recognition of the need for a coherent European defence industry. In my judgment, the European defence industry will shape and will be shaped by the procurement decisions of European air forces, particularly the RAF. I hope that the conclusion reached by the Trade and Industry and Defence Committee, to whose report reference has been made, and the greater recognition of the European component on the part of the MoD will apply when decisions are taken about which aircraft are to replace Eurofighter and which are to replace the Tornado.

The matter of capability is one for the future. In my judgment, we must try as far as we can to maintain an all-round range of capability so that the RAF is able to operate at high, medium and low levels. Some people appear to believe that if we acquire the conventionally armed stand-off missile, it will be a substitute for low-level operations. In my judgment, that is a wholly flawed analysis.

Those who believe that CASOM will bring to an end the requirement for low flying simply do not understand the purpose of the acquisition of this weapons system. It is not a substitute for our ability to press home low-level attacks, if those are necessary, but an additional capability. Its acquisition should be seen as a supplement, not a substitute. I hope that those who are so enthusiastic in their support for CASOM—justifiably, in my judgment, because we require such a weapons system—will understand that it will not mean a reduction in low flying or the capacity to press home attacks at the lowest level. If we are to maintain an all-round range of capability, we must be able to operate at high, medium and low levels.

We who legislate on such matters bear a moral obligation. On occasion, we ask the Royal Air Force to meet the worst case and to operate under the most stringent and acute conditions. We may need to deploy our forces against some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world.

If we compromise on the capability of our air force, two problems may result. We may be unable to contribute to United Nations or NATO operations at the level that we would prefer, and it may also result in casualty rates to Royal Air Force aircrew that are politically unacceptable. That is the argument for ensuring that capability is maintained at the highest level, because we cannot legitimately ask those who put their lives at stake to fly in inadequate aircraft with insufficient weapons systems and inadequate defence systems. We talk here blithely about the contribution that the Royal Air Force makes and is likely to make, but we bear a moral obligation not to ask our young men—and perhaps our young women in the future—to put themselves at risk unless we are certain that we have provided them with the best possible equipment for the job.

Contractorisation is an issue for the future, but it contains a substantial element of risk. If there were a change of Government in 12 months' time, most people probably accept that there would not be a wholesale reversal of contractorisation. The Labour party's defence team has not confirmed that and I doubt whether it will, but if we have started down the road of contractorisation, the likelihood of a reversal is remote. The question that cannot be answered until an emergency arises is whether the private sector will be able to respond rapidly. That question may be unanswerable now, but we are entitled to be determined to ensure that when contractorisation becomes part of the support for the Royal Air Force, it is at the highest level available.

Those companies that are now under contract to provide many of the services previously performed in house—especially engineering—are currently using the skills of fast-jet mechanics, most of whom are former Royal Air Force personnel. That is fine, reasonable and a piece of good fortune for those companies, but those skills will degrade over time. The quality of training provided by the Royal Air Force will no longer be available.

We must ensure that the most stringent standards are written into the contractual arrangements between the Ministry of Defence and those who become contractors. The hon. Member for Warley, West suggested apprenticeships and there may be other ways to impose those standards, but we are entitled to insist that the terms of private contracts are sufficiently rigorous to give us the same standard of performance as we might have expected if the operations were carried out in house.

I have little doubt that the future of the Royal Air Force is most likely to be assured by increased European defence co-operation, although that opinion may be unpopular with some—not all—Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside, the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, referred to the return this week of the prodigal France into the bosom of the family and the recognition by the United States that combined joint task forces should be more than a concept and capable of implementation. Those decisions make it clear that there will be continuing pressure to recognise that the effectiveness of defence in Europe is best achieved on a combined and joint basis.

The Minister's opening speech referred to the Franco-British air group as an important example of the open-mindedness of the Ministry of Defence, and the Royal Air Force in particular, in such matters. I understood the Minister to say that the expansion of that group to other members of the WEU was being considered. That is the direction for defence policy, and the Royal Air Force will have an important and significant role to play in the evolution of concepts of defence that recognise far greater co-operation in Europe.

Political and economic considerations will have an equal influence on the degree of co-operation. At best, Europe will have stable defence budgets for the foreseeable future. In reality, defence budgets will probably continue to reduce by a percentage point here or by £500,000 there. I would not wish to lay serious money on the likelihood that defence budgets will increase materially in the next five years. That being so, common procurement, greater integration, interoperability and even force specialisation will become more important in the future.

I have an interest in the Royal Air Force in three separate capacities. I am the spokesman for my party on defence and I am a member of the Defence Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside. He is no longer in his place, but he is a most vigorous and skilful Chairman who provides great leadership. As I have mentioned, I also have a constituency interest in RAF Leuchars. That front-line air base now alone provides the quick-reaction alert against intrusion into United Kingdom air space over the North sea. In all three capacities, I have the good fortune and the honour to view the Royal Air Force. As I do that, I am convinced that the men and women of today are a credit to the heritage of the Royal Air Force to which the Minister referred earlier. They continue to display the commitment, dedication and professionalism that has characterised the Royal Air Force for so many years. I am confident that, with the support of the House, they will continue to do so for a long time.

6.27 pm
Sir John Cope (Northavon)

I agree that the Royal Air Force serves this country exceptionally well, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State made that point effectively at the start of the debate. That was also apparent at the excellent recent presentation to Members of both Houses by the Royal Air Force presentation team and some senior officers.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) began by calling for stability for the Royal Air Force, and the Government have committed themselves to stability in defence organisation and spending. From the point of view of the Royal Air Force, the hon. and learned Gentleman must hope for continuity of Conservative government in the next few years. That is the only result that could guarantee the continuity of defence spending, as set out in the White Paper and elsewhere.

My concern arises from my constituency interest and involves the defence industrial base. I shall follow on from and, to a certain extent, agree with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar). Towards the end of a somewhat thin speech, the hon. Gentleman complimented the report of the Select Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) when he was at the Ministry of Defence, on the emphasis that they placed on the importance to this country of the defence industrial base.

The view has occasionally been expressed in some quarters of the Ministry of Defence that the health of the companies involved is a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry, not the MOD, which should look for the best equipment for the forces at the best prices and allow companies' health to be the responsibility of others in government. But that is a narrow view. It is certainly in the national interest that the great defence companies of this country, both large and small—many small businesses are involved in defence—should continue to contribute a great deal to this nation.

It is said that 395,000 jobs in the United Kingdom are supported by defence goods and services, of which about 80,000 are dependent on exports. There are more people in the defence industries than there are in the armed forces—there are about 215,000 people in the armed forces in total. That should not surprise us, as 39 per cent. of the defence budget is spent on equipment and 29 per cent. on service personnel. Those percentages back up the relative importance of the defence industrial base.

For those companies to flourish, it is essential for the Ministry of Defence to take account of the direct and indirect effects of its massive purchasing decisions on British companies. I would not express it quite as crudely as the hon. Member for Warley, West did by saying that we should always buy British or always try to. It is more complicated than that, as the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East made clear.

The maintenance of the industrial base is not only in the interests of the companies and industries involved, but in the interests of our defence. We are not asking the RAF or anyone else in the armed forces to accept lower standards of equipment or safety. The equipment produced by British companies is of as high a standard as any in the world, but we also know that we can rely on our companies.

During the Gulf war, it was interesting to note how many civilian personnel went out to help back up the armed forces in the field. We have not always been able to rely on defence equipment bought from other countries—a serious incident involving ammunition occurred in the middle of the Falklands war. The more general point is that, unless British industry—both the defence sectors and other sectors—prospers, we shall be unable to afford the defence that we should have and that we wish to have. The health of industry in general provides important underpinning for this country's defence.

I know that some people, particularly some Opposition Members, are embarrassed that our export effort and employment depend to such a large degree on the building of defence equipment. That has led people to think up the ridiculous idea of a defence industry diversification agency. The idea that a Government agency should help defence companies turn over to civilian production does not bear examination, and I am glad that the idea has not been repeated this afternoon. I have lost track of where the idea has got to within the hierarchy of defence thinking among Labour Members—perhaps I am about to find out.

Mr. Frank Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to comment on his last assertion. The assumption that Labour Members are opposed to export sales of arms per se is misleading. Labour Members oppose the export of arms to regimes that will use them for suppression and repression—that is the point.

Sir John Cope

There are two separate arguments—I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. Of course, we can disagree about the particular regimes in question and the particular sales that are made, or are likely to be made, to them. However, some Opposition Members—I acquit the hon. Gentleman of this charge—seem less keen for us to be in the defence production business at all. That must be true; otherwise, what would be the point of a defence industry diversification agency?

The idea that some such agency could tell British Aerospace in my constituency or Rolls-Royce, which also affects my constituency, how the defence sections of their business could be switched over to peaceful activity is ridiculous. British Aerospace is already among the world's leading suppliers of airliners—particularly through its European connections and the airbus. Rolls-Royce is one of the world's leading aero-engine suppliers to both civilian and military aircraft. The idea that an agency could tell those businesses how to sell more civilian aircraft or aero-engines is ridiculous.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

I shall have the pleasure and honour of visiting Rolls-Royce in Bristol next Monday. The last thing I shall be telling it is to diversify in the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggested. I am sure that he would agree that defence diversification in this country and others does not involve telling industry what to do. Because of the way in which the world has changed in the past few years, industry is looking for other ways to develop its skills and potential—there is nothing wrong with that.

Sir John Cope

I am all for that. I am happy that the two companies that I mentioned, and many others, are extremely active in civilian as well as military markets. The idea on which I was pouring cold water was that a Government agency could push them from the one to the other.

I shall return to the main points that I wish to make in support of the defence industrial base. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will have to give close attention to the three forthcoming purchases for which bids have been submitted. It is important to consider the British content of those bids not only in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality.

The bids are made to look as British as possible: all the literature that has poured in to us recently has been covered in Union Jacks and has contained great lists of subcontractors in every possible constituency. All those bidding do their best to demonstrate that they are the most British. But what matters is the quality of the contribution, not merely the quantity or percentage of the contribution.

Therefore, although I entirely accept the difficulty that Back Benchers face when judging competing bids objectively, I think that British Aerospace makes an exceedingly good point when it draws attention to its prime contractorship in the three bids in which it is principally involved—the maritime patrol aircraft, the stand-off missile and the air-launched anti-armour missile. In all cases, it is necessary to look extremely carefully at the quality of the contributions in the bids of all the companies when deciding between them—I appreciate that it is always an extremely difficult choice.

The decision by my hon. Friend the Minister of State and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have great significance for the future of those sections of British industry and for potential exports. They should give the closest possible attention to that aspect of the purchasing decision.

I agree with some of what the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, who sits on the Liberal Benches, seemed to say at the end of his remarks about Europe. In looking at the three purchasing decisions, I believe that there is sometimes a danger in becoming too involved with the American, as opposed to the European, contractors. The base from which the American contractors operate is massive. It is backed by massive Government research—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and in other ways—and, of course, it has the benefit of a huge home market.

Mr. Wilkinson

Could not the converse equally be true? Participation in American programmes, for the benefit of our armed forces, to meet a British need, gives British industry an incomparable opportunity to maximise its participation over large production runs, especially in the export markets, to meet American requirements. Dowty in Cheltenham is building the propellers for the C130J, and there is a huge benefit. The same could apply if that propeller was chosen for the Orion 2000.

Sir John Cope

I do not argue that it is wrong in every case or that there are no advantages in co-operating with the Americans, but the fact is that the United States is extremely reluctant to export any of its technology. One is not dealing with an equal partner when one takes on a partnership with the United States; whereas one tends to deal more with equal partners in the deals that are put together in Europe.

Mr. Bill Walker

My right hon. Friend should remember, when speaking on behalf of British Aerospace, that the collaboration and co-operation on the present generation of modern Harrier aircraft is an example of American and United Kingdom co-operation.

Sir John Cope

Of course, and that is one of the reasons why the AV8B has been extremely important to my constituency, among other things. That is one of the reasons why I am not putting it in absolute terms. Nevertheless, I still believe that we should look to increase European co-operation when we can.

Part of the reason why we joined the European Community in the first place was to increase the size of our home market as the base from which to do business with the rest of the world. We sometimes forget that nowadays, when looking at the statistics of trade within Europe. I do not and would not suggest that the European Union is the base from which we should do business in relation to defence. Clearly, the Western European Union is the right body from that point of view. The EU contains some countries that are neutral—why should they not be neutral if they so wish? —and that makes it a different organisation.

One of the areas of least co-operation in the WEU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is in deciding the specification for defence products. Now that there is new vigour in achieving WEU co-operation, more attention should be given to trying to agree the specifications for defence products. Again, that is not a universal point—before any of my hon. Friends intervenes again. I recognise that the Eurofighter is an example of specific agreement on the specification, and the future large aircraft is another, to a degree, but such examples are relatively limited. I gather that our requirements and those of the French on the stand-off missile are similar, but they are not the same at this point. The two Governments and Air Forces are trying to combine, as was done in the case of Eurofighter, where a limited number of countries worked together.

My general point is that companies work right across Europe—

Mr. Wilkinson

The world.

Sir John Cope

And the world. They need to do so. The Governments and air forces are showing that they need to get their specifications closer together, as much as they possibly can. More attention should be given to that aspect of future planning for defence procurement.

6.45 pm
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

The right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) criticised the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, for having made a fairly thin speech. I think that those were the words. [Interruption.] I accept the correction, but I take issue with the comment anyway, because if one measures one performance against the other, frankly there is no competition.

Our pattern of debates on defence issues must be renewed and reconsidered. We currently have a one-day debate each year on each of the three services, followed by a two-day thrash on the defence estimates. We do not get to grips with it. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces has, on more than one occasion this evening, both in his speech and in interventions, stressed the importance of the joint command, joint training and the joint control centre. As we are moving into a joint force activity, especially with the combined joint task force, we should debate defence issues in a less compartmentalised way.

