§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Carrington.]4.14 pm
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)
Madam Speaker, I very much welcome the opportunity to open this afternoon's debate on the Royal Air Force.
It would be inappropriate to open a debate on the RAF without taking the opportunity to pay tribute to the remarkable life and work of Sir Frank Whittle. Throughout his distinguished career in the Royal Air Force and subsequently, Sir Frank's vision and originality were an inspiring example to the service and to the aerospace world. Sir Frank was without doubt one of the giants of aviation. He will be particularly remembered for his invention of the jet engine, which he patented in 1930 when a flying officer of only 23 years of age. It was fitting that the memorial service to honour his life in November was marked by an RAF fly-past of four Tornados from No. 111 squadron, in which Sir Frank served in the 1920s.
On Tuesday, the Government announced that the permanent site for the joint services staff college was to be at Shrivenham. I mention that in this debate because of the importance of staff training to all three services, and especially to the RAF. This decision has rightly been warmly welcomed by all three services. The college will be a centre of military excellence, building on the world renown of its prestigious predecessors to maintain our global reputation for command and staff training.
The Shrivenham site will be ideal for our purposes, and it reflects well on the Government's private finance initiative that such an innovative solution has been put forward. There is, of course, regret at the closure of the existing colleges at Greenwich, Camberley and Bracknell, but I believe that its establishment on a green-field site will allow the new college to develop its own distinctive character and ethos.
Until the permanent college is ready for operation in September 1999, the joint services staff college will operate at interim sites—mainly Bracknell for all three services, where the college came into being on 1 January this year and where the first new course will start in September 1997. Although the facilities there will be temporary, they will be fit for the purpose. Significant efforts are currently being focused on providing the necessary accommodation and the syllabuses are being worked out to reflect the new joint training course.
The House may care to note the strong support that the Government have received from, among others, John Keegan—possibly the most distinguished of our defence commentators. Not known for mincing his words when he thinks we are doing the wrong thing, he has picked out some of the most crucial characteristics of both the JSSC as a concept and the Shrivenham solution. We believe that he is right and that it will transform the concept of general staff training. We believe that it will promise very high standards, much greater tri-service integration and an imaginative and highly relevant syllabus. I can do no better than describe our vision for the new JSSC and its permanent home as, in John Keegan's words, "a sensation."
1158 It is men such as Frank Whittle who have shaped the Royal Air Force into what it is today: a dynamic, thoroughly professional, forward looking, innovative service, capable of projecting air power around the globe. Before turning to the RAF's achievements since our last debate, I would like to say a few words about military power from the air—known to some as air power.
All three of our armed services possess a significant capability to conduct air power operations. Before I go on to talk about that, I should like to remind the House that, as Churchill said,Air power is the most difficult of all forms of military force to measure, or even to express in precise terms".That was true in 1940, and remains so today; it is a reflection of air power's myriad roles.
I should like to mention three aspects that I consider important. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is the ability, through control of the air, to conduct military operations free from attack by enemy air forces. From D-day to the Gulf, mastery of the air has been a key factor in the success of our armed forces in achieving their objectives, and one that no military planner can afford to ignore.
The second aspect of air power that I should like to touch on is the unique ability to project enormous destructive power swiftly, smashing an enemy's war-fighting capability. Modern air power embodies one of the most potent instruments of military force, capable of exacting unacceptable levels of punishment upon those unfortunate, or unwise, enough to have to experience its consequences.
We need look no further for a graphic example of those qualities than the war in the Gulf. Indeed, on this day six years ago, Royal Air Force Tornados and Buccaneers were engaged on operations as part of the great coalition over Iraq, attacking highway bridges on the Iraqi supply routes to Kuwait using laser-guided bombs. Meanwhile, other Tornado formations attacked airfields, training camps and power plants. Our Jaguars simultaneously sought out and attacked artillery positions. The effect on Saddam Hussein's war-fighting capability, in terms of matériel, communications and, crucially, morale, was totally devastating.
The precision and strength of air power find expression in the new strategic setting in which we exist today through the deterrence of aggressors and the enforcement of United Nations authority. It was air power, through the delivery of limited, precisely targeted force, that helped to bring the warring factions in the former Yugoslavia to the negotiating table in Dayton.
This day in 1933, Squadron Leader Gayford and Flight Lieutenant Nicholetts left RAF Cranwell in a long-range Fairy Aviation monoplane and flew non-stop to Walvis Bay, South West Africa. In so doing, they flew 5,431 miles in 57 hours and 25 minutes, establishing the world distance record. That then fantastic feat illustrates a third key aspect of air power: its reach.
Today, we exploit that capability in our support to peacekeeping, disaster relief, and humanitarian and military operations. The RAF has been to the fore in every recent military operation with which the United Kingdom has been associated. Its speed of deployment, reach and inherent flexibility make it ideally suited to react to the very broadest range of contingencies. In the fast-moving 1159 post-cold war world, the ability rapidly to deploy is essential if we are to remain a significant player on the world stage.
§ Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)
The Minister has been arguing about the efficacy of air power, which none of us would dispute. Why were the Government so reluctant to use this very impressive weapon in the Bosnian situation? Why were they so reluctant, when others were urging such actions upon us?
§ Mr. Soames
I saw the hon. Gentleman pregnant with question, and wondered when he would be delivered. It is a difficult question to answer. We were part of a United Nations operation that subsequently became a NATO operation, and there was a profound disagreement between the partners. With the sensitivity of its being a United Nations operation—a peacekeeping operation—the use of air power and bombs would have turned it over what was called the Mogadishu line, from peacekeeping to war fighting. It is a tribute to the timing of the decision that the operation passed off highly successfully and achieved precisely the stated objectives with the very precise, limited use of air power.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)
I follow the Minister's argument and support it strongly. Does he agree that a crucial element is surveillance and targeting capability, and that the ASTOR airborne stand-off radar programme will be instrumental in providing that for the Royal Air Force? Does he believe that the time limits set by the Department—I understand that a technical assessment was meant to be completed by the end of January—have been met and that the contract can be awarded by October? It is important to the RAF and is a priority to the Department, but it is also very important for jobs in Belfast and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Soames
The hon. Gentleman knows that we employ skilled and brilliant engineers to deal with the matter. Their man will be answering such questions later this evening. I am afraid that I cannot help.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the RAF's success also depends on the skills of the men in the cockpit, and that pilot training is of the utmost importance? Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of RAF Linton-on-Ouse in my constituency, which, sadly, will be in a neighbouring constituency after the general election? Can he give an update on progress on the replacement for the Bulldog aircraft for the university air squadron? Does he agree that the deployment of the Firefly aircraft in elementary flight training has already proved successful? Would not it make sense for the same aircraft to be used for all elementary training?
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend was good enough to warn me that he might bowl that ball at me. I am happy to confirm the importance of flying training. If it were not for flying training and the pilots—quite apart from the support services—nothing would happen. I pay warm tribute to the maintenance of the extraordinary quality of flying training, which is regarded all over the world as the 1160 best. I hope that he will allow me to write to him in detail about the new aeroplane. I am aware of his great interest, but the situation is one of shifting sands.
§ Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)
On aircrew training, my hon. Friend knows that Thomson Training and Simulation employs many people in Sussex, including some of my constituents. He also knows that it can provide aircrew training facilities for the RAF's new EH101 and Chinook helicopters. Is he aware that if the contract was awarded to Thomson in Britain, it would create 200 British jobs and provide a firm base for the export by Britain of high technology?
§ Mr. Soames
I am aware of the contract. Thomson is a company in my constituency, so I must be cautious. My hon. Friend will know what has been said by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who will be able to deal with the matter more dispassionately than I later this evening. The House will realise that I am well informed on procurement matters and always ready to engage in combat on such difficult questions. It is dark and lonely work, but someone has to do it.
Since I last addressed the House in such a debate, I have visited men and women of the RAF deployed to a number of overseas locations. In October, I visited the Operation Jural detachment at its new home at Prince Sultan air base 80 miles south of Riyadh to see the exceptional work of the RAF in monitoring Iraqi compliance with UN Security Council resolution 688. I was very impressed by what I saw, and the House should know that the Royal Air Force has conducted itself there, in difficult and adverse circumstances, in a thoroughly cheerful and professional way. It moved from a well-established base to a bare one the size of the Isle of Wight in the middle of the desert. The move was done well, without missing an hour's operational flying.
I also visited RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath, two of our largest bases in the United Kingdom, which Her Majesty's Government make available to the United States' visiting forces. I hope that the House will agree that it is appropriate, on the 50th anniversary of the United States Air Force, that I should pay tribute to the men and women of the United States Third Air Force based in this country. The United Kingdom has enjoyed a special relationship with the United States Air Force throughout its 50 years.
I now turn to current RAF operations. The RAF continues to provide constant and vital support to our operations and commitments throughout the world. It has been supporting peacekeeping operations in former Yugoslavia since the international community first became involved in the region. It played a vital role in the success of the IFOR operation and continues to provide full support to SFOR. Since 20 December last year, the RAF has flown in excess of 1,050 hours on a wide range of tasks in support of those operations.
The support helicopter force flies daily from bases in Bosnia and Croatia in support of our ground forces. The RAF transport fleet continues to make regular flights between the United Kingdom, Germany and theatre, maintaining vital lines of communication with our troops.
Two sentry aircraft, a Tristar and a Hercules, are based in Italy, providing, respectively, a surveillance capability, air-to-air refuelling and tactical transport. I wish to put on 1161 record our extreme gratitude to the Italian Government for giving us such excellent assistance, which permits our forces to operate from their bases much more easily. It is a reminder of the overarching importance of the friendships rooted in NATO.
This week, six Harriers from 3 Squadron, RAF Laarbruch, based at Gioia del Colle in Italy, are handing over to six Jaguar aircraft from 41 Squadron, RAF Coltishall. They will continue to provide offensive air support to SFOR and I have no doubt that they will provide admirable support to our troops on the ground in Bosnia.
As the House will be aware, the RAF has been operating very publicly in the skies over the middle east. The United Nations adopted Security Council Resolution 688 to stop Iraqi repression of its civilian population. Along with our coalition partners, we established no-fly zones over Iraq to monitor Saddam Hussein's compliance with that resolution. RAF Tornado GR1s based in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, supported by VC10 tanker aircraft and some 400 personnel, continue to play a vital part in the no-fly zone operations over northern and southern Iraq.
Our objective remains peace and stability in the region and the well-being of its people. Our participation in those operations have played a notable part in achieving that objective. I take this opportunity to update the House on recent developments relating to the northern no-fly zone. Aircraft patrolling the northern no-fly zone are based at Incirlik in Turkey by agreement with the Turkish Government. Coalition partners reviewed the operation last December against the background of changes caused by Iraq's attack on Irbil in September. It was agreed that air operations over northern Iraq must continue. The French, however, decided to withdraw from the operation on 26 December, but that does not affect the coalition's ability to patrol the no-fly zone and its tasks are now undertaken by the RAF. It was also decided that the operation should be renamed Northern Watch. Like Operation Provide Comfort before it, we believe that Operation Northern Watch continues to perform an essential purpose in deterring Iraqi repression and that it must continue. French participation in no-fly zone operations over southern Iraq continues.
Let me stress that we do not seek confrontation with Saddam Hussein. We believe that it is essential to maintain pressure on him to comply with all relevant Security Council resolutions. We shall continue to do that, both in the Security Council and through the coalition.
Hon. Members have been kept well informed of the Government's efforts to respond to the plight of Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire. My right hon. Friend dispatched a joint service reconnaissance party to the region by an RAF VC10 on 15 November last year and, five days later, an RAF Canberra PR9 photographic-reconnaissance aircraft from 39 Squadron was dispatched. In addition, some 40 support personnel were flown out by three Hercules aircraft from RAF Lyneham. The photographic material obtained from the deployment was vital in demonstrating that the number and movement of refugees was not as great as anticipated and, on the basis of that information, the dispatch of a multinational force was judged not to be appropriate.
The RAF personnel involved in the deployment—among them air crew, engineers, a photographic processing and interpretation team, members of the RAF 1162 police and a medic—are to be commended for conducting a demanding task in extremely exacting and difficult circumstances.
The RAF also contributes to the maintenance of our garrisons overseas. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State emphasised during his recent visit to the Falklands, the security of the islands remains one of the highest priorities of UK defence policy. The RAF element of the garrison plays a major role in ensuring that continued security.
We therefore continue to maintain Tornado F3 fighter aircraft supported by VC10 tankers in an air defence role. C-130 Hercules aircraft patrol the seas around the Falklands and the latest variant of the Rapier surface-to-air missile system operated by the Royal Air Force Regiment provides additional protection to the Mount Pleasant airfield complex. The House will also wish to pay tribute to the sterling work of the bi-weekly Tristar, which provides a critical link back to the UK for both the garrison and the islanders. Chinook helicopters are used to move men and supplies around the island and Sea King search and rescue helicopters provide a 24-hour search service.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
Now that the contract for maintaining the Tristar has gone to the United Arab Emirates, does the Minister still feel confident that the maintenance will be carried out as well as it was at Marshall's of Cambridge?
§ Mr. Soames
That is, if I may say so to a nice person, a singularly foolish question, because if we had not felt confident we would not have let the contract.
In Hong Kong, the RAF has continued to play an important role in demonstrating British sovereignty and supporting the Hong Kong civil authorities. For example, 28 Squadron has provided outstanding operation support for the Hong Kong garrison and, in particular, the anti-smuggling task force. The squadron has also supported the Hong Kong Government flying service in air-sea rescue and fire fighting and it will remain until shortly before the handing over of the territory at the end of June.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
As my hon. Friend will know, British Aerospace operates in my constituency and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Samlesbury only last Friday. Is it not right that, in all the operations mentioned by the Minister, we have not only the best pilots, the best engineers and the best back-up teams, but the best equipment? Does he agree that part of that best equipment will be the European fighter aircraft? Does he also agree that, if the Labour party carried out the threat contained in its 1993 conference decision to cut defence expenditure by £4.5 billion, that could jeopardise the European fighter aircraft—either the whole project could be cancelled, or the number of aircraft could be reduced from 230 to a minimal number?
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend, who is an extraordinarily doughty supporter of British Aerospace and of his constituents' interests, is quite right. There has been no response to the points he raised—indeed, one has to assume that all those major contracts go into the melting pot and are up for grabs, with grave potential 1163 consequences, not only for my hon. Friend's constituents, but for the Royal Air Force and the other fighting arms, whose security for the future is reflected in the orders that the Government place in summer.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
Lest he inadvertently mislead the nation as well as the House, let me tell the Minister that he is out of date. Last week, there was an immediate response to that question and I responded to it an hour ago on national television.
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Portillo)
Did the Labour leaders know?
§ Dr. Reid
From a sedentary position, the Secretary of State is asking whether I speak with the authority of my right hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) and for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). I assure him that a statement of that nature would not have been made without the full clearance of our Treasury spokesmen and our leader because Labour operates in a less chaotic way when making these decisions than do the Government.
§ Mr. Soames
All of us realise that the hon. Gentleman is a good man doing his best in a hopeless case and that was an unconvincing affirmation of a policy. As we all know, neither the shadow Chancellor nor the Leader of the Opposition have confirmed any of the contracts. All they and the shadow defence spokesman, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), whose absence we regret today, have been able to say—we have it in black and white—is that there would be a defence review and that the consequences of that review would be extremely painful. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I know perfectly well what that means and we also know the grave danger that that would pose to the interests of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and to the services. It merely confirms what the people of Britain have always known: that, as on many other matters, one cannot trust the Labour party on defence.
I shall now move on to a more elegant subject.
§ Mr. Soames
No, I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
In addition to its operational duties, the RAF participates in a wide range of exercises with our allies throughout the globe. Within Europe, the RAF has participated in two major NATO operations since July. During September and October 1996, we exercised the RAF's capability to deploy at short notice in response to an emerging crisis by participating in Exercise Dynamic Mix. Tornado F3 and Nimrod aircraft deployed using VC10 air-to-air refuelling aircraft, supported by Hercules C130s, which carried the ground crews and support staff to Akinci air base in Turkey. The exercise involved elements of the Ace Mobile Force (Land) with United States, Turkish, Italian, Belgian, Canadian, German and Dutch air forces.
Also in September, this time in the United Kingdom, Exercise Brilliant Invader took place. US F15, F18 and C130 aircraft, with Dutch F16s, participated with RAF 1164 Tornado GR1s, Harriers, Jaguars, Hawk, VC10, Tristar, Sea King and Harriers in a joint air defence and offensive air support training exercise. Participation in these exercises demonstrates in as realistic a way as we can our tangible support for the alliance. It affords invaluable practice in combined training, operating alongside air forces of other nations in often unfamiliar environments. That allows the RAF to practise the deployment, sustainment and recovery of our reaction forces declared to NATO.
I mentioned in June 1996 that the Franco-British air group had made excellent progress in improving the capabilities of our respective air forces to carry out combined operations. This process continues. In September 1996,16 RAF and 23 French Air Force aircraft participated in Exercise Volcano in eastern France. This was the first in a three-year programme under the auspices of the Franco-British air group. The second exercise is due to take place in June in the UK. This participation is a mark, not only of the great warmth of our bilateral relationship with France, but of our increasingly close working relationship in the defence field.
The RAF also participated in five major US exercises: four Red Flag exercises in Nevada from October to December and Cope Thunder, in Alaska, in July. Major exercises such as these provide the opportunity for UK aircrew and weapon systems to train side by side with US forces, using facilities not available on this side of the Atlantic.
Goose bay in Canada continues to provide fantastic flying training opportunities for our crews taking part in Exercise Western Vortex, with four deployments in the past six months.
In addition, our bilateral contacts with the countries of central and eastern Europe continue to expand through NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative and our own outreach programme. Last year, two Partnership for Peace exercises took place, Co-operative Chance in Hungary and Co-operative Bear in the United Kingdom. In addition, the UK/Polish bilateral exercise Uhlan Eagle was held in Poland, when 7th Armoured Brigade deployed, and involved elements of the support helicopter force. These were great successes, and they demonstrate the value of closer co-operation between NATO and the nations of the former Warsaw pact. We hope very much that the RAF will contribute to planned maritime and fast jet exercises later this year.
The Royal Air Force is also active in exercises outside Europe and NATO. Later this month, four RAF Harrier GR7s from No.1 (Fighter) Squadron, the world's oldest military flying unit, will embark on HMS Illustrious, off Muscat, to take part in operations with royal naval Sea Harriers of the Fleet Air Arm. That deployment will mark a significant increase in our nation's ability to project air power from the sea—a golden and vital asset for this country—and make a major contribution to joint operational capability, with the consequent substantial benefits for the joint rapid deployment force and the doctrines that are being developed.
We are also making a significant contribution to the five power defence arrangements Exercise Flying Fish off Malaysia in April—the first such joint air and maritime exercise. I am delighted to tell the House that the United Kingdom is providing the largest contribution to the exercise and our air element, many thousands of miles 1165 from home, will include 12 Tornados, two VC10 tankers, two Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and a Sentry early warning aircraft. That will provide an excellent opportunity to train with our allies from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as emphasising our continued commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, even after the handover of Hong Kong in June.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I am sure you know, the Red Arrows have also been active in the region. They had an extraordinarily successful year, displaying in the far east and Australia at the beginning of 1996 and in Indonesia in the summer. I am sure that the House will agree that the Red Arrows represent a wonderful advertisement for the skill of the Royal Air Force and the excellence of the United Kingdom defence industries.
The RAF's responsibilities are of course, not restricted—
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
The Minister will be aware that the Red Arrows fly the Hawk aircraft. There have been recent reports of cracks in that aircraft. Can he say a little about that problem and the steps that have been taken to remedy it?
§ Mr. Soames
The hon. Gentleman is correct that, in the course of routine servicing, a fault was detected. In the usual way, as these matters are, it was dealt with, and all others with aircraft of the same type and age were informed to check. That is standard procedure. The matter has been dealt with.
As I said, the obligations of the Royal Air Force are not restricted to overseas theatres. In Northern Ireland, the RAF continues to play an invaluable role in the support provided by all three services to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. About 1,100 RAF personnel are deployed in the Province, operating Chinook, Wessex and Puma helicopters, and an RAF field squadron continues to provide security at RAF Aldergrove. I believe that the whole House will wish to pay tribute to the role that the RAF has played over the years in Northern Ireland, where the skill of the pilots and the devotion and hard work of the support crews have created an extraordinarily successful mixture in providing that support. The RAF's contribution of trooping and resupply is vital logistical support to the Army and is undertaken in difficult and demanding circumstances, as anyone who has had the privilege of seeing them do it will know.
Search and rescue helicopters continue to provide emergency assistance to military and civilians alike: in 1996, more than 1,200 people were rescued. Always on stand-by, a Sea King helicopter crew were called out on Christmas day to rescue an injured walker from the Cairngorm mountains. Indeed, the enthusiasm of the search and rescue crews shone through when the flight at RAF Valley was dispatched following reports of a walker overdue on Mount Snowdon. Although the walker was located quickly he declined to be assisted, explaining that, as a Buddhist, he was attempting in vain to find peace and solitude on the mountain. [Laughter.] Ridiculous. Appalling suggestion. Wing Commander Walker?
Since the end of the cold war there has been a significant reduction in the number of unidentified aircraft entering our air space, so quick reaction alert scrambles have been required much less frequently. Nevertheless, a constant alert is maintained, and I thought that the House 1166 would like to know of an important development. In September, Flight Lieutenant Helen Gardiner of No. 43 Squadron, RAF Leuchars, became the first female crew member to complete a live quick reaction alert mission. With her navigator, Flight Lieutenant Martin Harris, she scrambled and intercepted a pair of Russian Air Force reconnaissance aircraft as they observed NATO shipping. The Russian aircraft were shadowed before they turned away to set a course for their home base.
Royal Air Force Hercules crews, with elements of the Royal Air Force Regiment, participated in an international air mobility competition in June and deserve full praise for winning the best international team, best Hercules wing and best airdrop wing awards.
In November, the Hercules crews of No. 47 Squadron received the Brackley memorial award from the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. That award is presented annually to service or civilian personnel who have made an outstanding contribution to aviation, and it recognises the critical role that No. 47 Squadron played in the development of air tactics during the humanitarian airlift into Sarajevo.
It is of great regret to me, to the Air Force Board and to everyone who works in the services and the Ministry of Defence, that such extraordinary achievements of great merit are so rarely picked up by the media, whose interest is only to feed on more disagreeable matters.
I know that the House will have shared my grave concern about the spate of aircraft accidents during the early part of last year. In all, 11 RAF aircraft crashed, with two aircrew, tragically, killed. As the Minister who would be one of those responsible for sending our people into operational circumstances, I know, as does everyone else involved, the cardinal importance of flight safety both to operational capability and to morale, and I and my colleagues on the Air Force Board need to know if there is—as some have feverishly suggested—any systemic cause. It is vital to find out why each crash occurred and what can be done to prevent any recurrence. I know that the House knows that the RAF takes such matters very seriously indeed. So do my right hon. Friend, his ministerial colleagues and all the others concerned.
Each accident is investigated in the most minute and scrupulous detail to identify its cause, so that lessons can be learnt to ensure that, if at all possible, the same thing never happens again. The causes of those accidents have proved to be diverse. Inquiries have revealed no common or fundamental problem in the way in which operations are conducted or supported. Similar clusters of accidents have occurred in the past—most recently the six Tornados lost in the summer of 1994—but those have not revealed any new trend.
Many statistics will no doubt be bandied about from time to time by those who have an interest in stirring up trouble, as evidence that there is a sinister organisational weakness behind the crashes. However, although those groupings of accidents cause intense speculation, our perfect statistical analysis over the year, and the RAF's rolling, thorough and meticulous analysis over many years, show that the RAF's overall accident rate continues to decline over time. No one can be complacent, and no one is complacent. I can assure the House that the Government will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to monitor the situation closely.
1167 Although people do not, as a matter of course, join the RAF in search of a quiet, stable life, there is no doubt that 1996 began with a period of significant but inevitable upheaval. Such turbulence and uncertainty clearly and understandably had an impact on the morale of those who were affected. That is inevitable during a period of change, but the uncertainty has been replaced by renewed confidence in the future. During my visits to RAF units, I have been continually impressed by the morale and forward-looking enthusiasm of all whom I have met.