I appeal to both Front Benches to get together, please, and review the approach for next year, because if they do not, they will have to the year after, as that is the way in which we are going, and it makes sense to look at it in that way.

We have heard much about EFA, CASOMs and SWAARMs—all the acronyms that we are pleased—

Mr. Arbuthnot

Will the hon. Gentleman give way? Mr. Cook: By all means.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am sorry to interrupt what will clearly be an interesting speech, but the problem with having a day to debate procurement and then, perhaps, an extra day to debate the armed forces, is that we would lose a day's debate on the armed services. I do not think that anybody would wish to see that.

Mr. Cook

I am asking for a review. I do not want the Minister to have to find the answer this evening. Let us just talk about it through the usual channels before next time. If both Front Benches do not review it next time, they will have to do it the time after that. That is my point.

Let us return to the acrimonious acronyms. I heard a complaint from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who said, "I don't know how long I'm going to be, as I have to cover so many subjects." I think that that is a fault, and I shall not fall into that trap. I want to talk about just one topic in essence, with a small conclusion later.

I shall concentrate on sustainability because I have seen press reports that have said that it is one of the main anxieties of Sir Peter Inge, the Chief of the Defence Staff. I was puzzled by that, so when I attended the plenary session of the North Atlantic Assembly in Athens a couple of weeks ago, I took the opportunity to nobble—I do not know whether it is spelt with a k—Sir Peter at an evening reception at the ambassador's residence, to ask him what he meant.

Sir Peter was very helpful and he said that he thought that our draw-down was at about the right level, that he was satisfied with manning levels and with the equipment that was available, and that we had it about right for now. He said that he was worried about sustainability. I asked him what he meant, and he referred to the number of personnel that we currently have in Northern Ireland—and we intend to maintain that number until we get some sort of a guarantee of a lasting improvement in that awkward climate.

We also talked about our commitments elsewhere in the world. Sir Peter is proud of the fact that 12,000 United Kingdom military personnel are taking part in exercises in the United States. We apparently knocked America for six because they did not think that we were capable of providing a force of that size. That is good—as long as we stay where we are.

The Defence Select Committee recently released a report on what we call overstretch in the military. We heard a considerable amount of evidence, and two days before we published the report, we got the famous add-back. It seems that, even at this stage, add-back is proving hardly sufficient. When we visit units, we get reports not just from rankers, but from senior NCOs and the commissioned ranks, that personnel are being pushed to the limit.

Some weeks ago, we visited a type 23—HMS Lancaster in the Irish sea—and we were told by the senior warrant officers, by commissioned ranks and by the stokers that working 17 hours a day, seven days a week, even on a home base, was a regular thing. While there was decent morale in terms of esprit de corps and confidence in one's workmate—one's marra—there was considerable dissatisfaction on the home front because it was thought to be unnecessary in those situations.

I was further disturbed when I visited RAF Marham—similar criticisms were commonplace. That is not the result of a lack of morale or a lack of commitment; the individuals, in all three forces, give their best—more than their best—at all times. How long can we expect that to be sustained? Today we are talking about the Royal Air Force, so I shall keep my comments specific to it. I have mentioned RAF Marham, where we found criticisms about duty hours, guards and the like.

I refer to the Charlie 130s—the famous Hercules that are operating in the Falkland Islands—which are used for refuelling purposes. Some people have said that the Charlie 130s are the result of lash-ups that were designed on the back of a fag packet. They are somewhat Heath Robinson in appearance, they are single-skinned, they have unarmoured flexi-pipes and they are a serious source of risk. They need to be replaced, as they have been working there for an awful long time. I remind hon. Members that the subject of my speech is sustainability. They are sustaining themselves at the moment—but how long can we expect them to do so?

Our visit to Yeovilton allowed us to learn from squadrons 800 and 801, which had been flying Harriers on a six-month-on, six-month-off, basis with the Invincible and the Illustrious in the Adriatic. There was an admission that there were degrees of jading, if not with the aircrews, certainly with the aircraft. We have heard comments from the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), about rolling robbing in the RAF. How long can we allow it to go on?

Most embarrassing of all was when the Defence Select Committee visited Bosnia—I can see smiles on the faces of Government Members; in a way it was humorous, but it could have been somewhat less humorous. We relied on the famous Chinooks, which had undergone their mid-life update. The commanding officer was proud of them, to the point that he said that they were infinitely better than anything that could be produced from the EH101 as a replacement.

We got into the first Chinook and flew about 15 miles before we had to return to transfer to another Chinook. It got us about the country for the next day and a half until, when we sought to depart from the American garrison at Tuzla, it refused even to cough into action. We were rescued by the United States cavalry in the shape of two Black Hawks, and we got back to Split for our connection a great deal faster than we would have done in the Chinook.

The point I am making is simple: how long can we expect equipment and people who are under pressure to carry on? There is not a lack of commitment on the part of those who maintain the equipment, there is not a lack of courage on the part of those who operate it and there is not a lack of dedication. I refer to the case of Corporal Wayne Mills—the first recipient of the conspicuous gallantry medal. He won the medal in Gorazde some time ago, for behaving in a particularly exemplary way in protecting his section of eight men when they encountered a numerically superior force of Serbs who were somewhat undisciplined and probably inebriate.

Wayne Mills defended his lads by telling them to leg it for safety and creating a one-man ambush. Wayne Mills, in characteristic British understatement—note that I said British—said that the whole thing was more to do with breathlessness than with bravery. In other words, the lad probably could not have run any further, but he still had the guts to create a one-man ambush out of his own ability.

I am talking about sustainability. They will turn it on in all three forces. Why? Because they take pride in the fact that all three forces are can-do forces, because we, as politicians, send them out to do a job, because that is why they joined the forces and because that is what they are paid to do. It is our responsibility to ensure that, when we send them out to do the job, they have the wherewithal with which to do it. It is as easy as that. A few Government Members are smirking. I am not telling them what I think; I am telling them what Sir Peter Inge, the Chief of the Defence Staff, is anxious about. If he is worried about it, by God, we should be worried about it, too.

Let us not plead breathlessness at a late stage. Corporal Mills did not plead breathlessness. He was a very brave man; they were all brave in that unit, regardless of whether they received awards. I say that with pride, because my son was with them and received a commendation.

Lastly, I wish to discuss the suggested sale of married quarters. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East described the reaction to the suggestion in the services as apprehension. That is the wrong word. I tell the Minister of State for Defence Procurement: the right word is anger—downright anger; anger at lack of consultation, anger at an unheeding response, anger at the risk to which those people feel they will be put.

I add my support to the idea that the current voids should be put on the open market. I believe that 10,000 or 11,000 voids would be snapped up at £10,000 apiece. I add another suggestion. Many local authorities have written to the Government, pleading for the move to be stopped because they want the opportunity to take those properties into their housing stock. If those local authorities were allowed to put to use some of the assets that have accrued as a result of the sale of council housing, the MOD's problem could be resolved a great deal more rapidly than it previously supposed.

If that cannot be the case, I say to the Minister, "Take your current idea of selling married quarters on the open market and dump it; forget it altogether."

7.1 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I shall begin with a comment and follow it up briefly with a quotation. In comments attributed to Field-Marshal Earl Haig after the first world war, he said that, looking back on that horrendous conflict, to him two things were of importance—barbed wire and Trenchard. Barbed wire we can all understand—there are memorials to it throughout the length and breadth of Picardy, Flanders and the Gallipoli peninsula—but Trenchard? We are debating his memorial tonight. He was of course the commander of the first independent air force in 1918.

Earl Haig, being unable to carry the war to Germany itself, had alongside him in the headquarters at Nancy, further down the front, in Trenchard, the architect of independent air power and, night after night in the concluding months and weeks of the war, the independent air force struck into Germany—Mannheim, Stuttgart, the Ruhr and so on.

Trenchard came to be Chief of Air Staff and, when the great demobilisation began after the great war, he found himself trying to keep the air force in being. He wrote a memorandum to the then Secretary of State for Air—and War, actually—Sir Winston Churchill, the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I regret that my hon. Friend is not here. Sir Winston presented the memorandum to the House in the form of a White Paper on 11 December 1919. It said: The force may in fact be compared to the prophet Jonah's gourd. The necessities of war created it in a night, but the economics of peace have to a large extent caused it to wither in a day, and we are now faced with the necessity of replacing it with a plant of deeper root. As in nature, however, decay fosters growth, and the new plant has a fruitful soil in which to spring. We have the economics of peace with a vengeance today, and the Royal Air Force has gone through the turmoil of readjustment, not least many families whose breadwinner probably aspired to a lifelong career of service in the Royal Air Force and found himself prematurely not wanted; but now we have an opportunity to nurture the service and to create the political environment to establish a Royal Air Force that will endure as an effective fighting service at least into the first two decades of the next century.

The withdrawal of the RAF from Germany was the culmination of a period of contraction. Many of us had urged that withdrawal long years heretofore, saying that the characteristics of air power did not necessitate a presence of the Royal Air Force, once the Warsaw pact was disbanded, on the soil of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Now, as an island country, we are in a position to create in our Air Force a powerful instrument to preserve peace in a very uncertain world. The Air Force has all the attributes that are requisite for the purpose—speed of intervention, flexibility, economy of force, the potential for a minimum risk of casualties, and minimum collateral damage as a result of the application of precision munitions.

Let us first consider what Trenchard regarded as most important—the men and women of the service. What will they most require, now and tomorrow? Above all, I would say discipline—discipline, and again discipline, and yet again discipline. Nothing is more fundamental for a fighting service. Therefore, the whole training programme, the development of commissioned and non-commissioned personnel throughout their service career, should re-emphasise that cardinal point.

The profession of arms calls for unnatural qualities of sacrifice and dedication, so the inculcation of qualities of character and devotion from the earliest years is crucial. That is why Trenchard founded Royal Air Force college Cranwell and the apprentice school at Halton, among other things, and they stood the service well and proved themselves in war and peace, and enabled the service to endure and to be one of which we are justly proud.

With discipline must come education and training, both technical and physical; that is why I query what I would call the blazer and flannels ethos in the flying training schools. The Assistant Chief of Air Staff, in the session with the Select Committee on Defence, rightly said that it was his hope that a high proportion of qualified flying instructors would be reservists and therefore able to wear uniform.

I endorse him wholeheartedly. I think they all should be, and the great opportunity of the sponsored reserve category which we have created with our Reserve Forces Bill is that it enables contractorisation to be compatible with the exigencies of military service, with the requirement to serve anywhere at any time at the behest of the Crown in the defence of the realm.

I mentioned the blazer and flannels ethos with regard to the air crew, but it applies equally to the ground crew. My hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned what is happening at RAF Valley. It comprises an advanced flying training school and a tactical weapons unit, which is supposedly a reserve squadron that can be mobilised rapidly in times of emergency or war.

If the Brown and Root and Marshall personnel are sent from Anglesey overseas at short notice into an inhospitable theatre, unless they are auxiliaries and have signed the Air Force Act 1955, I suppose that they could refuse to go. That could cause complications. It is why I urge Her Majesty's Government to make full use of the sponsored reserve's potential in that way.

We must achieve a balance between the Regulars and the reservists. The problem in recent years is that the balance has favoured the Regulars, and the potential of the reservists has never been adequately realised. I hope that this situation will be put right. The signs are good in that regard. For example, the No.1 maritime headquarters unit at RAF Northolt in my constituency does a first-class job supporting the naval headquarters at Northwood and the 11/18 group RAF headquarters at Bentley Priory. The support helicopter squadron at Benson is a precursor of things to come.

I recall another Trenchardism. In response to his suggestion about establishing the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, Churchill replied, "Weekend squadrons, Boom? Never." Of course, those weekend squadrons were formed, and they achieved a third of the victories in the battle of Britain. That battle could not have been won without them, any more than it could have been won without the Poles, whose memorial stands at the threshold of my constituency. Their No. 303 squadron, which operated out of RAF Northolt in my constituency, shot down more enemy aircraft in the battle than any other squadron, even though it was not officially operational when it plunged into the fray.

When considering the force structure in personnel terms, we must address also the equipment issue. I am pleased that the "Front Line First" exercise has enabled the Government to find extra money for equipment. If the Air Force is small in size, it must be equipped to the very highest standard. I am thrilled that the C130J has been introduced into service. The companies which are participating in the programme will benefit from the operational and industrial potential that it presents.

As to the future transport force, it will need a strategic lifter. If we operate primarily from this island—we will have no overseas commands or groups, and few overseas bases—and if we are to project power, we will need an aircraft that can carry a large volume. That is why I advocate the C17 as a complement to the C130Js in the next century. There must be a mix of those aircraft.

As an island nation, we must concentrate on our maritime role. It is pointless looking to aircraft that are near the end of their useful lives or to hand-me-downs out of the desert: we must buy new aeroplanes that offer the very best in technology, good industrial participation for the United Kingdom and export potential for companies involved in the programme well into the next century, as well as a commonality with other allied air forces and navies that operate the P3.

The argument is fairly straightforward. I recall the VC10 tanker conversion programme. The refurbishment of those aircraft proved extremely costly, and there were hideous problems. With hindsight, it was probably not a very wise decision. Let us not make the same mistake again.

I make no comment about the weaponry—the AST1236 and 1238 or the advanced stand-off radar—except to say that the Royal Air Force must always be ready to buy the best equipment from any source. We must not have political preconceptions. We must not allow our participation in the European Armaments Agency or any other rationale to lead us to buy equipment that does not best meet the RAF's needs. Cost-effectiveness must be the criterion.

For example, the lesson to be learned from the European fighter aircraft 2000 is not that it will not meet the requirements—it probably will—but that an agency and superfluity of management, with a capital "M", is not what is required, as much as a commercial orientation to drive the programme forward, maximise profits for the participants and lead to the aircraft's early entry into service for the RAF.