That must in part be due to the Government's major commitment to invest in the future of the RAF, as characterised in July by my right hon. Friend's widely welcomed announcement of the largest equipment orders that the RAF has ever seen.
The rationalisation and restructuring programme that followed in the wake of the "Front Line First" and "Competing for Quality" initiatives has brought with it many challenges, difficulties and changes, which we do not seek to underestimate or deny. One of the most painful aspects was the need to reduce the RAF's trained uniform strength.
Last year I very much regretted having to report to the House that 8,300 redundancies had been necessary over the past and current financial years, although I am glad to say that fewer than 1,000 had been compulsory. All but some 2,500 of the total have now left the service, and the vast majority of the remainder will leave before April this year.
Although there will inevitably continue to be changes to the structure and organisation of the RAF over the coming year, RAF personnel can and do look forward to a period of greater stability underpinned by a large and expanding equipment programme.
As my hon. Friend will tell the House in greater detail this evening, the orders for Casom, Brimstone and a replacement for the Nimrod, together with the Eurofighter, represent a clear and unambiguous message from the Government to all members of the service: we are committed to providing them with the necessary resources and the best available equipment required to do their job.
The onset of a period of stability and the prospect of an exciting and rewarding future is good news for everyone in the service. Let me make it quite clear that we value the professionalism and expertise of the men and women of the RAF which has always been, and will continue to be, committed to offering excellent, exciting, rewarding, satisfying career opportunities for all those at all levels in the service.
I would like to say something about the important role played by the RAF reserve forces, and in particular, Royal Air Force volunteer reserve members called out in support of operations, supporting their regular colleagues in the UK, the former Yugoslavia, Italy and Turkey. They continue to provide invaluable support in the provision of intelligence, photographic interpretation and meteorological forecasts.
Last year I announced the decision to form a Royal Auxiliary Air Force support helicopter squadron at RAF Benson. Progress since then has been most encouraging. Media coverage created great interest, and the recruitment 1168 drive resulted in more than 1,300 applications being received. The squadron is now training to enable it to meet its operational role in supporting the RAF's helicopter support squadrons. The training is going well and an evaluation of the success of the concept will be made in May 1997.
I know of the importance that many hon. Members attach to the issue. I assure them that we greatly look forward to seeing the results of the evaluation, which may allow us to expand the concept to other roles.
It gives me great pleasure to report the success of the trials conducted on the Hercules aircraft and the Wessex helicopter to assess the feasibility of recruiting and training ex-regular volunteer reservist aircrew. Those trials provided valuable information in developing the concept of using reservists in a wider role.
The RAF intends to recruit 30 Hercules reservist aircrew and nine Puma reservist aircrew during 1997–98, and a further 15 Hercules aircrew and six Puma aircrew during 1998–99. Those volunteers will be employed as high-readiness reserves under the provisions of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, and will train and fly alongside regular RAF aircrew. The RAF also continues to examine the scope for increasing the use of reservist aircrew where feasible, including employment on other aircraft types. It is intended that reservist crews will undertake a limited training commitment of between 30 and 40 days a year and, following training, will fly Hercules and Puma aircraft on fully tasked missions alongside their regular colleagues. Those recruited will be former regular RAF aircrew, many of whom are currently employed by civil airlines. I hope that the House will welcome this exciting development.
The House will recall that, during the Third Reading of the Reserve Forces Bill on 20 May last year, I announced that the central staff post of director reserve forces and cadets would in future be filled by a reservist officer. I said then that the appointment would be subject to the availability of candidates of the right calibre.
I am delighted to inform the House that such an individual has been found. He is Brigadier Richard Holmes, at present Brigadier TA at land command headquarters in Salisbury.
Hon. Members will recall that I mentioned Brigadier Holmes during the debate last year. I touched on the excellent advice that we had received from him, as an example of the way in which the views of the reserves are heard in the Ministry of Defence.
Brigadier Holmes has been a member of the TA for more than 30 years. He is one of the many excellent people in the reserves and one of their most distinguished officers. I welcome him to his new post, and am confident that he will do an outstanding job on behalf of the reserve forces of all three services.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Can my hon. Friend confirm what he has told me in writing: that Brigadier Holmes, whom we warmly welcome to that important role, could eventually be replaced by a Royal Auxiliary Air Force officer or an officer from the Royal Naval Reserve—in other words, that it is a tri-service reservist appointment?
§ Mr. Soames
I am entirely happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend. Almost without exception, all central staff 1169 jobs in the Ministry of Defence are now tri-service jobs. It would be inappropriate if that were not the case. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that yesterday I visited the Fleet Air Arm at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, where I met a Royal Naval Reserve officer who is flying the Sea Harrier and who is a pilot on commercial aircraft. That works extremely well. We must ensure that those excellent men and women stay in the reserve forces and pull through, so that they continue to play a major role. There are those who undoubtedly have the ability to go on to hold the most senior ranks with great distinction.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
My hon. Friend knows how much I and many others welcome this appointment, not only because of the quality of the individual, but because it will allow the reserve forces to have a strong voice at the centre, and that will be a recognition of the increased contribution that they make to the country's defence in every aspect of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend has been a tremendous supporter of the reserve forces and I was grateful to him for his support throughout the passage of the Bill that led to the Reserve Forces Act 1996. As a former serving member of the Royal Air Force, he knows the contribution that the reserve forces can make, provided that they are properly equipped and trained and have a clear role. The appointment is an important signal to the reserve forces, and as I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), it is important to have such a man in that post. It will let the reserves see that they are truly valued and have a role to play, for example, in the one-army concept. They must have the most efficient and effective equipment for the roles that they will undertake. There is a balance to be struck between ensuring that they have a voice at the centre of decision making and ensuring that they are properly equipped and funded for training days.
The Air Cadet Force has been the subject of a great deal of excited speculation over recent weeks and I know that the Royal Air Force greatly values that successful force. I visited the air cadets in Hay wards Heath about 10 days ago, and I was immensely impressed, not just by the spirit of the young people who were taking part, but by their excellent turnout, their good bearing and steadiness on parade and their definite determination to put into it as much as they get out of it. They are an enormous credit to their service and to our country, as are all those who voluntarily give of their time for such work. That voluntary youth organisation provides many young people with a vital, unique opportunity to develop a wide range of personal qualities and skills such as leadership, self-respect, team work, responsibility and good citizenship while promoting a practical interest in aviation and the Royal Air Force.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)
Will the communications that we debated earlier in the context of the Territorial Army, the auxiliaries and the reserves apply to the volunteer officers and instructors in the Air Cadet Force? Does might right hon. Friend agree that they have to have a viable means of communicating their views, and can he assure the House that that is part of what is being studied?
§ Mr. Soames
There has never been any problem about the cadets or the reserves communicating their views to 1170 the Ministry of Defence. There has always been a responsive chain of command and it has always represented with clarity and boldness the views of cadets and reserve forces at the centre of the Ministry's deliberations. The problem is not so much that their views are not heard: it is about priorities. The cadet forces do a great deal of good for the young people who are involved in them, and they contribute greatly to the life of the country. In addition, it is pro bono work and what flows from it is good for the country as a whole. Their remarkable skills are developed through participation in a wide range of activities, including adventure training and training in community skills such as first aid, many of which lead to nationally recognised qualifications. The first-aid classes that I saw at Haywards Heath were outstanding. The young people who were engaged in them will be well equipped to deal with anything that may fall into their laps.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made plain, the Government strongly wish to encourage membership of the cadet forces. We hope that more young people will take the opportunity to participate in such worthwhile activities and we shall strongly encourage that. I do not mean to finish my speech in a disagreeable way, but I will. It is my unfortunate duty to draw to the attention of the House and, I hope, a wider audience the gross inconsistencies in what Labour has been saying about defence. It is plain that Labour is committed to a defence review. I am not surprised that the Opposition's Front-Bench spokesman on defence is not here.
§ Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)
I had intended to open my speech by saying that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the shadow spokesman on defence, greatly regrets that he cannot be here because he has a serious bout of flu. I am sure that, on reflection, the Minister would not have raised the matter as he did if he had been aware of that.
§ Mr. Soames
I most certainly would. It is an extraordinary excuse to say that he cannot be here because he has flu. It is absolutely ridiculous. Time after time, my right hon. and hon. Friends come here reeking with flu, falling down with it, and take their places. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he can be Secretary of State for Defence and not turn up because he has flu, he really has problems. The hon. Gentleman did not dare show his face, flu or no flu. [Interruption.] Opposition Members chunter away, but they know perfectly well that that is an unacceptable excuse. Anyway, I was not told beforehand.
Labour is committed to a defence review, and the only possible reason for that is to find ways to cut the defence budget. In a careful and well reasoned article last week, The Economist got it right when it stated that the result of a Labour defence review would be a smaller defence budget and perhaps withdrawal of the British Army from Germany. That is a significant statement, and the House and the nation need to take it on board. People want to know where the cuts will be made. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence asked for assurances that a list of defence equipment projects that we have announced and to which we are committed would be exempt from Labour's review. In a fairy tale response in The Daily Telegraph of attractive, gilded rhetoric without substance, the Leader of the Opposition gave no assurance that the equipment orders would be safe from Labour's defence review.
1171 Many of us read with utter disbelief that article by the Leader of the Opposition, a former fully paid-up member of CND. It was almost incredible and while Labour postures and poses with its completely unreal defence policy, it mocks the whole ethos of the armed forces with its left-wing obsessions which we know would come to the fore in the unlikely event of Labour ever being elected. Labour will never be able to understand that the armed forces need to be different. The speech by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) a few days ago was a fraud and a sham because, as it stands, Labour's defence policy consists of a succession of formulae that are designed to enable people who profoundly disagree to persuade themselves that they are in total agreement. It will not wash and the country will not buy it because ordinary people know, as Conservatives know, that Labour old or new does not care about defence.
§ Mr. Soames
The hon. Gentleman says that that is rubbish, but it is true because to Labour, defence is not a priority. Half the members of the Labour party are members of CND and are completely untrustworthy on defence. The concepts on which defence policy is made, and all the qualities that mark the services as being admirable, are wholly inimical to the politically correct nostrums and entirely contrary socialist left-wing beliefs. They are entirely alien to a socialist Labour party, old or new. Conservatives will never forget the spineless and craven folly of some current Opposition Members and their reckless and grotesque flirtation with CND and its fellow travellers. When it mattered, Labour bottled out and chucked in the sponge. If Labour had been in power in the 1980s, there would have been no cruise missiles and no Trident and there would have been serious consequences for our national security. The hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) may well squirm like a wounded squirrel. The hon. Gentleman's trial by fire is temporarily over until I unleash my hon. Friends upon him, with a judicious use of air power by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans).
I am glad to report to the House that the Royal Air Force is in good heart. It has carried through the reconstruction necessary to take it to the next century. It is training hard and is very busy with operations intended to preserve international peace and security, provide humanitarian aid, and advance the United Kingdom's legitimate interests. It enjoys the great respect of its peers around the world—I would hazard a guess that the Royal Air Force is the benchmark by which all other air forces are judged. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will describe in his closing speech, under this Government, it has a re-equipment programme that will maintain its position in years to come. We look forward to hearing what the hon. Member for Warley, West, to his shame, will say.
§ 5.9 pm
§ Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)
Mr. Deputy Speaker, unashamed and unabashed, I rise to respond to 50 minutes of uncharacteristically reasonable discourse from the Minister of State. I thought that I might have to cut out some of the more offensive parts of my speech, 1172 but fortunately he indulged in five minutes of bogus outrage at the end of his speech. One would never suspect that, having claimed in its last election manifesto that the Labour party would cut defence spending by 27 per cent., the Conservatives went on to cut it by 31 per cent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who is responsible for personnel matters, informs me that there as been a 38 per cent. reduction in Royal Air Force personnel. The Government spent £500 million in one year on redundancy payments in the forces and another £100 million on recruitment. They still cannot get their figures right, and the service is 5,000 troops under strength. Perhaps the Minister's bogus outrage is good cover, good camouflage and good deception tactics in an attempt to divert attention from the Government's shameful record.