In conclusion, I shall raise a subject to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State alluded in his speech. The sole No. 11 Group sector station of the battle of Britain—RAF Northolt—is situated in my constituency. It was founded as a Royal Flying Corps station in 1915, so it must be almost the oldest station in the country. The Transport Committee has suggested that it should no longer be a Royal Air Force station, but should become a civil satellite airport—Heathrow north, no less. It is proposed that the Royal Air Force be allowed to make requests from time to time regarding military movements.

The Royal Squadron No. 32 meets the communications flying requirements for the royal family and Her Majesty's Ministers, as well as for the permanent joint headquarters at Northwood, headquarters fleet at Northwood, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1 East Atlantic headquarters at Northwood, Royal Air Force headquarters at Bentley Priory at Stanmore, the No. 11/18 group, the headquarters of RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe, the new NATO Command North-West Europe, which is also at High Wycombe, and diplomatic, and for highly sensitive Government movements of all sorts. To fulfil those roles—which are crucial in times of peace, emergency and war—a discrete dedicated facility is required. That role would not be compatible with reverting RAF Northolt to the status of a civil airport, which it became very briefly following world war 2.

Residential development around Northolt has increased enormously since those early post-war years, and the Royal Air Force and the civil community enjoy a very satisfactory relationship. The civil executive jet fraternity are allowed to use the airport for a maximum of 28 movements a day with prior permission, five days a week from 08.00 to 20.00 hours. That is perfectly acceptable. If it were turned into a civil airport, it would prejudice one of the Royal Air Force's key roles, and I hope that it will not happen.

7.18 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I shall follow up several points raised by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). First, I was particularly interested in his comments about training. I recall suggesting in debate two or three years ago that elementary flying training within the service was not simply about teaching people how to fly: it was about teaching people to fly into very hostile environments. The traditions, record and indoctrination that are necessary parts of military training confirm the hon. Gentleman's argument.

As to the reserve service, I hope that civilian instructors—who may not have received the same training as the hon. Gentleman and one or two other Conservative Members—will not become reservists as an excuse for administrative convenience.

The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the Auxiliary Air Force. He will also acknowledge that the sergeant pilots of the Volunteer Reserve made what was perhaps a greater contribution in Fighter Command during the second world war.

I wish, however, that he had continued his historical analysis. There were those who would have threatened the independence of the Royal Air Force, but Trenchard convinced them that the RAF could police the empire very cheaply, and that it would be cheaper to have a few squadrons of biplanes patrolling Kurdistan or the Himalayan areas of the Indian subcontinent than to have large numbers of infantry—whether British or imperial troops—stationed there.

Without that, it is unlikely that the Air Force would have survived the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s. However, it did, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, we now have the oldest independent air force in the world. It is one of enormously high quality, to which the rest of the world looks with admiration. Is standing is probably higher abroad than it is in England. One reason for that was that, until the Minister's speech this afternoon, Government tributes to the Air Force over recent years have been somewhat grudging.

Although the debate so far has been forward-looking, we have all referred to the mistake that was made five or six years ago at the end of the cold war. All Governments in the west, including ours, reached out to grab the peace dividend because they thought that it meant there would be peace. Certainly, once the iron curtain had fallen and the Warsaw pact had disintegrated, there was no prospect of huge armies surging across the north German plain, the response to which was the Royal Air Force's principal obligation for most of the post-war period.

However, the end of the cold war and the grasping of the peace dividend was followed by an extremely large number of new commitments that presented new problems, anxieties and costs that may not have been anticipated. Ten years ago, the Royal Air Force had far fewer commitments than those to which a response has been given in the past 12 months.

The RAF has been operating in more locations during the past 12 months than it did at the height of the cold war. The Minister said that they were low-key commitments, and perhaps they were. They may also have been a great deal less comfortable and hospitable than those to which the service was accustomed during the cold war. Shrinking numbers of aircraft, squadrons and personnel have had to bear an increased burden.

It is all very well for the Minister to pay tribute to the RAF, and I welcome that, but the fact remains that the air crew, and the ground engineers and communication people who travel with them, spend an inordinate amount of time away from base and their wives and families. Recently, I saw a squadron diary showing how many weeks in the year the pilots, engineers and communication personnel spent away from base. It is not fair.

It is all very well to pay tribute to them for their dedication, but they pay a bitter price. It may be that the price they have paid is the reason why a substantial proportion of quite senior officers find it necessary to leave. The Air Force has lost some excellent people in the past few years, and we should ask why.

We are asking too much—not of them, as they are professionals, but of their families. They tend to be family men. The public image of an RAF pilot is a fresh-faced 19-year-old, but he is probably in his 30s, married with 2.1 children, and he likes to see his wife and children occasionally. More importantly, they want to see him. I trust that we will see a more positive and healthy approach from the Government.

Over the past few years, the Government have taken the lead in Europe's response to crisis. Perhaps they feel that, as a member of United Nations Security Council, we have to take the lead in accepting obligations and commitments although other wealthier members of the western alliance in Europe have been slow to offer a meaningful response. Perhaps they are incapable of offering one. If we are to accept those commitments, we have to speak a little more bluntly to some of our European colleagues about fair deals.

The hon. Member for Ruislip—Northwood has joined us on the delegation to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. He may recall the meeting at Church house a few months ago when we were discussing the future organisation of security in Europe. A number of delegations from other countries—left, right and centre politically—spoke about the need for adequate logistics, training and police and medical staff. I moved an amendment stating that, if they planned to discuss proper commitments and undertakings, they would have to have people capable of firing guns and serving at the sharp end of conflict. The amendment was defeated.

Our allies are quite happy for Britain to provide a large proportion of the troops currently serving in Bosnia. The hon. Gentleman may recall that, in April, when we were in Strasbourg, it was proposed that the IFOR troops should remain in Bosnia a great deal longer. I was asked to move a amendment to that effect, but the people who asked me to do so represented countries that had no personnel there.

I asked why I should expect my constituents to serve in Bosnia and expect Britain to provide a quarter of NATO troops, when they were not sending anyone at all. "We are behind you," they said. "Yes, I have noticed that," I replied, "and I shall not move the amendment." I did not do so. However, we may have to accept there will be an extension. That will give the British Government an opportunity to speak bluntly, but unfortunately they are not doing so.

On Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence addressed the WEU assembly in Paris. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), who has replaced me as leader of the Labour delegation because I retire at the next election, has persistently followed up the argument that I had been advancing for some years—along with hon. Members on both sides of the House—about breaches of sanctions in the former Yugoslavia.

About four years ago, the Italian Minister told a Conservative Member and me that the Council of Ministers had all the information about breaches of sanctions, but would not tells us, or do anything about them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hodge Hill has taken over that initiative, but we still have not learnt anything more. He raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Defence, who unfortunately is not here, but no doubt will hear about it later.

When he was asked why the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence had not replied to my hon. Friend's persistent pursuit of the matter, the Secretary of State's response in Paris was to blame the nationalised British Post Office. That is hardly the mature comment that one would have expected from him in such an environment.

I also endorse the point raised by the hon. Member for Ruislip—Northwood about the future equipment of the service being of the highest quality. We give our service men inordinately heavy tasks, and we ask a great deal of them. It is essential that they have the proper equipment. Much of the equipment is British or part-British, and it is superb, but the Air Force should not be seen merely as a customer.

If it is to be a customer, however, privatisation should not be taken so far that the Air Force lacks the capacity to be an intelligence customer. Last year, I asked the Minister to ensure that the Air Force retained sufficient capacity in its operations to be able to judge whether the taxpayer was getting a good bargain and to perceive whether the contractor was providing adequately for training—an important matter, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I have a number of questions. I do not want to speak too long, but may I ask the Minister, in his reply to the debate, not to overlook the future large aircraft. I went to a briefing across the road attended by other hon. Members, where the French advised us that it was our duty to buy the FLA. The committee of the WEU on which I serve went to Toulouse, where we were given a programme and a timetable for the development of the FLA. I made the following remark: "Your timetable shows the FLA entering Royal Air Force squadron service 18 months before it has its maiden flight." Their response was, "We do a great deal by simulators nowadays."

The fact remains that we were properly committed to replacing, as was necessary, at the earliest possible stage, the older Hercules with the C 130J. I spoke strongly in favour of that partial replacement, but the Government hit on what seemed a satisfactory compromise by replacing the older Hercules with the FLA.

Where, however, are we going now? Chirac seems likely to cancel the FLA. If we had done what the French had wanted, we would not have the C130Js, but would be waiting for the FLAs, which, even if they did replace the Hercules squadrons at Lyneham, would not do so for another 10 years. Meanwhile, the Hercules, which entered squadron service in 1964, bringing Britain back from its east of Suez policy, would have continued to serve long after it had reached its sell-by date.

I hope that the FLA will fly and that the Royal Air Force will be able to use it, but, even if it does, what will the Minister do about adequate heavy-lift capacity? What is going to lift the helicopters and all their appurtenances, which will be required in future regions of conflict in Africa, Europe, Montserrat or wherever the Minister may guess they might be? The Air Force will have to have such capacity. Europe may not be able to provide it, but it can provide the replacement air-to-air refuelling aircraft. There is no reason why the airbus could not be reasonably and economically converted to serve that purpose to replace the tankers currently in use by the air force.

I give this advice to the Minister. A year or so ago, I conducted—imperfectly, because, for one reason, of delays in some member states' response—an analysis of the capabilities of western European air forces. I found, for example, that the vast majority of western European air forces had no experience or ability in air-to-air refuelling, a singular omission; that many air forces had no all-weather-strike capacity, which is not acceptable if Europe is to provide properly for its security; that their capacity to undertake intelligence gathering and reconnaissance operations of the sort that the Sentry and Nimrod undertake was, in most cases, non-existent; that some of their pilots fly only when the weather is fine, during the day, perhaps after a good lunch; and that there is an inordinate number of different types of aircraft.

As ours is the most admired service, as we bear most of the burdens and as we serve as the model for and are admired by Europe—as the Minister has said, people come rushing from Europe to see how our contracting and hard-pressed service is operating—we are entitled to say, "Don't expect Britain to continue to bear burdens that you must share more frequently than you are doing at present."

If we do not say that, it will be unfair on the air crews and ground staff who serve them, who know very well that that is the position, but who are too discreet and too loyal to say it. We are imposing too much on them, which is not fair. It is time that the Government sought to ensure a much fairer deal in the responsibilities for air operations in the western alliance. Until that is achieved, we are entitled to feel aggrieved.

May I make one mischievous suggestion? The Government's current position with regard to Brussels and European negotiations is absurd. It is equivalent to a child taking its bat home because someone has bowled him out. However, I have sympathy with Conservative Members who think that we should show some criticism of the fact that one or two member states have been less helpful than they might have been; perhaps Germany is one of them.

As a tribute to the enormous sacrifices that were made in the history of the oldest independent air force in the world, and as a little reminder of the genuine independence that Britain displayed between 1940 and 1944, why not give Bomber Command the medal that it should have received after the second world war? Go back to negotiations, but make a little gesture. It would be much more sensible.

7.34 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). No one can deny that, in relation to the Royal Air Force, his heart and mind are in the right place, and we always welcome his contribution to the debates.

I remind the House that I have an interest. For many years, I have been a volunteer reserve pilot and instructor and I hold an honorary appointment. I have been thinking about the debate for some weeks, wondering what we would be talking about. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and I must have been thinking about similar things because I had begun to think about the period between the wars and how Lord Trenchard had laid down the foundations that led to the expansion in the late 1930s.

The lessons of the second world war are that control of the skies is a necessary objective. Who could ever forget the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, two capital ships that were lost because they had no air cover? The absence of air cover was critical and the lesson was brought home to us, if we needed it, that even men-of-war that were thought to be invincible were vulnerable to air attack. Who can ever forget the battle of Britain, a close-run thing? I could go on and on about that period, but I have made my point. We must therefore consider today's Royal Air Force against the evidence of history.

If we are to continue to have the broad range of capability, which is the task that Parliament has required the RAF to meet, again history will assist us. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood probably, I have been re-reading some books about the pre-war RAF and about the battle of Britain. Like most people of my generation, I have a library of such books and from time to time I return to them. Having read them, I asked myself: do we today have the ability to expand within, say, three years to defend United Kingdom air space against aggression from the continent?

People will say, "Who are the enemies?" but I remind them that in 1930 no one had heard of Hitler and, by 1940, in 10 short years, he had created the most massive military force known to man and had occupied most of Europe. In fact, in 1932, no one had heard of him. I pick on three years deliberately because the years 1936–39 were critical for the RAF and the year 1939–40 was vital to our survival.

So I ask the question: do we have the capacity to create a strike force capable of taking modern weapons deep into enemy territory? Could we create a modern equivalent of Bomber Harris's Bomber Command? Do we have the capacity today to create a transport and maritime capability, the modern equivalent of Transport and Coastal Command? More important probably, do we have a logistics and training capability to meet the demands of supplying front-line expansion capabilities? My concern is primarily directed towards our ability to expand logistics and training. If we fail in either or both of those sectors, front-line expansion will not take place.

My reading of the expansion years of the late 1930s is that the ability to produce and to maintain aircraft and spares was vital. Attrition losses in the early years of the war, particularly in France in the first year, required new equipment quickly and squadrons to be created to meet the demands of defending the skies of the United Kingdom.

Will one fast-jet training unit be capable of turning out the number of aircrew required if expansion is necessary in the circumstances that may evolve? The hon. Member for Wentworth and others reminded the House that the unexpected always happens. Will we have the capacity to train sufficient technical staff for the extra squadrons? I can envisage the Royal Air Force having the aircraft but empty seats, because it will be incapable of producing the required number of fast-jet pilots in time.

The present Chief of Air Staff and the Air Force Board are to be congratulated on following the example of Trenchard and learning the lessons of the pre-war years. I am sure that the present Chief of Air Staff would be the first to admit that there must be some risk in the way that financial pressures have forced the RAF to produce training structure logistics that may not expand as the service would wish in times of emergency.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) used the word "sustainability", and the combination of that in current circumstances with the ability to expand will ultimately determine whether or not policies decided and decisions taken now were wise. I heard that with some feeling because we often hear from people—sadly, some of them on the Opposition Benches—the nonsense that a defence review will solve the problem. All experience of such reviews is that they are designed to save money. If we are creating structures that are the direct result of financial pressures—the so-called peace dividend—heaven help us if we go down the route of a defence review designed to save more money, because that will mean cutting planned defence procurement. That is the only way to produce quick savings.

I am pleased with the actions of my hon. Friends the Ministers in respect of defence procurement. I welcome the upgrading of the Tornado F3, which was a wise and sensible decision that had the added advantage of protecting the vital Eurofighter 2000 programme, which we must do nothing to undermine. We are depending on that aircraft, and on it coming in on time. Can my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement give an assurance that decisions on the following programmes will be announced before the summer recess? [Interruption.] I pause while my hon. Friends have their collaborative chat, and I am happy that they should chat. The programmes to which I refer are the replacement maritime patrol aircraft, SR1236—the CASOM, and the SR1238 anti-armour weapon. May we expect decisions before the recess?

The first duty is to buy the maritime patrol aircraft that is right for the job. The second is to get it at the best possible competitive price—I do not argue with that. We must also consider UK involvement. Collaboration is a fact of life and not something that one can discard. In military aviation manufacturing, collaboration is not an option. No single company or country can today provide the high-cost, leading-edge, sophisticated and modern military equipment required to give our air force the edge that it needs. Purchasing decisions cannot ignore that factor. It is important to consider not only price but work share, future capability, the retention of a UK research and development and manufacturing capability, and the vital export potential and through-life costs.

It is nonsense for Members of Parliament and the Government to spend taxpayers' money on something that will not offer export potential. That is where collaboration is vital and important. Are we collaborating with countries whose markets will be open to us, or not? I commend my hon. Friends on the selection of the C130J, which was the right decision, as subsequent events have shown, because one should not be persuaded to buy a paper or political aircraft—aircrew do not like the idea of flying, either.

Whatever the pressure on my hon. Friend the Minister—and it will be huge—he should bear it in mind that the companies involved in all the runners for the maritime replacement aircraft should have a large UK content. It is also nonsense to say that, because a company is a leading fuselage manufacturer, it is the only choice—it is not. I hope that the replacement's specification and price will be carefully examined and that the RAF will get the right aircraft, which will have implications for sales world wide. Also, can my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give some idea when a decision on procuring the SRA1239 is likely to be made?

People tend to think of the Royal Air Force in terms of fast, noisy, low-flying jets. Sadly, that is often the only evidence the public have of an RAF presence. With that in mind, I congratulate my hon. Friends on sanctioning and agreeing the successful Red Arrows tour of the far east, which was one of the most valuable exercises in many decades. It had a huge impact and did enormous good for UK export potential.

Opposition Members mentioned the time that individuals must be away from their home base as a result of the overstretch faced in some areas—a critical factor in maintaining morale and professional standards at home and abroad. We should not be surprised if people have domestic problems if we continue to require them to be away for six months of each year.

Housing is another matter of concern, and answers can and should be found. It is important that we communicate effectively to the people who are affected so that they can clearly receive the message and understand what is happening. I believe that those at the highest levels of the RAF understand what the Government are trying to do, but I am not sure that people at the lower levels understand.

I welcome today's announcement on the RAF Valley contract. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood in suggesting that there should be a pilot scheme for sponsored reserves. I believe that sponsored reserves is the way to go forward. As a volunteer myself, I have always felt that the volunteers' value was not always properly understood by the Government or by the services. Given the opportunity and the training, volunteers are as professional as full-time people. The RAF Valley contract should be a good way to get the sponsored reserves moving.

I cannot forget that, in the immediate post-war years, people such as those from Airwork manned the reserve flying schools, with which I was associated. All the people from Airwork at those flying schools were reservists. Those were the days when the volunteer reserve was a very large organisation. I should like to see those manning levels restored through the auxiliaries. I therefore welcome the decision on the helicopter composite squadron at Benson, which is a move in the right direction.

I should now like to turn to a topic that is very close and dear to me. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will not be surprised to hear that I am going to mention something that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces did not mention in opening the debate—the cadets. The Air Training Corps, which currently has 37,000 cadets, not only provides training in citizenship, leadership, team work and many other attributes sought by potential employers; it also remains a valuable source of recruits for the RAF.

Recruiting is not one of the ATC's main objectives, but it is worth noting that the cadets who join the RAF not only have a lower wastage rate in training but remain in the service longer than those without Air Training Corps experience. Moreover, as the RAF significantly decreases its manpower and its geographical spread of bases, the Air Training Corps increasingly represents the only blue RAF uniform that the public ever see.

It is interesting to note that, according to the figures given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, by 1999 the service will be down to 52,200 people. The ATC, including the adults in uniform who are associated with it, will be nearly the same size. We will have a cadet force that is almost equal in size to its parent service. It is therefore important that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises, and agrees, that the air element of the Air Training Corps is the vital feature that distinguishes it from other organised youth activity, and that it is an important way in which to raise the RAF's profile in the public eye.

My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised to learn that I want to draw attention to volunteer gliding schools. There are problems with those because sites are becoming increasingly difficult to find. As the RAF shrinks and RAF stations decrease in number, we find it difficult to find sufficient sites for our 28 volunteer gliding schools. The situation is particularly difficult in north-east and south-east England. In some places we have entered into shared agreements with the Army and the Navy, by which they have taken over former RAF bases and shared the airfields with us.

I should like to make it clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that the Army and the Navy must realise that the volunteer reserve gliding units are a part of the RAF training machine, that airfields are for aeroplanes, gliders and other aircraft to fly from and that airfields are not meant for other things. It would be useful if the Army and the Navy—at local level, because there has never been any problem at the highest level—understood that.

I also ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement—I have already written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about this—to understand the need for additional Vigilant motor gliders, which will provide the flexibility that is necessary because of the lack of sites. I do not expect an answer today, but I ask the Minister to have a word with the Secretary of State about my bid for seven more Vigilant motor gliders. They are necessary because of the difficulty with sites.

We have found that fewer summer camp places are now available because of the reduction of RAF stations. It has therefore become increasingly necessary for us to find other ways in which to get the cadets to camp. I should like my hon. Friends the Ministers to realise that that problem must be examined in some depth. There may be new solutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) has a direct interest in air experience flying. We will be considering replacing the Bulldog aircraft, which is used for university air squadron flying and for the air cadet air experience flying. I hope that soon we can receive some answers on the replacement for the Bulldog. If my hon. Friend the Minister accepts—I am sure that he does—that the air element is the important element of the air cadets, Bulldogs and the replacement aircraft are important and should have a fairly high priority. As it is not an expensive project—as are the projects I mentioned earlier—I should think that, even with our tight budgets, we will find ways to replace those aircraft.

I always find it interesting to listen to debates on the RAF because, fortunately, there are still some hon. Members who have direct RAF experience. One of the great tragedies of the modern Parliament is that so few hon. Members who are elected to it now have direct experience of the military. We are blessed to have colleagues with direct experience of the military. We are also blessed to have such hon. Members as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has a keen and direct interest in the military. The RAF benefits from that.

The message that I should like the House to send out to the people in the RAF is that we care, that they are important and that we want to do the right things for them.

7.57 pm
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), who speaks with a very patriotic insight. My speech will be unashamedly constituency-oriented. When I heard the Minister's remarks about Normandy and about those years of crucial importance to the future of our nation, I was reminded that from 1940 the Vickers company built and operated a shadow factory in my constituency, where the Wellington and later the Lancaster bombers were made. My constituents' skills greatly helped the RAF in the war effort.

I will deal first with the future large aircraft. In my constituency, 2,200 plane makers make the wings of the airbus and they also want to make the wings of the FLA. One of the reasons I want them to be able to do so is that, in the past two and a half years, my constituents have lost some 2,000 jobs at Airbus, British Aerospace and Broughton, which has had a great impact on the local economy. If we were to make the wings for the FLA, it would be the icing on the very successful airbus cake. That is our hope and our plea.

The airbus activity is the linchpin of my constituency's economy, but it is also the linchpin of the Wirral area, Cheshire and the city of Chester. The airbus activity has meant that my constituency in north-east Wales has a reservoir of skills arguably unparalleled anywhere else in the country. I should like Ministers to acknowledge that the FLA project is crucial for the future of the whole industry. Do they comprehend the strategic importance of the aerospace industry itself?

I would itemise the industry's importance as follows: it represents sales of £10 billion a year and 2 per cent. of the nation's gross domestic product; three aerospace companies are among Britain's top five exporters; there are some 130,000 employees in this great industry and tens of thousands of people are indirectly employed; the industry has very competitive labour costs and, above all, it contributes about £2 billion per year to Britain's balance of trade.

No one could doubt that Britain's aerospace industry is truly world class—it is perhaps our last world-class industry in terms of skilled activity. I ask Ministers to ensure more Government support for this great industry. Will the Ministry of Defence use its undoubted weight to get positive Treasury backing? The industry is now in a state of flux on the mainland of Europe, so why should Britain not urgently seek to take the lead? The Ministry can help it to do that.

I should also like the Ministry to ensure that the Government give the aerospace industry a much bigger research and technology budget. That is an urgent requirement, as it is the seedcorn that will deliver the profits in the years ahead. Will the Ministry acknowledge that the aerospace industries of other European countries and of the United States have far bigger research budgets?

Are Ministers still committed to the FLA, and specifically to the 40 to 50 aircraft that it is mooted that the Government will buy? Are Ministers stressing to France and Germany the importance of the FLA project? I should like the Government, and especially Defence Ministers, to say that they have done everything possible to bring the project into being. Many of my constituents are dismayed at having to endure the lengthy delay in making the decision.

Are the Government using every diplomatic device and all possible pressure to persuade the French to make up their mind about the FLA? I very much want Defence Ministers to take the lead in the Government in putting more pressure on the French Government because I feel that the French interest, activity and approach is very weak—indeed, wimpish. It is up to our Ministers to use all their weight to ensure a positive outcome.

Having said all that, I must thank the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for being so accessible and courteous when I raised these matters with him, and specifically when he patiently received the deputation that I brought him in respect of the FLA project. I am most grateful to him. I now invite him to visit the Broughton factory, where he can see the making of the airbus wings. Were he to visit the factory, he would surely boast about the skills and successes of my constituents.

I also draw the Minister's attention and that of his colleagues to the chilling headline in the authoritative Financial Times earlier this week: Aerospace industry sees 30,000 job cuts". My constituents who work on the airbus were dismayed to hear of proposed cuts on that scale. Cuts were mooted for the whole aerospace industry, of course. I would argue that a successful FLA project would be helpful in the context of those cuts. Are Ministers anxious about the signposting of redundancies on such a scale?

My second constituency point relates to RAF Sealand. Of the 1,600 people working there, 1,300 are civilians. I believe that it is the best maintenance unit in western Europe. It has a fine team—flexible, co-operative, productive and successful—and it did not let the RAF fliers down in the Falklands war and the Gulf war. In a way, it received battle honours.

At present, RAF Sealand is under a cloud, and that cloud—to put it bluntly—is market testing. My constituents say that market testing is a despised phenomenon. It sits uneasily alongside the task of a maintenance unit. That task is, at the drop of a hat, to respond in an emergency to war and to look after the interests of our fliers. We simply do not like the prospect of market testing. My constituents say that market testing is in effect ensnaring a loyal work force into what they believe is an ideologically inspired experiment. We do not want it and we do not see the need for it.

I want to put it on record that RAF Sealand has demanned in considerable numbers over the years. It is a co-operative unit and very positive and innovative. I have also found it to be very responsive. Market testing and the failure of an in-house bid would be a very poor reward for being loyal and carrying out a patriotic duty.

My advice to Ministers is, if it works, don't fix it. My plea is that they make this part of Wales a market-testing-free zone. The deal that we are offering is this: if they take market testing away from RAF Sealand, we will continue to deliver the goods and to find the savings. I urge Ministers to place a moratorium on market testing. Why not kick it into touch?

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement was also accessible and courteous when he received my deputation from RAF Sealand. Equally speedily, he accepted my invitation to visit RAF Sealand. I express the thanks of those who work at RAF Sealand for the trouble that he took to see the base for himself. Perhaps I may therefore put a few questions to him on RAF Sealand.

Why was the deadline for bids to take over the work at RAF Sealand delayed yet again? That rankles at RAF Sealand. The leaders of the work force, who have been so loyal to the unit and have worked so hard on the in-house bid, believe that private contractors may be getting an unfair advantage by being allowed more time to gather information for their bids. As we see it, more time means a more competitive bid against those who have made the in-house bid in good faith. My constituents are wondering what answer would have been given if the in-house team had sought an extension. Suspicions have arisen and I draw them to the attention of the House in good faith.

Mr. Arbuthnot

In view of the detail of that question, I should like to answer it immediately. The reason why the tender was extended by five weeks was that more time was needed to answer bidders' formal questions and to provide them with up-to-date detailed Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations data, and to update the invitation to tender.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful to the Minister, as I am for his written answer on pretty well the same subject. However, suspicions remain, and it was worth making the point in the House.

The Minister might agree that the prize in the market-tested bidding is the maintenance and repair contracts. The big boys in play are GEC and Brown and Root. The fear back home at RAF Sealand is that there will be redundancies if either big company wins the contract. If the in-house bid fails, it is our sincere view that the Ministry of Defence will lose in the long run because the unit will not work as effectively as it does now.

It must be emphasised that the large predators bidding for the contracts at the expense of my constituents are bidding for profit. My loyal, patriotic and co-operative constituents at RAF Sealand want the in-house bid to win—for the sake of RAF Sealand, Wales, Britain, and ultimately, those brave and most professional aircrew.