In the more presentable part of his speech, the Minister correctly paid tribute on behalf of the House to the professionalism, dedication and effectiveness of the Royal Air Force. We join him in recognising its contribution to the security of our nation and to peace around the globe. We also join him in paying warm tribute to Sir Frank Whittle, whose career demonstrates the importance of innovation in engineering to the operation of a successful Air Force. I am pleased to see the Minister wearing his demob suit today, in a further tribute to Sir Frank.
In opening for the Opposition in last year's RAF debate on 6 June, I mentioned that it was the third and last of the services debates in that Session. Surprisingly, the batting order has been changed this year. We understand why the Government could not hold the Navy debate, after the comments by the Secretary of State for Defence about the royal yacht and the embarrassment that he caused the Government. We understand also why the Government could not hold the Army debate, because of the shortfall in troops that is particularly serious in that service.
However, that does not explain why this debate was rushed forward—especially since the annual RAF briefing for hon. Members from both Houses is scheduled to take place next Monday. Were Ministers concerned that the RAF would raise questions that they would find difficult to answer? As a result of this early debate, many of the issues that we raised last year remain pertinent and this debate may repeat several elements of the last one.
In some cases, events have moved on. Last July, through all-party pressure—I pay tribute to the efforts of hon. Members on both sides of the House—we managed to force announcements on Nimrod and the missile contracts. However, it was a close-run thing, involving a last-minute debate—which did not turn out exactly as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) had anticipated—a comprehensive clobbering of the hapless hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and a flustered eleventh hour appearance by the Leader of the House. The announcements nearly did not happen, and their handling suggests that Ministers have little comprehension of the cost to industry of unnecessary contract delays or the resulting damage to export prospects.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for giving way. While he is on the subject of damage to industry and the impact of new equipment on the RAF, will he give the House an absolutely straight answer tonight? Would a Labour Government include the future 1173 of Eurofighter in their defence review? Will the hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking that a Labour Government would not cancel Eurofighter—yes or no?
§ Mr. Spellar
I shall turn to Eurofighter in a moment. Does the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) believe that he is doing the Eurofighter cause any good by raising that question in Session after Session when Conservative Back Benchers have received comprehensive answers about it? He must understand that there are on-going debates in Germany, that fine decisions are being taken there, that difficulties are being faced, and that we may get a decision in March. In the light of those developments, does he think that it is helpful to try to generate confusion and uncertainty in the minds of our partners overseas?
It is now clear that this debate has been rushed forward for party political reasons. The hon. Gentleman is undermining the Eurofighter project and the national interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North responded to the Minister, who chose not to believe him—that is his right. My hon. Friend made clear our position on Eurofighter, and I shall clarify it further later. The hon. Gentleman must understand that he is not doing the industry any favours—unfortunately, he was not in the Chamber to hear the earlier exchange—by playing political games with the issue.
§ Mr. Mans
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must send the right messages to the Germans about the future of that important European project at this critical time. The Secretary of State for Defence has said that we wish to proceed to the production investment phase. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he could send a clear message to the Germans tonight by confirming that the Labour party would exclude Eurofighter from its defence review?
§ Mr. Spellar
The hon. Gentleman must accept that that issue was raised in the last two rounds of defence questions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and I responded to it. We agree that Eurofighter is vital if we are to meet the future requirements of our armed forces. That is why Labour has consistently backed the project, and why we recognise its importance for the future of our defence and our security needs in the 21st century. It is irresponsible for Conservative Members to try to create uncertainties in the electorate by attempting to undermine our position.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
The hon. Gentleman will know that the project is vital to my constituents who are involved in the production of European fighter aircraft. Will he assure them that those aircraft would not be part of any future Labour Government review, and that the 230 aircraft that have been ordered would not be scaled down at any time under a Labour Government?
§ Mr. Spellar
The hon. Gentleman recognises that the Government have reduced the number of aircraft from 250 to 232 Let me make it clear: we are committed to the programme as it stands currently. We will order Eurofighter, provided that there is continuing agreement 1174 about work share and financial arrangements which are acceptable to the British Government and to British industry.
§ Mr. Spellar
The hon. Lady must recognise that negotiations are currently proceeding with the German Government. That is the position of Ministers, and I have made clear the position of Her Majesty's Opposition who will take those decisions after the election.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)
No, the position is not clear. Would the hon. Gentleman exclude Eurofighter from a defence review—yes or no?
§ Mr. Spellar
The Minister is setting up Aunt Sallies and then being frightened by them. As he is aware, the issue may well arise before the defence review is completed. The question is therefore whether we will order Eurofighter when the decision must be taken, and I have given our response to that question. The Minister, quite wrongly, is creating an issue. The consequences of the position adopted by him and by other Conservative Members will be to encourage those in Germany who want to undermine Eurofighter, and they are playing a very serious game. They are playing that game not only over Eurofighter but over defence exports and British companies.
Some Conservative Back Benchers—to be fair to them—are making sterling efforts to reassure other countries that the scare stories being put around by the more irresponsible elements of the Conservative party are untrue. Those stories are undermining the British national interest, and they are desperate ploys by desperate men.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that his proposal for a review is causing instability in British industry? Does he not understand that?
§ Mr. Spellar
I do not, because it is not true. The matter is self-evidently a political ploy. We should now move on in this debate, because Conservative Members are obviously incapable of understanding our position, although I have expressed it in plain English. I have made our position on the Eurofighter clear in my statement, but that does not suit Conservative Members' party political purposes. It is a game played by those in a party which is so far behind in the opinion polls—[Interruption.] They are desperate to cling on to office, by their fingernails—[Interruption.] Those who work in the industry will fully understand their game.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. I have been very tolerant, especially with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). The Minister made a 55-minute speech and was given a reasonable hearing; the shadow Minister must be given the same.
§ Mr. Spellar
I had to go out of sequence to deal with that issue—which Conservative Members could not wait 1175 to raise, so that they could make their party political broadcast. The excitement of following their central office brief was obviously too much to resist.
Last year, the Nimrod orders and missile contracts were a close-run matter, and created problems for industry. This year it has happened again, in the collapse of the Bowman competition—which was important in itself, but also to some of our leading defence contractors. It provides a case study in the limitations of the Government's narrow views of the procurement process. As consolidation inevitably occurs in the industry, that view will increasingly hamper British industry, until there is a change of philosophy. Given this Administration's stubborn resistance to change and Conservative Members' antics in the past few minutes, however, such change will occur only with a change of Government.
This debate also provides us with an opportunity to revisit the sale of the married quarters estate. In his reply, perhaps the Minister will tell us how much rent the Government anticipate they will pay for those properties this financial year, and how much they project will be paid in future years. Perhaps he will also tell us their estimates for movements in the cost of assured shorthold tenancies—an indicator that will set future rent levels—and the impact of those on defence expenditure.
After this week's press reports, will the Minister also tell us how much purchasers will make from the sale of surplus properties, so that we can assess—albeit retrospectively—whether it was a good deal for Britain and for our armed forces. Specifically, was it a good deal for the RAF, which generally had a much better standard of property? It might be instructive if, in his reply, the Minister tells us how much will be spent this year on additional upgrading of the estate, and how much will go to the RAF portion of the estate?
We have touched on the Eurofighter issue, but we should tie it in with the safety issue, which the Minister mentioned earlier in his speech. As he is aware—he alluded to it in his speech—concern has already been expressed in earlier debates and in the Select Committee at the number of fast jet crashes, and at the consequent cost in aircraft and, tragically, in human life. On those occasions, hon. Members spoke of the need for an overall inquiry to assess whether there are systemic problems, rather than simply to continue examinations to determine the cause of individual crashes.
Concern over safety must have been increased by figures in an article published in this weekend's Scotland on Sunday, to which I have drawn the Minister's office's attention. The article compared the RAF with the United States air force, and showed that, in the period 1992–96, RAF serious accident rates per flying hour were 80 per cent. higher than the USAF's. I realise that such data must be handled and examined extremely carefully, and I fully accept the need to examine like for like, but I think that we owe it to our air crews and to our taxpayers to examine whether we are sufficiently up to date with modern risk management.
We all recognise the superb skills, professionalism and dedication of those who serve in the RAF, but we need to be assured that they are aware of the best possible 1176 techniques and that they are not overstretched. That is especially true, as the Minister said, when we are dealing with the role of air power in power projection.
§ Mr. Soames
Will the hon. Gentlemen clarify exactly what he means about risk management? How does he think that current risk management should be altered, and what action does he think that he would take?
§ Mr. Spellar
That question demonstrates precisely why I say that the Minister should examine the subject and consider an inquiry into it. I am not a professional airman, any more than I am a professional engineer, and neither is the Minister. However, if the US air force believes that it has achieved its lower accident rate because of the scope of its risk management, surely we should examine its practice.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
I trust that the hon. Gentleman is aware that almost every air force in the world comes to the United Kingdom to train and to learn how we deal with accidents. Surely that indicates that we know what we are about?
§ Mr. Spellar
Equally, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that if we can find ways in which to improve our record, we should do it. The Minister should not merely, in a cavalier fashion, disregard the proposal, which has been made not only by Opposition Members but, after hearing evidence from the RAF, by the Defence Select Committee. It is worth examining.
§ Mr. McWilliam
The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) is quite right. People come from all over the world to learn how we deal with accidents—after they have happened. In the Select Committee, we discussed how to stop accidents happening.
§ Mr. Colvin
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I should like to make one other point. One has to be careful about knocking copy from countries outside the United Kingdom, especially from the United States. I recall that when the Harrier, or AV8B, first went into service in the United States, there were many comments about a higher rate of crashes. The answer was quite simple: the aircraft was so popular with American pilots that they were flying it two and a half times more than they were flying their own aircraft.
§ Mr. Spellar
The figures that I quoted were to do with relative flying hours, and were therefore calculated on a ratio. I take the hon. Gentleman's point. As I said, we must be very careful with the data. We must examine the data and ensure that we are comparing like with like, but we should not disregard it. It has been obvious throughout the Minister's ministerial career that he is not interested in data or in evidence, whether it is on BSE or on matters with which he now deals. Evidence is not his strong point, although bluster and bravado certainly are.
1177 The Minister, like the rest of us, will have seen press reports on the options for airborne heavy lift, and we all know that the Defence Select Committee is currently considering the entire matter of heavy lift. The Statement on the Defence Estimates states: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.Only last month, the Defence Secretary reaffirmed thatall three countries, including ourselves, have expressed great interest in the Future Large Aircraft.We also understand that the current aim is to encourage Airbus to design and build a suitable military transport aircraft. Indeed, it is widely believed in the industry that the criteria set by the Secretary of State in December 1994 as preconditions for Britain entering the programme have largely been met by the Airbus industrial partners and Alenia.
Will the Minister explain the current thinking on the need for a British and European capability for strategic airlift compared with continuing dependence on the US air force? If not, how does he envisage procuring or leasing the aircraft, and what are the implications for the European aircraft industry and international sales?
While dealing with new projects, will the Minister comment on the ASTOR programme, a matter raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), which, with the prospect of NATO-wide procurement, has considerable export implications? Will he tell us when he expects a decision, or at least an interim announcement, to be made on that programme?
We all recognise the importance of exports to our defence industry. The Opposition greatly welcome the recently announced success of our defence industry in cornering a quarter of the world's defence market last year. It is a tribute to the innovative capacity of the companies involved and the skills of their work force and, let us be frank, the involvement of the Defence Export Services Organisation—DESO—and, on a number of occasions, of Ministers.
The main concern is how much of that success depends on research and development work that was undertaken 10, 15 or even 20 years ago. We must be concerned about whether a similar programme is being carried out now and backed by the Government to ensure a similar pattern of success in years to come. We must also look to broaden our markets beyond the one very important customer, which is the key to so much of our export achievement. These are exports not only of equipment, which tends to make the headlines, but of many services.
As I visit defence plants around the country, sometimes stalked by the Secretary of State who turns up the week before, I hear endlessly about the difficulties of getting skilled and qualified workers. Those we have are recognised as world class but we must build on that strength, not dissipate it.
We must also realise how the lay-offs and redundancies of the last few years have scarred the work force. We recognise that across the world the aerospace industry and the forces have faced the problems of adjustment to the end of the cold war. However, those affected have to be sure that the people in charge have used their best endeavours to ease the pain. I am not sure that the work force or the management at Marshall's of Cambridge will feel very warmly about the circumstances in which they 1178 lost the TriStar repair contract. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) will, I hope, be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to deal with the situation in more depth. In any event, I should like the Minister to say how much he is saving by the change. When did Gulf Air enter the competition? Who will bear the cost of flying the TriStars to the Gulf? What assessment has he made of the effect on surge capability? Suffice to say, we expect, and receive, long-term loyalty, commitment and service from our contractors. The Ministry of Defence should recognise that that needs to be reciprocated—loyalty is a two-way street.
While we are considering matters of confusion, will the Minister update the House on the transfer of air traffic control from West Drayton? How much did the MOD estimate that the transfer would cost, what was the actual potential cost, why was the contract not procured as a whole, and what adjustments will have to be made to military procedures to accommodate the move from West Drayton now that the original proposals cannot be implemented?
The Minister mentioned the Joint Service Command and Staff college at the beginning of his speech, and although his comments about Shrivenham may or may not be true, I was surprised that it took the MOD so long to come to its conclusion. If it is such an excellent and possibly even a self-evident conclusion, why did it take so long to reach it? Perhaps the Select Committee on Defence or the Public Accounts Committee would like to examine the catalogue of events.
In reply to a written question in March 1995, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that all the responses to the consultation process hadreceived the most careful and sympathetic scrutiny, and I have thoroughly reviewed the costings associated with our proposal"—
§ Mr. Spellar
Contrary to what my hon. Friend may believe, it was not Shrivenham. He is anticipating my next point.
The Minister's response continued:no significant arguments have emerged, nor have any new suggestions been made which have caused us to alter our original proposals. The costings continue to demonstrate that Camberley is the most cost effective option.I can therefore confirm that we shall establish the Joint Service Command and Staff college at Camberley, and that we plan to open it and close the colleges at Bracknell and Greenwich in late 1997."—[Official Report, 30 March 1995; Vol. 257. c. 744.]We now come to February 1996. In reply to a question from a Conservative Back Bencher—one therefore presumes that the Government wanted to give this information—the Minister said:We intend to dispose of the Bracknell site by the end of 1999.The work so far has shown that Camberley is the most cost-effective and appropriate Ministry of Defence site for the college."[Official Report, 6 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 169.]By 12 February, however, there was a slight warning rattle for Camberley. In response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the Minister said:the conclusion that Camberley is the most cost-effective and appropriate of the sites examined remains robust.1179 The word "robust" may enter the political annals as a warning sign, alongside the word "unassailable" when applied to Chancellors—or, since Tuesday, is it now "infallible"? A similar word I found in the defence estimates was the word "challenging" in the context of a completion date of Project Horizon—as in, "We always thought that the date 2002 was challenging." That word is another warning sign to which colleagues should be alert.
The Minister's same answer of 12 February continued:We have examined Queen Elizabeth Park barracks at Guildford and the royal military academy Sandhurst as possible options for an interim site for the JSCSC as well as split site options, but work to date indicates that RAF Bracknell is likely to be the most appropriate and cost-effective temporary site."—[Official Report, 12 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 443.]That answer was also rather instructive on how much it is all costing. I shall not bore hon. Members with the minor details, but the answer states that detailed work to develop JSCSC proposals at Camberley is costing £328,000. There is no mention of Shrivenham.
On 2 May 1996, the Minister said in reply to a written question that work remained on schedule for the new Joint Service Command and Staff collegeto open at Bracknell in September 1997 and immediate next steps include formal planning consultation with the local authority."—[Official Report, 2 May 1996; Vol. 276, c. 579.]It refers later to disposal plans.
Then, out of the blue, came an answer to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) to the effect that the college will be at Shrivenham. If that is the case, why have we had all the arguments about Greenwich, Camberley and Bracknell and the suggestions, made by hon. Members who know the situation better than I, about a joint site at Bracknell and Camberley? How much have we spent on this whole fiasco?
It has been a saga of incompetence, although one would never have known it from the Minister's introduction to the debate. However, it is clear from the texts that I have read out that no one had a clue. It was clear when my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) was detailing various problems; it was clear during the debates on the Armed Forces Act 1996; and it is even clearer now. Perhaps the Minister who is to reply to the debate can give a better explanation for this sorry string of events.
We have mentioned some of the ploys that are surfacing in the hectic lead-in to the general election. Indeed, the Minister referred to the leak about a massive expansion of the cadet force. I hope that he can give a clearer account of the Government's intentions, but the way the issue has been dealt with is rather unfortunate. The general view in the House is that the cadet force performs a valuable role for the services and for society as a whole. Indeed, I thought that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces spoke movingly about that, but wild-eyed £1 billion schemes tend to detract from proposals for sensible expansion. I must say that some of the claimed merits of the cadet force that were trumpeted in the press seem slightly over-exaggerated to those of us who were in the CCF. It was good fun and good experience—
§ Mr. Bill Walker
I trust that the hon. Gentleman understands that the CCF is a tiny part of the cadet 1180 organisation. The Air Training Corps, for example, has squadrons throughout the community which could be expanded without any of the difficulties that he and others may foresee.
§ Mr. Spellar
As I rightly indicated, we support a reasonable, sensible and steady expansion, but not the attempt to have a cadet force in every school. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise from his experience, the forces would not be able to handle such an expansion effectively, and nor would they wish to do so. We should not overdo the merits of the cadet forces, but we should recognise the contributions that the cadet forces can make, in their various manifestations, to forces intake and to society.
We should also recognise that the cadet force is not the only way in which young people, especially young men, can gain experience and make the transition into the adult world. Another route is the tradition of apprenticeships which has taken a battering from Government policies, especially in the MOD where so much work has been outsourced. No attempt has been made to maintain the level of apprenticeships or to guarantee the skills of the work force of the future. The result is a country with a shortage of skilled workers and an army of disaffected youth, but they will have their say soon.
§ Mr. Mans
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the RAF's apprentice scheme was designed to produce apprentices who would become senior, high-quality non-commissioned officers later in their careers. The RAF is not cutting technical training. It is providing technical training for 17 and 18-year-olds and it is also providing leadership training as their careers develop. With that information, will the hon. Gentleman modify slightly his latter comments about trained personnel in the Air Force?
§ Mr. Spellar
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. I was talking about the outsourcing of work to other companies which did not have a requirement to maintain apprenticeships. In an apprenticeship, young people learn a skill that enables them to be useful, productive and earning members of society. In some cases, they also have an effective role model—for the first time—in the skilled person with whom they are working. They have to work as part of a team and develop the social skills and discipline that may have been lacking. Apprenticeships provide a framework for young people to mature and move into adulthood, and that should not be disregarded. The cadet force plays a useful role, but it is not the only way to ensure that our young people get the chance to become useful members of society.
The young people who have been disadvantaged and dispossessed by the Government will shortly have a chance to have their say, and I can say with assurance that this is the last RAF debate before the election. The new Government look forward to working with the RAF, the defence manufacturers and the work force to build on past achievements and to develop a working partnership for an even more successful future.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
While the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) has been a defence spokesman, he has learned that attack is the best 1181 form of defence. After the battering he got at the end of the speech by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, he was right to come out with his head down. The hon. Gentleman suggested that there might be a sinister reason for having our debate on the Royal Air Force today. I believe that we shall have our debate on the Army soon and I hope that we shall have the opportunity to debate all three services before the general election. The Defence Select Committee is undertaking three inquiries—on defence budget funding, on heavy lift and on defence medical services—all of which merit a debate in the Chamber.
The hon. Member for Warley, West raised the issue of the tri-service staff college. The Liaison Committee is currently reviewing the powers and the role of our Select Committees and we have found that sometimes it is difficult—now that many departmental duties are conducted by agencies or, as in the case of the tri-service staff college, under the private finance initiative—to obtain the figures that would enable us to assess whether a decision is cost-effective. Sometimes the figures are described as commercially confidential and we cannot have them.
The role of Select Committees and their relationship with the Public Accounts Committee is also important. The Select Committees would become defunct if money issues were considered only by the Public Accounts Committee. That is not what was intended, but the Public Accounts Committee has existed for so long that it has adopted that role. The House would benefit if some of its duties were passed to the specific departmental Select Committees, because that would give us more power to scrutinise, for example, the cost-effectiveness of the tri-service staff college.
§ Mr. McWilliam
As a member of the Defence Select Committee, I know that the problem is not so much the way that the Select Committees were set up but the Armstrong doctrine, which was introduced to hamper Select Committees and which has no basis in any motion passed by the House.
§ Mr. Colvin
That is a useful conclusion to my remarks on the subject.
On a lighter note, I was intrigued by the throwaway description of Opposition Front Benchers as squirrels by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I wondered whether they were red squirrels or grey squirrels. As we know, the red squirrel is being driven out by the grey squirrel and that may be what is happening politically. Opposition Members are probably grey squirrels on the outside, but many are still red squirrels on the inside.
Nobody could deny that my hon. Friend the Minister brings a certain style to the Dispatch Box. I congratulate him on the deft and generous way in which he dealt with questions about defence procurement. It would be most uncharacteristic of him to shoot the fox of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and he avoided doing so on this occasion.
I endorse the tributes that have been paid by both sides of the House to the late Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, whose work hastened the end of the second world war. I recall driving up a road in Kent chased by a V1, which was itself being pursued by a jet fighter and, had it not been for the jet fighter, the doodlebug would 1182 have got me. The ability of our jet fighters to match and exceed the speed of the V1 was an important factor when it was unleashed on the civilian population by Nazi Germany in the dying gasps of that regime.
Although barely eight months have passed since we debated the Royal Air Force, such debates are important in the run-up to a general election because our deliberations might have some influence on the contents of the parties' manifestos on the key subject of the defence of the realm—the first duty of every Government. I do not mean just the defence of the United Kingdom. This country has interests and investments all over the world. We are a bigger investor in the United States of America than are Japan or Germany and we have influence worldwide. It is important that our defence capabilities have the worldwide reach to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred.
We also have a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations and we were a founder member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. As a background to the debate, it is important to consider the future development of NATO. It could be said to have accomplished its mission—the ending of the cold war. It is undergoing dramatic restructuring and reorganisation. It has 65 headquarters scattered around the world. At the Madrid summit this summer, the important issue of the enlargement of NATO will be discussed.
Since 1989, all NATO member states have cut their armed forces and their defence budgets, both in money terms and as a percentage of gross domestic product. We have had the upheavals of "Options for Change" and "Front Line First" in this country. At the same time, the Ministry of Defence has preserved our ability to mount high-intensity warfare, which is what it is all about.
We cannot win battles without air supremacy. That is why this debate is important. It is logical for the first armed forces debate of the year to be on the Royal Air Force. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Minister said about air supremacy in the Gulf war, in which its importance was displayed.
The collapse of communism and the totalitarian regimes of central and eastern Europe has brought chaos and uncertainty, as well as a certain amount of fear in most of those countries about what will happen in Russia. The Russian people are also frightened about what will happen in the west. They have been indoctrinated for years. They still regard us in the west as the enemy and do not trust us. The central and eastern European countries between the western NATO powers and Russia are in a precarious position.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Baltic states—particularly Estonia and Latvia—and Ukraine, in all of which ethnic Russians amount to almost one third of the population. If any countries are vulnerable, it is they. We have already seen Belarus essentially reincorporated into the federation of Russian states. Most attention will now focus on what happens to Ukraine. I well understand the Russian desire for a special treaty with NATO. I am sure that that will be high on the agenda of the NATO heads of state at the Madrid summit.
There could also be a case for a special treaty of a different nature between NATO and Ukraine. Ukraine must never be seen by the Russians as a buffer between it and the western powers. It must be seen as a bridge between the two. The more we trade with the central and 1183 eastern European countries, the more trust will be built up, the stronger their economies will become and the better they will be able to defend themselves and reassure their people that the changes resulting from perestroika and glasnost are worth while and not a danger. That is the background for our debate.