Now that the Minister has visited RAF Sealand and gained a full understanding of the unit's complexities, and bearing in mind the difficulties with the recently contractorised Nimrod major servicing unit at RAF Kinloss, which follow major difficulties with the Airworks Tornado contract at RAF St. Athan, how can the Government remain convinced that the risks of a contractor operating the far more complex organisation of RAF Sealand are justified?

That is a genuine concern. On Deeside, we believe that the Government must take that into account. I know that the Government care about the future of the RAF. Do the Government agree that the taut but flexible contract that will be required to enable a contractor to operate RAF Sealand is unachievable in practice? We believe that it is. I express those views on behalf of my constituents.

I do not usually refer to the Daily Mail, but I shall do so in this debate. On 1 May, a large headline read: "Air defences down as Nimrods are grounded". The defence correspondent said: A quarter of the RAF's 24 Nimrod spy planes have been grounded because of a maintenance crisis. Repair and servicing was handed last year to a contractor as part of the Defence Ministry's programme of switching such work to the private sector to cut costs. But sources at Kinloss, Grampian, where most of the Nimrods are based, claim the contractor is dogged with problems ranging from a lack of expertise to poor morale. One said: 'It is a nightmare."' My constituents at RAF Sealand do not want that nightmare. They want, very proudly, to continue to deliver a fine service to the Government and the RAF. I speak on behalf of a work force who delivered during the Gulf and the Falklands wars and who know what they are talking about.

I very much hope that Ministers will give fair play to my constituents who have submitted the in-house bid, bearing in mind that the Ministry of Defence wants long-term success, not a short-term response to an ideologically motivated approach. After all the wonderfully co-operative work at RAF Sealand, it would be a terrible kick in the teeth if the in-house bid lost. My full support must go to the maintenance unit. I am sure that the RAF's high command is very proud of RAF Sealand and does not want market testing to lead to an outsider winning the contract. I certainly put on record my pride in that wonderful base.

I have received messages today from those who work at the unit in my constituency. They have noted that Brown and Root and others in the consortium have gained contracts at RAF Valley in Anglesey. Their message to me is that that will not improve the spirits of those who work at the unit. Mr. David Barratt took the trouble to telephone me at 7.50 pm to say that the bid at RAF Valley had been lost to the outside contractor. He said: I think this will have an effect on RAF Sealand. I know this councillor and I respect his concern, which I have put on the record on his behalf and on behalf of my constituents.

Having told the House of two thundering successes in my constituency—RAF Sealand and Airbus—I wish to refer briefly to a tragedy, an injustice and the loss of hundreds of jobs. Seven years ago, 1,200 skilled men and women made a world-class, two-engined executive passenger jet that could fly the Atlantic. So good was the product that a United States multinational, Raytheon, accepted an offer which could not be refused and bought the business for a song—just like that. Although jet production continues for the time being, half the original jobs have gone and the rest are scheduled to go soon. The jobs will be exported from my constituency to the United States, and that wonderful, world-leading aircraft will be made not in my constituency but in Wichita in Kansas—the home state of that powerful and influential politician, presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Mr. Mans

I have a certain sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I am slightly at a loss to understand what his remarks have to do with a debate on the RAF.

Mr. Jones

If the hon. Gentleman will listen for a few more seconds, I will show him why I am entirely in order. I invite him to make the same statement in my constituency in front of my Raytheon workers: he would need my protection. However, I know that he made it in the best sense and was not being mischievous. If he will listen, I will explain.

Before I so foolishly gave way to the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) —I note his origin—I was saying that Senator Bob Dole might perhaps have had a hand in the move. Later this year, the Raytheon jet makers in my constituency will suffer considerable job losses. I believe that they deserve better.

I thank the Minister of State for receiving a deputation of Raytheon workers. The Minister, who comes from the same party as the hon. Member for Wyre, gave a lot of his time to allow my constituents to make a passionate, well informed case for Britain's future as well as for their own. I thought that they made a wonderful case, and the Minister's reception of us was most helpful and hospitable.

I invite the Minister to my constituency once again, to visit the Raytheon plant, where he will be astonished and astounded—and very proud—to witness the skills of my constituents, who on current probabilities are soon to lose their jobs when the making of that wonderful machine moves for ever from Great Britain to the United States. That is madness. It is unjust and it is wrong. I know that the hon. Member for Wyre will now agree with me and will wish to show his support for the campaign that we are mounting.

I should like the Ministry of Defence to reward my excellent Raytheon work force with the contract to service the Hawker jets that the Ministry of Defence owns. The hon. Member for Wyre forgot that my constituents have made—and the Ministry of Defence has bought—25 to 30 of those machines, which I believe are now known as Dominie aircraft. As my constituents see the loss of their manufacturing jobs drawing ever nearer, they have had to ask themselves what they will do. They have made a fine business plan whereby the current manufacturing centre would become a service centre for the whole of Europe, for all the machines that the work force has made over the past quarter of a century and longer.

It is in the gift of the Ministry of Defence to award the service contract to Raytheon. If that happened, we could save many jobs and a presence would remain in Britain. The Government have admitted what I once described as the breakfast sale of the century—the sale of the Hawker jet to the United States—so what special help will they give? The work force have been so positive that they deserve a reward. They seek to make that plant a service centre for the whole of Europe, maintaining and servicing those fine machines, and that is a reasonable ambition for my constituents to have.

I have thrice thanked the Minister for his reception of our deputation, which was of great consequence for my area, and I hope that he will ponder my request carefully. So far, I am most grateful to him.

8.22 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I can claim neither personal military experience nor personal memories of the great days of the Royal Air Force in the 1940s, which for me must come alive through film and newsreel, or through the tales recounted by those honoured veterans who were there.

However, in my constituency there are many members of the Royal Air Force, ranging from the most junior ranks in the service to some of the most senior and decorated. At RAF Halton, just outside the village of Wendover, is the centre of the Royal Air Force's basic recruit training, and about 12 miles along the Chilterns, in the village of Naphill, lies RAF High Wycombe, which is the base of Strike Command and now also the home of the new Anglo-French group.

In the years since I was elected to the House, what has impressed me enormously is the tremendous pride that every member of the service, from the rawest recruit to the most senior air marshal, takes in the Royal Air Force. With that pride in the service goes a strong sense of duty to the nation that the RAF serves.

Last summer that was brought home to me strongly, when I had the honour to be invited to act as the reviewing officer of a parade of new recruits leaving RAF Halton after their basic training. Talking to those new members of the service—young men and women in their late teens or early twenties, and to their families—what struck me was the fact that they could draw on the history of the RAF, not as an arid museum of experience but as a living tradition. It was a history that gave them meaning, a sense of corporate identity, and a continuing sense of duty and purpose as they entered on their careers in the service.

There is no doubt that, for both the RAF bases in my constituency, the last couple of years have been times of great challenge and some difficulty. Some problems have been specific to each base, and others have been shared with the rest of the service as it has made its adjustments to the defence costs review.

At RAF Halton there has been a switch from technical training to basic recruit training. The base has also seen the reorganisation of the medical provision for the armed forces, which has led to the closure of the Princess Mary Royal Air Force hospital, and the reorganisation of dental services, which has also affected Halton. I hope that it will not be too long before Ministers will be able to resolve the uncertainty that still surrounds the future of the Princess Mary hospital site and the associated office space at the Halton base.

Various hon. Members have mentioned RAF quarters. For Halton the problem lies not with the policy change that is in train, but with the fact that question marks persisted for some years over the future of the base, until the decision was taken to relocate basic recruit training there. That meant that very little was spent on the buildings on the base, so there is now a substantial backlog of work, which I hope Ministers and senior RAF officers will ensure is tackled.

RAF High Wycombe has had to cope with the reorganisation of headquarters functions, and both stations have had to manage the problems associated with the overall reduction in RAF personnel and the contracting out of support services. Those policy decisions have certainly caused difficulties for my constituents, but I am sure that they were the right decisions.

Senior RAF officers who gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee only a few days ago said that the RAF's savings from the defence costs study would contribute about £300 million each year once the changes were implemented in full. At a time when not only the defence budget but all areas of Government spending are subject to scrutiny and to great pressure, it is clearly right for Ministers to look for every opportunity to make savings in administration and support services, so as to concentrate on providing our young men and women in the armed services with the best equipment and training, to enable them to do their job on behalf of the nation.

I would find some of the criticisms that Opposition Members have made during the debate slightly more compelling had they not coupled their critique of the Government for making savings or for seeking to contract out support services with additional demands for expenditure on defence procurement, or for taxpayers' support for defence industries. There is an inconsistency in the position of Opposition spokesmen, which Ministers have every right to expose.

I was glad that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces acknowledged that these necessary policy decisions have led to problems for individuals. Personal hopes have been disappointed and career ambitions frustrated, and far-reaching changes have been made to the organisational culture of many parts of the RAF. I therefore welcome his acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge facing the RAF in the next few years, and his tribute to the professionalism that the services are showing in tackling those changes and seeking to manage them in a way which deals as sensitively as possible with the real dilemmas and difficulties facing service men and women.

As the service comes through a period of turbulence, the duty lies with Ministers to demonstrate clearly to service men and women of all ranks that the RAF will continue to offer a fine career to new recruits and that it still has a central role to play in the United Kingdom's defence strategy. That cannot be done by exhortation alone, although exhortation and reassurance from Ministers—who must showing solidarity with the officers and men in the services—is important.

We must also think clearly about the future of the service in the post-cold war world. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the nature of future threats to the United Kingdom and the interests that our armed forces might be required to defend in various parts of the world. I therefore welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team have taken to enhance the role of the Western European Union in the Atlantic alliance.

I see no contradiction between a sceptical attitude towards some of the more extravagant ambitions of the European Union—although I could add a scepticism that would be recognised by my distant predecessor Edmund Burke, if not by one or two tabloid newspapers—with an equal desire to search for ways in which the countries of Europe can co-operate more effectively in the field of collective security.

Mr. Mans

I am interested in what my hon. Friend has to say about the WEU. Does he agree that, if we want European states to collaborate, we have a perfectly good way of doing so through NATO? The WEU is surely not the way forward.

Mr. Lidington

The Government are right to make it clear that NATO should remain the cornerstone of the western Atlantic alliance, but it is compatible with that principle for the Government also to try to strengthen the European pillar within that alliance. The recent White Paper on the intergovernmental conference proposed that we look for a strengthened role for the WEU as one way of giving effect to that policy.

I am pleased that we have seen some fruit from our efforts to woo France back into the main stream of the western alliance. It was a difficult courtship, conducted with the delicacy and the restraint appropriate to a Jane Austen novel. I am glad that we seem to have received a favourable response from Paris, although, as some Opposition Members have said, there is still a long way to go.

In addition to the importance that the Government rightly place on the Anglo-French relationship, I hope that they will have regard to the need to bring Germany more fully into the defensive arrangements of the Atlantic alliance. I know that there are differences between our approach and that of the current German Government, who hope to develop a defence role European Union. I personally do not think that that is desirable.

Speaking to younger German politicians, one realises that members of the Bundestag are quite rightly confident about their national identity, and take an understandable pride in the achievements of a democratic Germany during the past 50 years. They accept that one aspect of their maturity as an advanced democracy will be to play a more active role as a partner in western defence arrangements in the future. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government will be able to strengthen our relationship with Germany in the years to come.

8.35 pm
Mr. Hugh Bayley (York)

A characteristic of our debates on the armed forces is that many things are said on which there is agreement. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), who is well informed and speaks with great experience on these matters. As always, I learned something from listening to him. He said, rightly, that one of the things that the House must be concerned about is that relatively few Members entering the House for the first time have served in the armed forces.

The hon. Member for North Tayside said that that small number were supplemented by some hon. Members who take a particularly close interest in the armed forces, and mentioned in that context my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has a long-standing interest in the RAF. He forgot, however, that my hon. Friend has served in the RAF. I know that because I travel to and from Yorkshire with him frequently. As a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, he suggested to me that I might usefully spend some time in the scheme. I did so last year and the year before and, as someone who has not served in the armed forces, I learned a great deal from it.

I want to say some things that the Government may not agree with, but I base my remarks on what I have learnt during my visits to a considerable number of RAF bases, and I believe that this needs to be said. I am sorry to have to say it, but this has been a bad year for the RAF in terms of the number of aircraft that it has lost. In five months, the RAF and the Royal Navy have lost 11 aircraft, and two air crew from the RAF and two from the Royal Navy have lost their lives. That is a considerable number, and compares with the six aircraft lost by the RAF during the Gulf war.

In his opening speech, the Minister suggested that it was irresponsible to ask questions about what has been happening and why. I do not share that view. The House should be asking deep, serious and penetrating questions about these accidents. I do not intend to detain the House for too long, but we should remind ourselves of the aircraft that have been lost.

In January, two Tornado F3s collided in mid air in the middle of a training exercise. The following day, one of the attack GR1 Tornados was lost in Germany, and a Jaguar was lost that month as well. In February, a Hawk aircraft crashed on take-off at RAF Valley. The pilot, an experienced man, was killed. The press reports about that accident suggested that the reason for the crash may have been that the ailerons had been disconnected for servicing and had not been reconnected before the flight. I do not expect Ministers to comment on that until the air investigation report is published, and when it is published it will, of course, be made available to hon. Members in the Library.

Two Royal Navy Sea Harriers were lost, together with an RAF Harrier and another Tornado GR1 that month. Last month, a Tucano, from RAF Linton-on-Ouse near my constituency, crashed in Wetwang in Humberside and, last Monday, a Hawk aircraft was lost at an air display in Portugal.

The losses in the five months of this year have been twice the average rate of loss in the past four years. In his opening speech, the Minister, who is now in his place, said that those losses were nothing other than an unfortunate coincidence; that the loss of those aircraft and lives was simply bad luck. That could be the explanation, because accidents by their nature do not happen in a regular cycle.