A great deal is made of the dangers of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, but I am not convinced that it is such a great threat as people make out. There seems to be a crescent of crisis from Afghanistan to the western Sahara, but Islamic fundamentalism is probably more of a danger to the countries in which those regimes come to power than to their neighbours. Trouble between one country and another can be found, but fundamentalist countries do not seem to have a desire to invade Europe.
There is a danger in the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by such countries. The proliferation of those weapons from the former Soviet Union to the countries along the north African coast is of considerable concern, particularly if they are able to put chemical or biological warheads on them. A Scud missile fired from north Africa could reach the heart of most central European cities. That is one good reason why we must never relinquish our nuclear deterrent, which deters people from taking such pot shots at us.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
My hon. Friend made a most important point about potential threats and referred to the crescent of crisis in the Islamic world. Is it not therefore particularly important that we pursue our studies into ballistic missile defence in depth, assiduously and with some urgency? A ballistic missile attack on Europe could be launched from that crescent of crisis—Iraq and the littoral and Mahgreb countries—if there were a decisive change to an aggressive form of dictatorship in any of those countries.
§ Mr. Colvin
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Select Committee has addressed that issue and made recommendations. The question is whether the European countries do the development work on anti-ballistic missile defence systems themselves or in concert with our American allies. I believe that transatlantic co-operation on this is a must because of the enormous costs and it is a good way to continue the development of the two-way street in the exchange of technology and manufacture between us and our most important allies, the United States of America.
Another factor to bear in mind in the current overall security situation is the re-election of an American president for a second term. Whatever one may think about President Clinton's politics, the fact is that American presidents in their second term become much more internationalist. They are less concerned with the domestic situation and re-election, because they cannot be elected for a third term. An American president in his second term goes all out to leave behind a record in the history books as an international statesman who did his bit to improve the condition of people worldwide.
President Clinton has already established the Partnership for Peace—a well-conceived proposal that gives countries that want to join NATO an opportunity to get a toe in the door. It has worked effectively and we 1184 must pay credit to President Clinton for it. Over the next few years, the United States of America will become more internationalist in outlook and its president will take a more active role in international affairs.
Although the NATO countries will be debating enlargement this year, the enlargement of the European Union is equally important from a security point of view, not because we need a common policy on security, defence or foreign affairs, but simply because, the faster we enlarge, the less danger there is of European institutions becoming too deep—something that we do not want. Enlargement will also allow the economies of central and eastern European countries to develop faster, enabling them to defend themselves as they want.
In 1975, when we were debating the Common Market during the referendum campaign, I recall being told by a history master in a secondary school in Andover that the entire future of the Common Market boiled down to one point. He said, "When you trade, you have peace and when trade breaks down, you have war." That is why the speed with which we need to reform the common agricultural policy is so important. We cannot enlarge the European Union to the east until we have reformed the CAP. The faster that is done the better, because there is an important security component to the enlargement of the European Union. It is against that background that we debate the RAF today.
The report by the Select Committee on Defence on last summer's statement on the defence estimates contained the latest results of the Committee's inquiry into front-line forces. I shall outline the main points that we made in respect of the RAF.
In paragraph 43, we concluded that, last July, the RAF was just about meeting its commitments while going through a considerable period of change and that the "Options for Change" drawdown would cease to be an adequate explanation for uncertainty in the RAF after April 1997. We looked forward to the resumption of tests of operational effectiveness after 1 April 1997. We hoped that after that, the RAF would be able to benefit from a greater measure of stability before the introduction of the Eurofighter in 2001—it will now be 2002—and the withdrawal from Germany in 2002 brought new elements of change. That is now happening.
Perhaps my hon. Friend can tell us when he replies to the debate whether the RAF will resume the TACEVAL—or tactical evaluation—tests of operational effectiveness in March. Moreover, with redundancies being completed by April, there should now be signs of stability and improved morale in the RAF.
In paragraph 51, we concluded that the fact that RAF aircraft were being used for operations was no excuse for the low rates of serviceability—that is what they are for. We said that the fact that average serviceability rates have declined must mean that the higher rates of serviceability for aircraft on operational deployment must be matched by significantly lower rates for aircraft based in Germany and the United Kingdom. We accepted that recent problems with the Tornado engines had affected serviceability, but we concluded that they did not account for the long-term decline. We thought that the experience should be recalled if the RAF ever again considered saving money by cutting spares or further reductions in uniformed manpower. We were also concerned about the number of aircraft losses in 1996—a subject that has been mentioned today.
1185 The House will expect an assurance from my hon. Friend that fast jet serviceability has now improved after the problems with spares and the RB199 engine. I hope that the lesson has been learnt about the effect of cutting spending on spares.
In paragraph 73, we again recommended that the RAF published targets of turbulence that are relevant to the conditions of service and the frequency of absence from home. We referred to the effects on recruitment, morale and retention in the armed forces.
The Government's reply to the Select Committee's report eventually contained published measures of turbulence: personnel should not have to spend more than 140 days away from the home station per year, aggregated over two years. The Committee welcomed the publication of that standard. At first sight, it does not appear too rigorous: there cannot be many RAF personnel who spend more than 20 weeks a year away from their home bases. The Committee will be asking for details of compliance with that new standard.
Only yesterday, the Committee visited one of the smallest, newest and most innovative RAF units—the military district hospital unit at Peterborough—as part of our inquiry into defence medical services. I hope that we shall shortly be able to report to the House on secondary care in the armed forces following the implementation of defence costs study No. 15, which has attracted considerable criticism.
At Peterborough, we saw how the largely RAF-manned MDHU, which was set up only a year ago, is operating within an national health service hospital. We were given an interesting tour of the facilities and were most impressed with the calibre and dedication of the RAF doctors, nurses and technicians. They have set up a new facility in a hospital with no direct military connection and appear to be doing well. We were concerned by the loss of military ethos, however, despite the link with RAF Wittering, which is only 14 miles away. The Committee's report will also contain comments on morale and staff retention at Peterborough and the other three military hospitals.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to the importance of the reserves. The Royal Army Medical Corps units in the Territorial Army provide an important backup to the Army's medical services, some of them organised as field hospitals. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which is far smaller than the Territorial Army, has no such ethos, but there could be a case for improving recruitment into the Royal Auxiliary Air Force concentrating not on flying, but on medical services. There must be plenty of people who served in the RAF and may now be working in the national health service who would welcome the opportunity to join the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in a medical capacity. That might provide the reserves that we would require if we had fully to mobilise and provide the number of field hospitals that are required under our establishment figures.
Debates on the RAF are traditionally a series of litanies of arguments why more money should be spent on equipment. That is why I congratulate the Government on finding £9,000 million—nearly half the total defence budget—for purchasing equipment, including £1,500 million to be spent on aircraft systems. We were pleased to see the decisions on the replacement maritime patrol aircraft, the conventionally-armed stand off missile and the anti-armour weapon.
1186 On Eurofighter, we welcomed the United Kingdom's announcement last September about production. Members of the Select Committee have done our best to persuade our opposite numbers in the Germany and Italian Parliaments to persuade their Governments to follow suit. The sooner that happens, the better.
Let me make a quick comment on heavy lift, which the Defence Committee is investigating at the moment. The Government are considering whether to rejoin the European future large aircraft programme. The aircraft represents a considerable increase in capability from the current fleet of Hercules C-130Ks and the C-130Js now coming into service. The ability rapidly to transport into the theatre heavy equipment such as support helicopters, armoured vehicles and engineering equipment has become more important in the light of the formation of the joint rapid deployment force last August.
The FLA will provide that capability, as would the American C-17. No decision on procurement is required yet, but it would be right to demonstrate greater commitment to the project at this stage, partly to influence its development, but also to assist British industry in its efforts to gain a significant proportion of the construction work. The formation of Airbus Military will help the development of that aircraft.
The Select Committee also received an excellent presentation from the Society of British Aerospace Companies on the foresight action technology programme. In his reply to the debate, will my hon. Friend confirm that the MOD is committed to spending £20 million on that programme? The potential applications for the RAF include projects on the powered wing, flight crew environment, advanced fuselage and guided weapons. I understand that the DTI has shown some reluctance to participate and may be holding up the programme. That would be very regrettable.
This spring we see the retirement of Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon as Chief of Air Staff, a post that he has held since 1992, through the very difficult years of reduction in the size of his service. I think that the House would want to pay tribute to his achievements and to extend its best wishes to him in his retirement, and its best wishes to his successor. Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns, who will lead the 65,000 men and women who make up the world's best air force: the Royal Air Force.
§ 6.9 pm
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
Although it is some time since I have spoken in a defence debate, sitting on these Benches the years seem to melt away, and very little has changed.
§ Mr. O'Neill
As the hon. and learned Gentleman says, the arguments have not changed. One thing that has changed, though, is that The Daily Telegraph is prepared to allow my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party space in its columns to write what it said wasa reasonably intelligent sixth-form essay".which is perhaps being damned with faint praise. Even such an essay is considerably better than the Minister's Bunteresque GCSE performance today.
1187 It is irresponsible to try to create artificial divides on an issue such as defence. While the Minister of State for the Armed Forces was making a mess of agricultural policy in his former post, some of us were trying to work with the Government and other parties in the House and in Europe in insisting that the Eurofighter was an essential part of the defence—in those days—of western Europe and that it was important to have a proper capability in Europe. It is irresponsible to try to undermine the bipartisan unity that was achieved when people in Germany and Italy are ready to seize on any sign of weakness on the British side.
It is significant that the editorial in The Daily Telegraph that accompanied my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition's article made the point that the article made little reference to the Eurofighter; it is important that it also referred to the need for a reconsideration of our defence priorities. When there is a clear understanding, as there is today, that a Labour Government will order 232 Eurofighters, as the Government are intending to do, it is irresponsible to suggest that a party expecting to come to power—we may not, but if we do—is not entitled, as any incoming Government would be, to reconsider its priorities.
The Conservatives had such a review in "Options for Change", when the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was Secretary of State for Defence. He looked at the threats, the capabilities and the roles that we had to fulfil as a country. Labour Members did not agree with his methodology. Indeed, that is perhaps one of the reasons why the Labour party persists in arguing that there should be a defence review. It would be irresponsible of any party that says that it is necessary to have a review not to take account in that review of capabilities. The capabilities will include 232 Eurofighter aircraft because Labour Members are committed to that. We have been committed to it from the outset because we recognise that it is wrong to put our men into the air in aircraft that are out of date and not the best creation to which British manufacturing can make a major contribution.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Let me make it quite clear that I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's integrity. I remember when he was a member of the shadow defence team. Why did the yardstick that he is describing not apply to the TSR2? He will understand why Conservative Members are apprehensive.
§ Mr. O'Neill
The TSR2 was a source of disappointment to many in the services—probably when the hon. Gentleman was serving in them. I do not think that what happened then is in any way similar to the Eurofighter or that the instances are in any way parallel. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has asked me a question. He may not like my answer, but I shall give it to him. I do not think that the example of the TSR2 is necessarily comparable.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I want to make progress. My comments so far are not the purpose of my speech. I do not think that we need to talk about the matter in quite such a vein 1188 33 years on. I suppose that we could almost argue that, 33 years before the TSR2, Ramsay MacDonald's Government could have been accused, due to their economic difficulties, of doing things in the defence budget.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I am left in complete confusion. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would clarify his remarks, since the matter has not been clarified by his colleagues. Is he or is he not advocating that the Eurofighter will be in the strategic defence review? Does he support the ordering of 232 such aircraft, or is that order now open to being cut?
§ Mr. O'Neill
I have not participated in a defence debate with the hon. Lady before, although I recall that when I was doing the work in which my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are engaged, she was pushing prams for peace, or something like that. Perhaps she just has difficulty understanding things. I shall explain again very simply. With the exception of the point about the TSR2, the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), with whom I have crossed swords on many occasions, would have made it clear if he had not understood.
My understanding is straightforward. The Labour party is committed to sustaining the order for 232 Eurofighters, a defence review and the fact that any kind of defence review must take account of what we have, what we are to have, our capabilities and how we deploy it against the threats.
I recognise that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) does not know any more about defence and strategic thinking than would cover the back of a postage stamp, so think that we should make progress. The point that I was making is that it is important that we do not send our airmen into the air in aircraft that are not properly tested and equipped.