The figures for air accidents are fickle and they go up and down. In 1991, the armed forces had a bad year and lost 20 aircraft, but those figures—in an especially bad year—showed a lower attrition rate than was suffered in the first five months of this year. Of course, five years ago, the armed forces had more aircraft in service than now.

Of the 11 aircraft that have been lost—nine RAF aircraft and two Royal Navy aircraft so far this year—10 were fast jets. In 1992, the Royal Air Force had 647 front-line fast jets in operational use or in in-use reserve. Now 580 fast jets are in use. In 1992, three fast jets were lost, or one for each four months of the year, but in 1996, so far, 10 fast jets have been lost, or two per month. The loss rate is eight times higher than in 1992.

It is right and acceptable for the Minister to hope that the high loss rate that we have had in recent months is just bad luck. I, too, hope that that is the cause. I hope that the loss rate will right itself in time and that it is an unfortunate statistical quirk, but it is irresponsible to assume that the only cause is bad luck that will right itself. We must consider the alternative explanations and discount them only when we have firm evidence that we should. When an accident happens, there is a thorough investigation and the reports of those investigations are placed in the Library. Each of those investigations considers a single accident.

I was not convinced, by the Minister's intervention in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), that sufficient attention is paid to trends from one accident to another and whether there are any common factors. My hon. Friend was right to say that a special inquiry should be set up to consider whether there are some common factors in the high loss rate.

I understand that none of the aircraft lost this year has been maintained by contractors. We have had evidence that contractors can fall down on the job. All hon. Members present will know about the Airworks problem when 18 Tornado aircraft were damaged, causing a repair bill of some £100 million. The same company damaged 11 Hercules aircraft. According to the Defence Select Committee's report of December last year, the company caused serious damage to the aircraft by cutting away load-bearing stringers, omitting fasteners, deviating from drawings and drilling holes in the air frames in the wrong places.

I shall give the House a long quotation—longer than I would normally use, so I ask for the House's forbearance—from the evidence given by Hunting plc to the Defence Select Ctte in its inquiry into market testing. Hunting plc said: Notwithstanding the policy that value for money and quality are now the key determinants in the award of a contract, practice suggests that the cheapest tender still wins. As a consequence, contract prices are being driven down to levels which will, in the final analysis, create longer term problems or possibly failures. There is already sufficient evidence to show that the lowest price bid is not always the most cost effective. The cost-cutting approach that contractors necessarily follow is copied by RAF engineering teams who seek to retain work in house, as my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) pointed out. That, after all, is the very intention and purpose of contractorisation—to consider whether the job is being done in house as cost-effectively as possible. But the House must ask at what point the competitor pressures and contract culture start to undermine standards of RAF engineering.

A second hypothesis has been put forward by certain hon. Members about a possible—I say no more than possible—cause for the current high incidence of aircraft loss. That is that the defence drawdown has reached a point at which it is beginning to compromise the operational effectiveness of the armed forces and the RAF in particular. I was sorry to hear the Minister suggest that to raise that issue is an irresponsible act by a few maverick Labour Members. The same fear has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and one of them is present tonight.

The Independent, on 28 February 1996, in a report on a meeting, stated: Fears that cuts in defence spending may be partly to blame for the string of crashes by RAF aircraft are to be raised with ministers by senior Conservative MPs. From the context of the article, I believe that one of those who attended that meeting, and who was also probably the provider of the information to the journalist, is here on the Conservative Benches tonight.

During my year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I became acutely aware of the enormous pressure on those serving in the Royal Air Force. Hon. Members have made that point already today and I will not dwell on it. The RAF is now smaller than at any time since the second world war. In March, 5,600 officers and men were made redundant from the RAF, although the RAF is now deployed in more places overseas in an operational role than at any time since the second world war. I will not list all the places but during my time on the parliamentary scheme I had the opportunity and privilege to visit the RAF detachments at Palermo, Gioia del Colle and Aviano to see what life was like and what the job—at least, the job at the base—entailed. I also observed the morale of the people involved in the front line on operational duties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) spoke about the huge pressure on front-line jet pilots, who spend perhaps 200 days a year away from home in either a front-line operational role or training; they are away from their homes and families. When a detachment is deployed, it is not just the air crew who go—engineering staff and ground crew provide back-up.

There are 450 RAF personnel at Gioia, and most of the air crew are deployed for a three-month period. One evening in the sergeant's mess—the bar in the big hotel where most of the NCOs were billeted—a young airman told me that his wife had given birth to a baby shortly after he had come out on deployment. He would not have an opportunity to go home to see his wife or baby for two months; it was impossible for him to go home for a weekend while on an operational assignment. Those who have served in the armed forces will know that that is forces' life, but it seems to me, as someone who has not served in the forces, a hard burden to bear.

However, if someone signs up to the armed forces, that is part of the deal. If someone is deployed away from home for a quarter of the year—that is the average—that is what he comes to expect. But as the pressure to be away on operational duties more frequently steps up, the pressure on the individual and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North said, on that person's family, increases too.

The problems of pressure are compounded by problems of job insecurity and lack of promotion prospects. At RAF Odiham I met an extremely able young aircraft engineer who had served in his rank for seven years. He was told that he had no prospect of promotion; in the past he would have been promoted two or three years earlier. That happens not just at NCO level, but at officer level. Hon. Members have talked of the numbers of middle-ranking officers leaving the RAF because there is no a career ahead of them if they stay. Morale is, to say the least, fragile.

On 25 February this year an RAF officer was quoted in The Observer as saying: We have a problem. Frankly some of our guys are just worn out. The RAF trains harder and flies better than any air force in the world. It is an incredibly valuable and prized national asset but it is currently being squeezed from both sides: its budget and its manpower are being cut while its operational obligations are increasing.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who is no longer in his place, reminded the House that NATO inspections of RAF bases have been suspended. Annual formal inspections of RAF bases have also been abandoned. Participation in the royal tournament has been reduced to a minimum because the resources are no longer there. That reflects the pincer pressure—the RAF has greater commitments and fewer resources. The strain is beginning to show. The House and the Government need to answer the question: are we now, and have we been, expecting and requiring the Royal Air Force to do too much with too little for too long?

8.53 pm
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) and pleased that he has had such a pleasant time with the RAF under the parliamentary scheme that we have with the armed forces. I shall not dwell too long on what he said, but I want to make one point in relation to the accidents that he mentioned.

During his time with the Air Force, the hon. Gentleman may not have picked up the fact that a continuous inquiry is being held into the relationships between different accidents, as well as near-accidents and incidents. Every such incident, near-accident and crash is looked at to see whether something has gone wrong which could affect other aircraft in that fleet or with that role. Therefore, the idea of another special inquiry is superfluous. I am confident that that exercise is continuing all the time. If there are lessons to be learned from the spate of accidents, they have already been learned or certainly will be learnt when the full findings of those accidents are made available in the normal way.

A number of other speakers tonight made a series of requests of my hon. Friend the Minister, and I shall start with a personal one. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) said, he is a member of the Royal Air Force Reserve, as I am, and a pilot. I have been personally affected by the changes in the Royal Air Force over the past two years. The aircraft that I have been flying for the past 19 years sadly left service with the RAF on 31 March after a period of 49 years, 10 and a half months. It was perhaps a little churlish of those in charge of the operation not to postpone that for an extra six weeks, to ensure that the aircraft had been in service and had flown for 50 years.

I have been forced in my middle age to learn to fly a new aeroplane. I was slightly worried by what my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside said about the possibility of the air experience flights and the university air squadrons having yet another new aircraft, as I can see myself having to prepare for that in a special way. All I ask of my hon. Friend the Minister is to let us have a little information about that as soon as possible, as I should like to know whether, in the near future, I shall be required to go through the exercise that I have been through over the past month yet again.

Compared with previous years, the RAF has, over the past year, been in the news a great deal. As we have heard, the news has not always been welcome, and it has not been an easy year for the RAF. What is sometimes forgotten is that, when politicians sign off decisions, service men have to implement them and do so for a considerable period. As Lord Craig said in the House of Lords on Monday in another debate, the devil is often in the detail.

It is a tribute to the service men of all three services, but particularly the RAF, as it is the subject of tonight's debate, that they have got on with the job and done what has been required of them in a year when manpower has been reducing rapidly and many non-core activities have been contractorised. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for North Tayside and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), and I worry that we might have gone a bit too far.

I very much want to see the new Valley contract operate properly and successfully. I am certain that the people employed will be first-class, but we need to look closely in the medium and long term to ensure that we have the balance right.

That also relates to flying training, for which an element of discipline is necessary. That has to be taught at some stage during training, but if there are too many civilian instructors, it will be harder to do so. We must be careful and analyse in detail the effects of the changes. One can easily add up the figures, save money on flying hours at the beginning of training and turn out a pilot with wings, and show that one has saved the taxpayer money in doing so, but one must then see whether that individual is as effective on his squadron as his predecessor was two or three years before who went through the previous system.

As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out. We may well have got it right. We may well have saved money. We may well have retained the operational effectiveness of which the Air Force is rightly proud, but I want squadron commanders in front-line air squadrons, front-line aircraft, to tell the Ministry of Defence how the new pilots who have been trained in the new ways are performing; whether they need further operational training to bring them up to the required standard; or whether they are achieving that standard just as quickly—I hope that they are—as their predecessors did a few years ago. Only then will we know whether the changes have been successful. I hope that they are, because we want to move forward, but we should not count our chickens just yet.

Also occurring this year—I hope that it is transitory and will not continue—is the changeover from manning by airmen to manning by contractors. Undoubtedly, gaps will be created as a result. We have already seen that. The RAF, quite rightly, has curtailed activities that are not essential to its front-line duties. I fully approve of that, as it is a reasonable response. It is a difficult year, and I look forward to the time when most of the contracts can be awarded and we can create more stability in the running of the armed forces, particularly the Royal Air Force.

Indeed, while suffering a cut of 42 per cent. in its strength over seven or eight years, the RAF now operates in more locations overseas than it did before the change. Its tasks are greater, while its resources are fewer. It is worth saying that the RAF has always had a tradition of getting on with the job and doing it well, and that is precisely what is happening this year in the units that I have visited, in which there is still the same professionalism and commitment to the job. A good illustration of that, which has already been mentioned, was the Red Arrows' highly successful trip around the world, which did much for the quality of the RAF, its professionalism and, indeed, the serviceability of the excellent Hawk aircraft they flew. They performed well, and I am certain that that will lead to many exports.

For the reforms that have taken place to bed down, it is important that we have the period of stability that we are always promised. I agree with a number of hon. Members, from both sides of the House, who said that we should look more closely at the proposal to sell off the married quarters estate. I shall not dwell on the matter. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) was right. I believe that we can gain what we need by getting rid of the vacant quarters and at the same time provide the necessary resources to upgrade quarters that are below standard, without having, at this stage at least, to go through the much larger operation of selling the whole estate, which is envisaged. In a slightly parochial sense, the RAF has always spent a bit more than the Army on its estate, with the result that it is likely that the proceeds used to upgrade the estate will go in the direction of the Army rather than the Air Force, although that is probably right if one is to bring all the quarters up to a particular level.

In talking about stability, I shall make one other point. The Labour party—I welcome this—tries to suggest that defence is an issue on which we can combine, that there should not be a diversity of view in any sense and that it is an issue on which we agree. I would like to see, in that spirit of bipartisanship, the Labour party drop the silly idea of a further defence review. I cannot think of anything more likely to create the very conditions that we and the Labour party least want to see.

A defence review would not promote stability. It would promote anxiety across the whole rank structure as to what would be the next change. If the Labour party is serious, it should say, "The armed forces are about the right size; we have got it about right. We shall not have a defence review—we shall have to make the odd change here or there, but we shall not have a review." I do not understand why those on the Labour Front Bench cannot make—or have not made—that commitment. I hope that they make that commitment later tonight.

I had planned on making a few remarks about air power. However, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—who is a former Guards officer—made a tremendously supportive speech about the use of air power, and I was encouraged by that. I am unable to add anything to what my hon. Friend said about the importance of air power in the future.

If aeroplanes and air forces are to carry out the tasks that they are asked to do, they must have the right weapons and platforms. Eurofighter is of vital importance to the future of the Royal Air Force. Despite some of the knocking copy that we have seen in the media, the programme is doing relatively well compared with previous programmes. The workshare arrangements seem to have been worked out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work that he has done in that area—he has ensured that the Germans understand that, if they buy fewer aircraft, they cannot expect the share of the work that they had in the past. That has been a highly successful outcome and I am pleased about the new management structures, which may even reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that the programme has some chance of succeeding in the future—he seems to think that it has not in the past.

Mr. Wilkinson

I have confidence in the aeroplane, but I query the need for a European Armaments Agency. That is a separate issue from the management of the aircraft.

Mr. Mans

I apologise to my hon. Friend.

I shall refer briefly to some of the other programmes. Many hon. Members have referred to the criteria for the Nimrod replacement. I acknowledge the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside and of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East on ensuring that we have the right aircraft.

We had a similar debate about 25 years ago, and the Royal Air Force decided on a pure jet solution. We have to ask why we want to change our minds. It raises a number of questions, such as whether the right decision was made all those years ago, to go for a particular concept, which was different from the concept that the Americans went for at that time. However, I noted that the Japanese Government recently said that their new maritime patrol aircraft should be a pure jet and not a turbo-prop.

I suggest caution in relation to export potential. We all want to export and to ensure that the aircraft that the RAF buys has export potential. However, we must not be beguiled by the idea that a huge number of orders will flow directly from a particular decision being made. Export potential is important, but it does not happen quite so soon and is not as lucrative as people make out when the original decision is made.

We need decisions on the two missiles that have already been mentioned today. I hope that those decisions—as well as the decision on the Nimrod replacement—will be made before the summer recess. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood about the missiles. I believe that there is a lot of sense in some of the collaboration that is taking place, provided that it can be done cost-effectively.