I want to speak primarily about the Chinook helicopter crash in June 1994 on the Mull of Kintyre. On board were 25 of the most senior members of the British intelligence community and a four-man aircrew, all of whom were from the RAF's special forces. The crash was recently the subject of a "Cutting Edge" documentary, which raised a number of questions, some of which have already been raised in another place by Lord Chalfont and others. I think that the families of two of the airmen—and, I would imagine, the families of the pilots and the two other crew members, as well as the other 25 people—would like to try to clear up the matter.
I raise the issue because there seems to be a contradiction. An inquiry was carried out, during which the president of the board of inquiry judged that he was not ready to criticise the pilots for human failings. That view was overturned, yet it was also contrary to the opinion expressed by Sir Stephen Young, the sheriff in charge of the fatal accident inquiry. A fatal accident inquiry is a feature of Scots law. It is not carried out in the English legal system, where such a matter would be the subject of a coroner's court.
The inquiry was rigorous. It was suggested at the beginning that Sir Stephen, as a civilian and, therefore, a layman in such matters, might not understand the intricacies of the technical matters involved, but it is fair to say that, by the end of the inquiry, no one who reported it or was present was in any doubt about the sheriff's mastery of his subject.
1189 When Sir Stephen completed his findings, he made it clear that as far as he was concerned there was no proof that the pilots were to blame. That raises a question in the minds of the public, and especially in the minds of the families.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is giving a lucid explanation of the role of the fatal accident inquiry in Scots law, particularly of the role of the sheriff, Sir Stephen Young. Is he aware—I think he will be—that in a fatal accident inquiry all interested parties are entitled to be represented, so the evidence upon which the sheriff draws his conclusion has been open to cross-examination by every party, every department and every institution with an interest in the outcome of the inquiry?
§ Mr. O'Neill
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I should happily step back from his expertise in such matters and give him the Floor, because he is a distinguished member of the Scottish Bar. What I have to say about the evidence will become more apparent in a minute or two.
First, I shall set the scene. The Chinooks had been in service for several years, Boeing had just refitted them to make them into mark 2s, and they were being brought into commission at the time. I have heard on authority from the families that, in telephone conversations with the pilots, the crew were not happy about the flightworthiness of the craft that they were to handle.
The crew had access to manuals containing flight limitation documents. Normally, such documents outline scenarios in which the craft in question could be in trouble, but in this instance the Chinook manual stated only that such details were to be issued. We must ask why the pilots were flying aircraft without that potentially crucial information. How could they be considered grossly incompetent when they had no access to the information?
As I understand it, test pilots had grounded the craft on numerous occasions in the days before the crash, which included the very day before the crash. Five days beforehand, the same aircraft had demonstrated control system problems, including "undemanded engine shutdown" and "spurious engine fail captions".
Given the documented evidence of several serious technical problems with the mark 2, can the RAF really be so sure that there were no problems during the flight in question? I gave the Minister notice of some of the points that I intended to raise, so I hope that he will be able to respond to my questions.
The RAF still ordered the craft to be used, albeit with certain restrictions, such as height restrictions. Flight Lieutenant Tapper had asked for a mark 1 aircraft to be placed on standby because he was worried, and not certain that the craft could do the job. The RAF refused to make such a craft available.
As hon. Members will be aware, this type of aircraft does not carry a black box recorder. The Chinook carried only the TANS navigation equipment—provided by Racal, I believe. The manufacturers do not regard it as equipment that can be used as reliable evidence in such cases, but it appears that, in the absence of anything else, the RAF based at least some of the inquiry's conclusions on the TANS evidence. We need to know whether the 1190 Minister regards the information that was used as sufficient to provide what was apparently the sole basis of that extreme decision.
There would be two other crew members on such flights—the loadmasters, whose job it is to monitor the flight and advise if necessary. Those two were also part of the RAF special forces. One would have imagined that they would see a mountain coming up in plenty of time to warn the pilots, but the RAF concluded that they would not have been aware of the situation and that no blame could be placed on them. The television programme implied that the RAF considered them quite unimportant; I do not know whether the loadmasters would have agreed.
New or, rather, refitted aircraft were being brought into service, perhaps in too great a hurry. Perhaps there was an over-anxiety to use what was considered the best possible kit—the best possible equipment available for one of the most important group of passengers that the RAF was ever likely to carry.
We all know that the people in the Chinook were at the very heart of security and intelligence operations in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the immediate reaction to the crash was to ask whether the aircraft had been the subject of hostile action, because so many vital cogs in the Northern Ireland security machine were in one place at one time.
We are entitled to ask why so many vital personnel were concentrated in one aircraft. Given that there was no mark 1 there, as had been requested, was the aircraft in question the only one available? That raises questions about the way in which the business was handled. Certainly there are questions that were raised by the board of inquiry, but were not really resolved.
The board of inquiry report discussed possible technical failures. Paragraph 35d says:Nevertheless, an unforeseen technical malfunction of the type being experienced by the Chinook HC2, which would not necessarily have left any physical evidence, remained a possibility, and could not be discounted.Paragraph 48 discusses the final few seconds of the flight, and there we read such phrases as "most likely track", "estimated final track", andIt could not be proven that the aircraft flew in a straight line … to the point of impact".Other points could be raised. Indeed, in paragraph 61 of his summary, the president of the board stated:The Board based its findings on logical argument derived from the limited evidence … There were many potential causes of the accident and … the Board was unable to determine a definite cause … the Board could not avoid a degree of speculation".That was the board's decision, but it was subsequently overturned when the matter went further up the chain of command.
Despite the fact that it is suggested that the aircraft was serviceable at the time of the crash, the investigator from the air accidents investigation branch says on page 1 of his report:The pre-impact serviceability of the aircraft could not be positively verified".On subsequent pages the report says:the possibility of control system jam could not be positively dismissed … most of the attachment inserts on both flight control system pallets had detached … with little evidence to eliminate the possibility of pre-impact detachment".1191 Those are matters that appear in the written evidence. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East has already pointed out that, in the public court hearings, a range of issues were the subject of consideration—indeed, of the kind of nit-picking detailed consideration that is a feature of such inquiries, in which counsel on both sides wish to ensure that their cases are heard to the fullest extent.
I imagine that no expense or effort was spared. Such was the importance and significance of the inquiry—because of the number of people involved and their significance in security terms—it was vital that the truth be reached. As far as the truth could be reached, the sheriff said that these men could not be culpable. That view was held by the board of inquiry, but when the report went to the final stage of consideration, it was overturned. The families are entitled to know the circumstances in which the report was overturned and why greater weight was placed on the internal report than on the proceedings of a Scottish court.
Two young men had great careers in front of them, and their families now have only the memory of what they achieved in their lives. They also have the distressing and worrying thought that their names may never be cleared because a court of inquiry said one thing while the board of inquiry said something else. Richard Cook and Jonathan Tapper deserve better than they have had, and they probably deserved better equipment than they had to fly. No criticism is made of their professionalism, as they raised questions and echoed the doubts shared by an awful lot of their comrades.
This House is entitled to answers to at least some of these questions. I understand that—for a variety of reasons—we will never get to the bottom of the matter. We know that, because of its security significance, people were going over the ground with a fine-toothed comb for 48 hours after the crash. We know that the accident investigators were not allowed in for 48 hours. That is understandable, but again it raises questions about the nature of the certainty that the Ministry of Defence now seems to have. My understanding is that people are not accused of gross negligence if there is a scintilla of doubt. As far as I can see, there was at least a scintilla of doubt in the mind of the sheriff, and more than a scintilla of doubt in the minds of the individuals involved in the preliminary treatment of the inquiry.
This is one of the few opportunities that we get in the House—short of an Adjournment debate—to raise a matter like this. I do so because I happen to be friendly with the father of one of the young men involved. I have no constituency interest in the crash, which did not occur in my part of Scotland. But for the peace of mind of the families, for the young men's comrades, and for the people who continue to fly these aircraft, we are entitled to know if there were lessons to be learnt and, if so, whether they have been put into practice.
Perhaps most important, we need to know why these young men have been singled out—as they appear to have been—for what their families consider to be unjust 1192 treatment and consideration that flies in the face of a judicial inquiry which, as has been pointed out, was open to the widest possible scrutiny.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
It is a great pleasure to speak in this annual debate on the RAF which, this year, has come a little earlier than on previous occasions. I hope that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) will not mind if I do not follow him too far down the route that he chose. However, I and others who have served as aircrew in the past sympathise with the families concerned, and know how they must feel. Split-second decisions or losses of concentration—if that is what happened—can have such results. It shows more than anything that when we operate aircraft of that sort, the pilots must be as well trained as possible and their equipment must be as serviceable as possible. I shall return to that subject, as it has some relevance to that tragic Chinook accident. As the hon. Member for Clackmannan said, we shall never know the final facts of the incident.
This past year has been one of great change for the RAF, and I should like to add my comments to those of earlier speakers on the death of Sir Frank Whittle. Like myself, he was a cadet at Cranwell—although he was there long before me. I well remember learning what he achieved in 1929, when he patented the idea of the jet engine. He then saw it fly from Cranwell some 12 years later. I remember looking at the cut sections of the engines in the engineering section at Cranwell and being fascinated by the simplicity of the principle of the jet engine. It must have taken a man of genius to understand the power that could be produced from such a simple proposition.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said about the present Chief of the Air Staff. Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon has taken the RAF through a difficult period, and has done so with skill and dedication. It was difficult, because the changes were not supported by huge numbers of the forces that he led. The fact that he has achieved that while keeping the Air Force together, and the fact that it is still a superb fighting machine, is of great credit to him, and he can retire knowing that.
We in the House are very good at taking credit for things, and I noticed that the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), leading for the Opposition, mentioned the defence orders. He was perfectly right to say that Labour supported those orders, as did many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. But the real credit goes to the Chief of the Air Staff and his staff, who constantly made the point which, in the end, was accepted by everybody—that one cannot expect the RAF to go through a reduction process, unless one gives it hope for the future by ensuring that it has the equipment to do the job into the next century. Sir Michael Graydon did that, and he should be proud of his great achievement.
Those equipment orders have given the RAF hope for the future, and I am delighted by them. They will provide work for many people in Lancashire—including some of my constituents—and they will ensure that the RAF remains a formidable fighting force into the next century. However, there are obviously other orders and procurement decisions that must be taken in the future. 1193 We need to ensure that there is a good weapons system on the Eurofighter, and I hope that a decision on the future air-to-air missile will be made this year—the sooner the better, as far as I am concerned. The Meteor proposal from the British Aerospace consortium should be strongly considered.
The other area that is important is heavy lift, and I should like the Government to sign at the earliest possible opportunity the European staff requirement in the future large aircraft consortium. That is not to say at this stage that that is necessarily the aircraft that the RAF should buy—far from it. There are many ways in which we could meet that need, but it is a need that must be met. We need a heavy lift capability on this side of the Atlantic, and we need it as soon as possible.
I am encouraged by the lateral thinking that has taken place about the proposal and by some of the ideas that have been put before the Select Committee on Defence, on which I serve with my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside. Leasing is a possibility, and we could certainly use a more commercial way to procure the aircraft. One of the interesting things about the discussion on the C130J two or three years ago was that it led to the FLA consortium realising that it had to look again at the way in which it was putting its bid together, to ensure that it was done under the commercial auspices of Airbus. We could also use techniques that allow for a shorter time scale.
The A340, probably the most advanced airliner ever built, went from drawing board to airline service in less than four years. That is how we must proceed, channelling people's minds and ensuring that those in Ministry of Defence procurement, for example, do not constantly make changes to the design specification; they must decide what they want and get it built, and there should be penalty clauses that operate if it does not come up to the specification that was clearly made in the first place, so that the companies involved understand that it must be made to work as Airbus so effectively made both the A330 and the A340 work, within the time scale and to the performance specified by the airlines.
We must examine closely the way in which we are to procure heavy lift capability for the Royal Air Force. In the short term, we should at least be involved in the future large aircraft programme through the signing of the European staff requirement. As far as I can see, there is no downside to signing it: it does not commit us to anything, but merely ensures that we still have a seat at the table—I do not intend to take that analogy any further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) intervened on the subject of the Bulldog replacement. Clearly, value for money—not necessarily the cheapest price, I hasten to add—must drive that project forward. There are considerable advantages in that respect in having one basic trainer for all pilots coming into the Air Force, whether they come through university cadetship or arrive direct from school and go to the flying school at present operated by the Hunting Company at Barkston Heath.