When it comes to the conventionally armed stand-off missile, we should look at the opportunities of moving it forward, so that we can get the benefits of a reduction in research and development expenditure when we combine with NATO and others to produce new systems.

I hope that we can find out exactly what the private finance initiative is that is associated with university air squadron and air experience flight aircraft. That is important, because it is a way of ensuring that, in future, cadets and students at universities get a bit more flying than they have had until now.

It is dangerous for politicians to make predictions, but I make one tonight about air power in all its facets. The Air Force has not gone through a very easy patch in the past year or so. The very basics of the use of air power have been challenged by, I suggest, many people ignorant of those matters, who have drawn completely the wrong conclusions. I was very pleased by the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood made on that subject.

I believe that, in future, air power will be more rather than less important. It allows one to project military force over great distances speedily. Technology is driving its capabilities forward very fast. In practice, politicians find it an effective way of responding to crises speedily—and with a minimum of casualties, which, although it is always important, is even more important in our multi-media age than it was previously.

I strongly believe, therefore, that despite the difficulties in the past year or two, the Royal Air Force has a great future.

9.11 pm
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I am very pleased to be able to speak for just a few minutes at the end of this important debate.

I was almost put off by the enormous experience of my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans), who have just spoken from their experience as serving RAF personnel. My experience of the Royal Air Force was confined to only 18 hours of dual flying in the university air squadron before the RAF decided that a 6 ft 5 in, substantially framed gentleman in a flying helmet and a Chipmunk were completely incompatible.

Over the years, my constituency has led me to speak frequently in the Army debate, the Royal Navy debate and the defence estimates debate, although infrequently in the Royal Air Force debate. We have had Chatham dockyard in my constituency, and we still have the Royal School of Military Engineering. I believe that the nearest RAF establishment was at RAF Detling, which is quite a long way outside the constituency, but we do have a substantial interest in the defence industry.

Shorts started its life in the Medway towns, and we still have one of our leading-edge technological firms in GEC-Marconi Avionics. There is scarcely a procurement project that does not involve GEC in some consortium or other, and I make no apologies for pushing its claims for the replacement maritime patrol aircraft. I think that it offers the only new aircraft among the three contenders. The idea of refurbishing a 25-year-old airframe appears highly speculative.

I have visited GEC. The company has an impressive simulator of its mission system avionics suite. I understand that the combination of the P3 aircraft with GEC avionics makes a formidable contender for that contract. I hope that, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement takes that difficult decision—which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre needs to be taken very soon—he will take into account the fact that that aircraft is likely to have a long service, and make up his mind as to which will be the best option for long service with economic through-life costs and so on, and not simply choose on the basis of a figure for initial purchase.

My final point concerns married quarters. A substantial garrison is situated in my constituency—although it is not a Royal Air Force establishment—comprising several married quarters. My constituency home backs on to married quarters. Service personnel in my constituency are worried that, although my hon. Friend wishes to ensure that those who are entitled to married quarters should continue to have that entitlement, little has been said about availability. Entitlement does not guarantee availability.

I am particularly worried that we may build in unnecessary rigidities in terms of married quarters. I am concerned about potential purchasers' proposals to dispose of married quarters at the time of renewal if they wish either to develop the site or to offer a comparable alternative site. I am worried that comparable sites may be remote from the establishment that the married quarters serve, which could affect the ability of wives and families to find work in the area. If the purchaser decides to develop a married quarters town site—there is such a site in my constituency—alternative provision some distance from that site would involve substantial hardship for families.

I believe that the proposal should be rethought. I have seen my hon. Friend's letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who is very interested in the issue and had hoped to participate in the debate. I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the matter and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to rethink the proposal to sell the entire stock.

I understand the problem caused by the 11,000 voids. Are those voids associated with closed establishments? Do they relate to married quarters that have no future use and could be sold off readily? Are they voids within established estates around existing and continuing garrisons, such as the one in my constituency? I should like answers to those questions. Some of those 11,000 voids could be sold in order to raise substantial capital, which would be sufficient to renovate some of the estates that I know are in bad shape. Some married quarters in the Medway towns are in a poor state and need capital spent on them. I question whether my right hon. and hon. Friends' proposal is the best way of raising the necessary capital.

9.17 pm
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that the standard and the quality of the speeches in today's debate has been very high. That is due in part to hon. Members' associations with the Royal Air Force. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) served in the RAF and my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley) spent some time with the RAF as part of the armed services scheme. The hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans) brought to the House a diversity and richness of experience that has made the debate particularly interesting.

In addition, a number of hon. Members have in their constituencies RAF stations or defence industries which employ many people. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces began the debate, quite correctly, by referring to the recent activities of the Royal Air Force in Bosnia—my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) gave a vivid account of his experiences in the former Yugoslavia—in the Gulf and in Northern Ireland. Since the unfortunate ending of the ceasefire, the RAF has played a very important role—as it always has—in preserving peace in the Province.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth, among others, said, the world has changed considerably in the past decade and defence cuts were inevitable. However, the scale has been pretty enormous. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, said that morale has inevitably suffered because of the cuts. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) spoke about turbulence in the Royal Air Force, and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood also mentioned those difficulties.

By the year 2000, the Royal Air Force will be down to 55,000 men and women. That represents a 38 per cent. reduction in manpower. I agree that defence is a matter of consensus, but at the last general election the Conservative manifesto stated: They"— that is the Labour party— would devastate our conventional forces by cuts of at least 27 per cent. which would lead to huge job losses. The Government have exceeded that.

The hon. Member for Wyre, who is not in his place, said that there was no need for another defence review. Tonight is not the time to go into the rights or wrongs of that, but some of the more devastating effects of the cuts might have been less devastating had there been a well thought-out defence review as we have suggested.

By March 1997, there will have been 8,600 redundancies in the Royal Air Force—the largest cut since the second world war. Many of those redundancies are compulsory and 5,000 of them occurred in the current year. Strike command is particularly affected, contributing the largest number at just over 3,000. My hon. Friends the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) all referred to the effect that that has on RAF stations up and down the country. Stations at Brize Norton, Lyneham, Brampton, St. Athan, Cranwell and others are due to lose considerable numbers of personnel. Some operational stations were better stocked in 1935 than they are in 1996.

I would like to give the House the first quote of the evening from the Royal Air Force News, which is a semi-official newspaper. This is what it said about the redundancies: Coupled with the fact that not all applications for redundancy have been accepted, this creates the seemingly anomalous situation in which some who want to go have been told they must stay while others who want to stay have been told they must go. That is not right. If, instead of Treasury-led cuts, there had been a proper review of our defence in terms of resources and matching commitments, it would have been a different story.

I should like to quote the hon. and learned Member for Fife, from last year's RAF debate.

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 of the numbers of personnel or the contracting out of support services that can be made".—[Official Report, 4 May 1995; Vol. 259, c. 491.] We all agree with those sentiments and a number of hon. Members referred to them this evening.

A year or two ago, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon publicly disagreed with the Treasury—and then had to publicly retract that disagreement—when the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who happens now to be the Secretary of State for Defence, was asking for cuts. The air chief marshal was particularly concerned about the comparison that was made—presumably by spin doctors—with the Israeli air force. He is reported as saying: the Israeli comparisons were deeply misleading. Whereas the Israeli Air Force was simply defending its own air space and could mobilise reserves overnight … the RAF had to maintain bases as far afield as the Falklands, Hong Kong, Northern Ireland and Germany plus a NATO headquarters. That is perfectly right. I sometimes wonder how such stories get about. Labour Members have mentioned and will mention again the advice that the Secretary of State for Defence receives. Perhaps some of these advisers were at last night's infamous party, and we wait for the Minister to give us some explanation of what happened there. I refer to Mr. David Hart, who, in The Spectator on 6 February 1993, attacked the RAF as top heavy, with too many command groups controlling too few front-line squadrons. I do not deny that all sorts of people can have views on the RAF, but in an article in The Observer in January this year, Mr. Hart was described as unelected, without the responsibilities of a civil servant and lacking any military experience. Mr Hart is a millionaire property developer, failed playwright and novelist. I hardly think that such people should be providing advice to the MOD and House of Commons.

I note that, in December, The Daily Telegraph, not normally a friend of my party, managed to discover a Christmas card sent out by Mr. Hart, on which he was dressed as a pilot. The newspaper said: For certain sections of the MoD, the sight of him tricked out as a fighter pilot is enough to curdle the bread sauce. People such as Mr. Hart should return to their previous professions and leave giving advice to people in the armed forces and the MOD who know what they are talking about.

Mr. Hart was probably responsible for initially advising that we should lease American second-hand airplanes—which eventually did not come—instead of updating Tornado F3s. I am delighted that hon. Members on both sides of the House were responsible, I hope, for changing the minds of the MOD and Ministers, who sensibly take no notice of people such as that.

We have talked a lot in the debate about the relationship between the defence industry and the MOD and procurement. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will make announcements on the replacement maritime patrol aircraft. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East and the hon. Members for North Tayside and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) have all referred to that.

Perhaps the Minister will make an announcement on the future large aircraft. My hon. Friends the Members for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) talked at some length and with great feeling about the FLA, and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside discussed its effect on his constituency, which I hope to visit fairly soon. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening. Has France announced that she will pull out of the programme? What will happen? Will he look into that? What pressures are there in the negotiations that are proceeding between ourselves and the French Government?

The right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who has now left the Chamber, talked about the relationship between procurement decisions and the defence industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West said, it is about time that we thought about that relationship. When the MOD makes decisions, they have enormous consequences for employment prospects, research and development and this country's manufacturing base. There is a unique relationship between the two. All hon. Members believe that that is the case.

My hon. Friend the Member for York in particular and the hon. Member for Wyre referred to the tragic and costly aeroplane crashes. I understand what the Minister was saying: that there is not necessarily a link between the 11 crashes. They have cost lives and nearly £200 million. We must consider the fact that that compares with an average annual loss of 14.2 aircraft between 1991 and 1995 and that the losses occurred in a front-line fleet that is approximately one third smaller than in 1991. I do not know whether training cuts or "over-stretch" have anything to do with it. I do know this. When the individual inquiries are opened, it will behove the Ministry of Defence to consider the incidents as one to discover whether there is a link. If there is, Ministers should tell the House what must be done. We cannot answer those questions.

My hon. Friends the Members for Warley, West and for Alyn and Deeside mentioned RAF St. Athan, which is also of interest to me as a Welsh Member of Parliament. We have been told that market testing is important to cut costs and ensure that money is properly spent. That may be true in some cases but has proved devastatingly wrong for St. Athan. The Minister has a duty to the House and the nation to say exactly how much money taxpayers must provide to pay for what has happened there.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to the Bett report in respect of married quarters. I assume that the House will be informed of the Government's response before the summer recess, because that report is of enormous importance to all the armed forces and especially to the RAF. Pensions are a significant and worrying issue. On 30 May, no fewer than five former Chiefs of the Defence Staff wrote to The Times to express their concern about service widows in particular. I hope that the Minister will take those views into account. As he knows, the value of the pension has dropped since 1980. The immediate pension for personnel leaving at age 40 has been justified by the need to compensate them for their low salary expectancy in civilian life.

Sexual harassment in the armed forces is of concern to many hon. Members. The Government should produce reliable figures and tackle the problem seriously if they are genuine about wanting to attract more women to the armed forces and to the RAF in particular. There is no excuse for harassment, which should be dealt with effectively. In 1995 there were 10 reported cases, four of them in the RAF. Those were only official complaints. No central record is kept. All complaints should be recorded. I have no doubt that many women are afraid to complain about harassment, so proper methods should be introduced to make it easier for women to express their concerns.

The hon. Members for Wyre and for Gillingham spoke of the significance of the RAF. The Chief of Air Staff has said that the Air Force is at the heart of national security. We all agree. We are familiar with the problems that change has brought and sympathise with personnel who have lost their jobs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North made an important point about sustainability. We must plan for not just the next two, three or five years but for decades ahead, which requires much thought and a proper defence review. The move to the contractorisation of support services, and to reducing stocks of spare parts and ammunition, carries elements of risk. There are other areas of concern.

We have not ended the review of the Royal Air Force or of the other armed services, because the world has changed and will undoubtedly continue to change. A number of hon. Members, including the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said that we live in a highly dangerous world—more dangerous in a way than in the days of the cold war. I believe that the United Kingdom's role will be centred on our international obligations as a member of the United Nations and, of course, as a key member of NATO. The RAF will play its important role in that, as it has done in the past.

It is significant that we are debating the RAF on the anniversary of D-day. It is significant that my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth talked about a medal for Bomber Command, because all hon. Members—particularly those of my generation—owe a great debt to all the men and women who served in the RAF in those years. We pay our warmest and most sincere tribute to them.

9.34 pm
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)

This has been a valuable debate. It has raised such a large number of issues of considerable importance that, inevitably, I shall not be able to deal with them all in the time available. I apologise for that. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forced or I will write to hon. Members whose points remain unanswered.

I have received a number of requests for contracts, for visits and for information. I think that the most delightful was the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) that he not be forced to retrain on a different aircraft. I have bad news for him, because the Bulldog aircraft is used to provide university air squadrons and air cadets with air experience flying. Earlier studies suggested that there were potential value-for-money benefits in replacing the Bulldog early. That process is now under way. It is a private finance initiative project, and we aim to secure the best value for money achievable through a negotiated contract.

Mr. Frank Cook

Is there any truth in the rumour that the Bulldogs will be replaced by Sopwith Camels?

Mr. Arbuthnot

That remains for negotiation.

We aim to place a contract in 1997, so it is likely that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre will have to retrain fairly soon. I suspect that he might like to do so in a Sopwith Camel, but he is a young man and I know that he will make it through without any difficulty.

We have heard some outstanding speeches in this debate, including those from my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), for Wyre and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope).

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) made a powerful speech, which we have come to expect from him as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. One of the important points he made was the value that this country receives from buying equipment—as we sometimes do—overseas and from industrial participation coming into this country, making use of outstanding British skills and providing jobs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside also raised the issue—as did the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury and for Gillingham—of the married quarters estate. I am happy to accept the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside to dispel the misapprehensions that surround that issue. He referred to a recent letter of mine, in which I said: Misapprehension number one. It has been suggested that recent rises in Married Quarter charges are somehow linked to the Sale of the married quarters estate, almost as though there were some 'hidden agenda' to discourage Service families from living in married quarters". That is absolutely not the case. We have no intention whatever of discouraging accompanied service. Obviously we will not force people to live in married quarters. We must recognise that many personnel have an understandable wish to live in their own homes, which we could not and should not sensibly try to frustrate. We are completely committed to the value of "the patch", to the value of cohesive communities and of mutual support, which do so much to foster the service ethos and to reduce unnecessary worry about families left behind when the services go overseas.

We are committed to providing the right quarters in the right places for service families who wish to exercise their entitlement. Charges for quarters—here I deal specifically with an issue that was very inappropriately raised by the hon. Member for Warley, West—are recommended not by the Ministry of Defence or by the Treasury but by the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay, a fully independent body whose independence should not be impugned or doubted.

Also in my letter I referred to the second misapprehension: It has been suggested that the Sale will lead to the break-up of Service communities, and the introduction into Service housing 'patches' of undesirable neighbours. That is not so. The real issue is how to reduce the high vacancy rate in MOD homes while at the same time keeping down social tensions, but that is going to be a challenge whatever happens to the estate.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre and for Gillingham referred to the possibility of selling the surplus homes we already have. I agree that, if it were possible to continue to pursue the policy that we have been pursuing for a number of years, and if it had the effect that we would all like, we would do so, but, unfortunately, that policy has proved unsuccessful.

The change that occupants of the married quarters estate can expect from the transfer that we are proposing is that significantly more money will go to the upgrading of quarters where standards are poor. Without the sale, of course we would try to find the money and do our best as far as the money would stretch, but only a sale can give us the sort of capital injection we need to get what we want within a reasonable time scale and without it being subject to the ordinary and inevitable pressures of the public spending settlement.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) asked about RAF Carlisle. I have two pieces of news for him. First, there is no market testing at RAF Carlisle. As he knows, we are closing the site progressively and looking for expressions of interest in it, but no decisions have been taken about the most appropriate means of disposal. Secondly, we have had no requests to store bonemeal at RAF Carlisle and, under current plans, no bonemeal is likely to be stored there.

Mr. Martlew

I am grateful for the Minister's remarks, and my constituents will be, too. However, is it not a fact that the MOD has said that it will withdraw from the joint venture and be subjecting the site to market testing? I have the minutes of the meeting in question if the Minister would like to see them.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I do not want to create any confusion in the hon. Gentleman's mind. Market testing is very different from asking for expressions of interest in the site. As I said just now, we have not made any decisions about the appropriate means of disposal of the site. When we start to make decisions, the hon. Gentleman will of course be one of the first to know.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) made an interesting speech. He suggested that defence was a matter of consensus. I have news for him, too: the consensus is that Labour cannot be trusted on defence. Labour is committed to a fundamental defence review. That is no more than a device to cloak the party's desire, driven by Back-Bench and conference pressure, to cut defence spending. A review would cause precisely the instability that the armed forces wish to and must avoid, which the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), in an excellent speech, said that he did not want.

At the end of the last decade, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) believed that all nuclear weapons should be removed from British territory. That position remains the gut feeling of the Labour party. Labour's problem is that defence is simply not one of its spending priorities. It would be its natural target for cuts to pay for things that are priorities.

One need only look at the letter from the Transport and General Workers Union, which has sponsored the right hon. Member for Sedgefield and one or two other prominent members of the shadow Cabinet. It calls for defence spending to be reduced from £22 billion to £4 billion. That reflects the genuine views of many Labour Members. I exempt from that accusation several Opposition Members who have spoken in this debate, including, for example, the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Stockton, North, who have always taken a very sensible view on defence. Unfortunately, that view is not shared by the majority of their party.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister accept that, year after year, the Labour party has made it clear that it is fully committed to membership of NATO? Does he also accept that over the past few years his party has sought to create division in the House of Commons in public party political utterances, but is desperately eager to present a united front when dealing with the Western European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and so on? He cannot have it both ways. The Government cannot have our co-operation when we are abroad in serious debate and expect to play silly party games of the sort that he has just indulged in.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The hon. Gentleman is a valiant defender of defence, but he is a rare voice in his party. He asks what was happening year after year, and I will tell him. Year after year, Labour party conferences called for cuts in defence spending and for the removal of nuclear weapons. That is what the Labour party believes in.

Mr. Spellar

As has been pointed out to Ministers a considerable number of times, their Government have been implementing those cuts. Indeed, the Minister has not yet answered the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) about the level of cuts in the RAF being greater than those that the Conservative party claimed at the last election would take place under Labour. That is the reality: the Government say one thing and do another.

Mr. Arbuthnot

That is nonsense. The problem is that the Labour party does not believe in defence. It believes in a number of different concepts, and defence comes at the end of the queue for spending. It might be a good idea if I moved on—[Interruption.] I think that I should move on to more sensible policies than those of the Labour party.

The House has taken the opportunity today to reaffirm the vital role played by the Royal Air Force in support of the United Kingdom's security interests. The Government are firmly committed to providing the men and women of the Royal Air Force and their civilian support with the means necessary to fulfil that role. There can be no question but that the effective use of air power continues to be vital in the changed strategic setting that we face.

We have moved away from planning for defence against the monolithic threat that the Warsaw pact represented. Now we need to be ready to respond to the many and varied risks to our security that might arise. It is necessary to consider only the crises to which our forces have reacted in recent years to realise the breadth of possible tasks.

In the Gulf, we were part of the largest allied operation since the second world war, which successfully liberated a friendly country from unprovoked aggression. In Bosnia, we worked to safeguard the supply of vital humanitarian aid to civilians caught up in a tragic civil war. We form the second largest contingent in the NATO force which ensures the peace.

At the same time, we have maintained our commitments to the defence of our territory and our presence in the dependent territories, as well as our continuing commitment to NATO. The withdrawal from Bruggen by 2002 will enable the RAF to make more effective use of time available for training and does not in any way imply a weakening of our commitment to the alliance.

The operations that I have mentioned are examples of the wide range of missions that the RAF of today carries out. The importance of different facets of air power has been clearly demonstrated and we must be prepared to ask the RAF to perform those and many other kinds of duties in the next few years and into the new century.

I should like to take this opportunity to record my personal gratitude to the personnel of 5 squadron at RAF Conningsby, who afforded me the privilege of taking a flight in a Tornado F3 just before Christmas. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East was right when he spoke about white knuckles. I was able to see for myself, when my eyes were not shut, the brilliance of our Air Force pilots, who are rightly respected the world over, and the formidable power of the F3 as an air defence fighter.

The importance of "Front Line First" was founded in the need to develop the right support structure for the new kinds of forces that we need for the 21st century. We are seeing a worldwide progression towards smaller but more capable forces. Quality is of ever-increasing importance as quantity reduces.

The reform of the RAF logistics community has meant enormous efficiency improvements and savings. New management systems building on best commercial practice have been effective in promoting better management of stocks, without compromising either safety or the RAF's ability to respond to contingencies.

The "Competing for Quality" programme has generated further efficiency improvements. Across the Air Force, more than £155 million-worth of business has been market-tested, generating £41 million of savings. That is crucial, because, by bearing down on the costs of support for the front line, we have managed to sustain increased investment in Air Force equipment within a stable defence budget.

We aim to identify, and realise, the full potential for improving long-term value for money in defence support by systematically exposing all RAF non-core activities to private sector involvement. Significant "Competing for Quality" programmes in the near future include that at RAF Sealand, which the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) mentioned, and that at RAF St. Athan. Both those programmes are proceeding well.

The Air Force has been active in pursuit of the opportunities offered by the private finance initiative. Many Air Force projects, at varying stages of maturity, have been identified as having potential for PFI. Those include the provision of simulators and associated training, and the replacement of the Bulldog elementary flying trainer, which I mentioned in connection with the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre. It was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside, who has such a valuable contribution to make in all matters concerning cadets. Other projects with private finance initiative potential include the provision of utilities at various RAF stations.

As a result of "Front Line First", CFQ, PFI and other initiatives—I am sorry about all those initials, Mr. Deputy Speaker: CFQ stands for "Competing for Quality"—we are now able to devote a greater share of our resources to providing the right modern equipment for the RAF's front line. By the end of the decade, Logistic Command's expenditure will fall from one third to one quarter of the RAF's budget, yet, as a result of efficiency improvements, we shall be able to continue to support a front line for which equipment expenditure is expected almost to double by the turn of the century. That is a remarkable achievement. The RAF will be smaller than in the past, but it will be prepared for 21st-century military combat.

The sheer breadth of the forward equipment programme demonstrates clearly our commitment to that vision of highly resourced, flexible and responsive air power. All areas of the RAF's front line will benefit from massive investment in fighting equipment, which will amount to nothing less than a technological revolution in the RAF's inventory.

Much has happened since the House last had a debate on the Royal Air Force. Important progress has been made on a number of major projects, including the Eurofighter, which several hon. Members have mentioned. Following upgrades, the first two development aircraft resumed flying in May 1995. Those were joined shortly afterwards by the third development aircraft, which is fitted with the EJ200 engine specially developed for Eurofighter. The flight test programme has now notched up over 160 sorties, steadily expanding the aircraft's performance envelope. Last month, the aircraft made its debut at a major international air show when it took part in the flying display in Berlin, and it is expected to appear at Farnborough later this year.

I announced on 5 March that we have decided to upgrade the weapons systems of the Tornado F3, and that was welcomed on both sides of the House. That programme will enable the aircraft to carry advanced short-range air-to-air missiles and advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, and will thus improve the F3's capability against modern airborne threats.

Also during the past year, we have signed a contract with GKN Westland for 22 Utility EH101 medium support helicopters for the RAF, and another with Boeing for 14 new-build Chinooks. Together with the programme to upgrade our existing Chinook fleet to HC2 standard, which has now been completed, those programmes will provide the RAF with a flexible and highly capable support helicopter force, which is vital for the support of joint operations.

The first Hercules C130J aircraft, 25 of which will be delivered to the UK from 1997 onwards, had a successful maiden flight in April this year. I listened with care to the interesting points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood about strategic lift and the C17. We have joined the United States production programme for an upgrade to the radar system of the E3D Sentry airborne early warning aircraft. This will ensure that the RAF maintains an effective early warning capability against modern aircraft and missiles. Within the tanker fleet, all but two of the VC10 aircraft undergoing conversion to the air-to-air refuelling role have now been delivered.

The programme to update 142 Tornado GR1 interdictor strike aircraft to GR4 standard is progressing well. This will greatly increase the aircraft's ability to prosecute its targets in all weathers, using new generation smart weapons. The first Tornado GR4 aircraft will enter service in 1998, and the aircraft will remain the UK's front line attack aircraft for another 20 years. We have also undertaken a programme to improve the capabilities of the Jaguar—a matter referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East—pending its replacement by Eurofighter in the next decade. That has involved giving the aircraft a thermal imaging and laser designation capability, together with certain enhancements to the aircraft's avionic systems. Twelve aircraft have been upgraded as part of the initial programme, and we expect the remainder of the long-term fleet to have completed their upgrade by 1998.

Of great importance in the near future are the competitions to provide the RAF with new air-launched, stand-off and anti-armour weapons. The conventionally armed stand-off weapon was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) in relation to the work by Shorts that is going into one of the contenders for that programme. These weapons will significantly enhance our capabilities against high-value infrastructure assets and modern armoured vehicles respectively. We expect to announce our decisions shortly.

In December last year, we issued an invitation to tender for the future medium-range air-to-air missile, which with the advanced short-range air-to-air missile will provide Eurofighter's key weapons for the air defence role. We also expect to announce shortly the winning bid in the competition to supply a replacement for the RAF's aging fleet of Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. [Interruption.] I say "shortly", because I have been asked whether the decision will be made before the recess. Unfortunately, I do not know when the recess will be. I shall address my inquiries to the Refreshment Department, which always seems to find out before Ministers.

The maritime aircraft proposal was referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves), for Wyre, for Romsey and Waterside, for Ruislip-Northwood, for Gillingham and for North Tayside. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside correctly said that the most important thing was to buy the right aircraft.

We have continued to work with industry and our partner nations within the future large aircraft programme to ensure that we can rejoin the project, provided that the conditions we set out in our announcement in December 1994 are met. That matter was mentioned by the hon. Members for Warley, West, for Wentworth and for Alyn and Deeside, as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre. We await clarification of the French position. It is not wimpish to do that, as the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside suggests. The French position is crucial to the future of the project.

Looking slightly further into the future, we are examining how we might best meet the requirement for an airborne stand-off radar system to support land-based operations. There are several significant decisions to be made in the near future. Expenditure on equipment for all three services as a proportion of the defence budget will rise over the next decade. This coincides with a period of change within the defence industrial sector itself, and will be of great benefit to British jobs and firms that rely on that sector. In our reply to the report of the joint inquiry by the Select Committees on Defence and on Trade and Industry, we gave several important pieces of evidence and I do not need to repeat them.

In answer to the thoughtful speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon, I agree that we need to collaborate more with Europe, but not at the expense of collaboration with the United States, which is an important partner.

The equipment programme that I have outlined displays clearly the Government's firm and lasting commitment to the Royal Air Force. We will ensure that RAF personnel are given the training, equipment and support that they need to do the job. The whole country can take pride in the Royal Air Force.

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