I am sure that when instructors move on to the Tucano, they can understand the slight differences in ability, but I have a gut feeling that there will be a slight advantage, when it comes to the next stage in assessing abilities, if everyone is started off on the same aircraft. There should 1194 also be some saving, which may not be as tangible as it should be, in terms of back-up, standardisation of spares and other matters associated with supporting aircraft.
Most people would expect me to mention the Eurofighter. It is important, not only because the Air Force needs it in the next century to be able to stay at the top table with the American and other air forces, but because it will provide the platform, or at least the technology, for further developments. The French, sadly, are not in the project, but I wonder whether developments from Eurofighter will not find themselves in service with the French air force as well as ours in five or 10 years' time. I shall leave it at that. We need that aircraft.
There were some boisterous exchanges earlier this afternoon about the different parties' views. All I can say to the hon. Member for Warley, West is that, if I were sitting on the Opposition Benches, I should be saying precisely the same things to my Front-Bench colleagues as I said to him earlier tonight. The only way of ensuring that the aircraft goes ahead and that our allies have confidence that we back it fully is by saying that it is fine to have a defence review, but that the Eurofighter must not be in it.
Once we have that guarantee, I shall be extremely happy, not because an Opposition politician has agreed with the Government, but because the Air Force can then have confidence that that programme at least will not be affected by anything that happens at the general election.
Ballistic missile defence has been mentioned. It is highly commendable that I first heard about ballistic missile defence, about eight years ago, not through the media or from the Ministry of Defence, but in the Chamber. I well remember the response from the Front Bench: it was almost as if one or two eccentric Back Benchers had mentioned something out of "Star Wars". That illustrates the fact that there is still knowledge in the Chamber that is often ahead of what is going on in government or in the media. It is most encouraging that the subject is being taken so much more seriously today than it was all those years ago.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside mentioned the technology foresight programme. When we consider new technologies in the future, we must not regard them purely in a defence or commercial sense. We must form partnerships of the kind that have been so useful in America recently and have driven technology forward.
We must understand that the majority of the technologies that we use in our defensive systems will in future probably come from commercial rather than military research. Commercial time scales are shorter. Indeed, one could argue that, because of the stretched-out time scale, some of the Eurofighter and EJ200 technology is behind the latest technology in the Rolls-Royce Trent engine.
I believe that in future military technology will be driven much more by commercial technology. That must be recognised by the Department of Trade and Industry as well as by the Ministry of Defence. I hope that a better partnership can be developed between those Departments, so that we can drive sufficient resources into programmes such as the powered wing, which have both commercial and military benefits, but which will not go ahead in this country unless the Departments get closer together. They must think more clearly about projects that can bring such benefits in terms of jobs and wealth creation.
1195 Many hon. Members have mentioned the number of redundancies in the Royal Air Force and the fact that the process has gone smoothly. One should also remember that some of the people remaining in the Air Force wanted to leave and that those who remain have to deal with the problems that exist as a result of the others going. Gaps are created and people have to work harder to fill those gaps. Those who remain have in many ways the harder job.
What I say next may not be very popular. When considering redundancies, I think that it might be a good idea if one or two more senior RAF officers left sooner rather than later, to avoid creating a steep pyramid or church steeple at the top of the Royal Air Force and running the risk of losing tomorrow's leaders because we are hanging on for too long to today's. The problem is that the numbers of air vice-marshals and air marshals are almost equal. That poses a problem for people immediately below that rank.
We also need to ensure that we keep a pool of skilled technicians and engineers. Contractorisation is fine, provided that we recognise that the figures that are coming out of the programme are one-off figures. They rely on a supply of highly skilled manpower leaving the Royal Air Force which can be picked up easily by the companies that do the jobs previously done by uniformed airmen. That cannot go on for ever. We must develop partnerships between those companies and the Royal Air Force to ensure that when contracts come up for renewal, the cost does not go up by 15 per cent. or even double. There must be a clear guarantee that we have not simply pushed into the future the costs of the savings that we are making now. I think that that can be achieved. The companies to which I have spoken recognise that and are keen to produce a solution.
While I support contractorisation and novel methods, I am a gradualist. Things should be done slowly, especially in the armed forces, which have an important role. It can be matter of life and death. Where we can, we must avoid rapid changes of emphasis or policy that can affect the ability of the services to do their jobs. That is especially relevant to the RAF. I urge the Minister to consider carefully any novel ways of, for example, servicing and supporting the Eurofighter. Let us get right the contractual arrangements in respect of the things for which they are at present employed. In future, we might examine the innovative and creative ideas that sometimes come from people outside the Royal Air Force.
I recommend that my hon. Friend the Minister look closely at the problems that have occurred in the defence medical services, and especially the Royal Air Force section, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside, the Chairman of the Defence Committee. The Committee is considering that and it would be wrong of me to pre-empt our conclusions. However, it is already clear that something must be done quickly to stop the defence medical services becoming a shadow of its former self. We must examine whether some of the problems with things that have not gone as well as had been anticipated can be read across to other matters, so that we approach such ideas a little more slowly.
1196 That approach applies equally to the dramatic changes in pilot training. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces rightly replied to an inquiry about the effects of contractorisation on pilot training at places such as RAF Valley that there were no signs that anything was wrong and that things were going very well. I should have directed my concern at the number of changes that have taken place in the flying training system and the fact that all advanced and weapon training for fast jet pilots has been squashed into RAF Valley. There is no flexibility and it would not take much to go wrong for there to be dire results. We must monitor closely what happens, to ensure that we do not have to spend more money further downstream, when pilots and aircrew arrive at their squadrons, to make up for any shortfall in their ability. We should avoid further changes until we have decided whether any corrections need to be made to present arrangements.
On keeping a pool of skilled technicians and experienced aircrew, the Royal Air Force seems to have little trouble recruiting and can retain, generally, the number of aircrew that it needs. However, the latest figure for the trained strength of the Royal Air Force is slightly below the required figure. That leads me to believe that matters will not get easier. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider carefully what the Royal Navy has had to do to retain its Sea Harrier pilots. I believe that they are being paid £10,000 to stay on. He should recognise that there is a huge imbalance between the relatively small Royal Air Force and the large civilian airline community. It would take only a small increase in the requirements of the latter to have a dramatic effect on the number of pilots in the former. We must tackle that problem before it happens rather than waiting for it to happen and having to use crisis solutions, which may not be as effective and which are certainly much more expensive.
I should like to mention the reserves. Like many hon. Members, I welcome the appointment at the Ministry of Defence of Brigadier Richard Holmes to look after the reserve forces. It is an excellent move. We are at least moving in the right direction on that, by recognising the increased importance of the reserve forces in the overall defence environment. Sometimes I feel that many who have spent their careers as Regular service men do not fully comprehend the differences between what they do and what happens in the reserves. I should declare an interest as an RAF reservist and a pilot. I am pleased also, because I remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made the point decades ago. It long fell on deaf ears and I am delighted for him that it is finally happening. I am certain that it will be a dramatic success.
The Air Cadet Force is part of the reserve movement, and I am slightly worried about it. During the defence cost studies, the air cadet movement felt that it was reviewed. The money spent on it was reduced; youngsters got fewer air experience flights; responsibility for it was split; the Air Officer Commanding disappeared; its aircraft joined another part of the command structure. I understand that there is to be a further review, largely because of the changes that have occurred in the Royal Air Force. I realise that it is important to look at who is responsible for cadet squadrons when there are fewer stations. Having said that, I hope that there is no hidden agenda. I hope that the review is aimed at increasing the 1197 size and effectiveness of the air cadet movement and not designed to reduce costs, so that some RAF officers can spend the money elsewhere. I go no further than that.
The House is unanimous about the importance of the air cadet movement and agrees that it should be expanded. I agree with the hon. Member for Warley, West: the air cadet movement should be expanded on the basis of what already exists. We are not talking about an air cadet unit in every school—far from it. Such units already exist in the community and they should have the maximum number of cadets that they can recruit, increased at a sustainable rate. If a review is to take place, what is required more than anything else is that the staff who give of their spare time to look after those youngsters should be given confidence that there will be a vibrant air cadet—and Army and sea cadet, for that matter—organisation in the future, so that they can see a future in their participation. Too much change and disruption often results in volunteers deciding to call it a day and going to help with some other voluntary organisation.
I therefore hope that the Regular officers who are tasked with looking at the air cadet movement fully take into account the views of reservists and understand the special nature of that movement, which, in many parts of the country, often provides the only link with the rest of the community. For instance, in the north-west, where I come from, just one RAF unit remains, so virtually the only contact that 6.3 million people have with the RAF is through the cadets, who can be seen in uniform on Remembrance Sunday and who help in the community.
One of the themes running through my speech is the fact that changes should be relatively gradual, to ensure that they do not damage operational effectiveness. It is inevitable that, because of the Labour party's decision to have a defence review, a shadow hangs over the RAF. I hope that that shadow will be temporary and light, and I suspect that Labour Members in the Chamber tonight also hope that it will be light. In a spirit of companionship with Opposition Members, I should like to say that if, through some mistake that the electorate might make, the Labour party became the next Government, we would be right behind Labour Members who fought the Treasury and others, to ensure that our armed forces were reduced no further.
As I have said to colleagues, I find it impossible to talk about stability in the armed forces when cuts are being made. Equally, it is impossible to talk about stability in the armed forces if they are being offered a defence review at the same time.
§ 7.2 pm
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) speaks with a great deal of common sense in these debates, not least because he has direct experience. His contribution to debates on the Royal Air Force and to the work of the Defence Select Committee is invaluable. It is therefore a great pleasure to follow him on this occasion.
If the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) had a sense of déjà vu in returning to a defence debate, having been absent for several years, I share that experience to the extent that my recollection of the period immediately before the 1992 general election is that the subject of defence seemed to appear on the Order Paper once a week. For reasons that I could never quite understand, 1198 we debated nuclear weapons almost weekly. The then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), delivered the same speech; the hon. Member for Clackmannan delivered the same speech; the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) delivered the same speech; and I delivered the same speech—
§ Mr. Campbell
As the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) points out, most of us are still delivering the same speeches.
I suspect that there was some attempt to try to embarrass the Opposition and it seems that we may be subject to that again in the period between now and the general election, which may make you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, anxious that the date of the general election should be sooner rather than later.
Mr. Me William
If the hon. Gentleman extends his mind forward a little, he may find that Conservative Members are less keen to try to embarrass the Opposition because they cut defence expenditure in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1995" by 36 per cent. over the past three years, not 31 per cent.—there is £80 million tucked away in the budget. Conservatives may not be quite so keen to expose themselves to the fact that they have slashed expenditure by more than a third in the past three years.
§ Mr. Campbell
I do not want to comment on the propensity of Conservative Members to expose themselves in one way or another. However, the idea that the Opposition will be embarrassed by constant debates on defence is misconceived.
The debate has ranged far and wide. The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) intervened on the hon. Member for Clackmannan about the cancellation of the TSR2. If one is to go back that far, one must remember that the right honourable Duncan Sandys, who was then Minister of Aviation, suggested that we should abandon manned aircraft altogether and rest the air defence of the United Kingdom on missiles. That just goes to show that going so far back in history is not always productive.
Since the important and much-welcomed procurement decisions of last summer, the intervening months have been comparatively quiet for the RAF. As the Minister for the Armed Forces eloquently demonstrated in his opening speech, that does not mean that the RAF has not been busy. That comparative period of quiet has been warmly welcomed by the RAF, particularly by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, who, both publicly and privately, has called for a period of stability. Indeed, he did so just two days ago when he attended a function in the Palace of Westminster. I wish to be associated with the tributes that have been paid to Sir Michael, both for his personal kindness to me but also to recognise his sustained professional leadership during a period that is generally accepted as having been one of great difficulty for the RAF. If the RAF needs stability, all the other services need it too. However, those who keep a close eye on the RAF have observed that it may have suffered more than the others, having been subject to what is sometimes described as "turbulence" and it therefore needs a period in which it can consolidate.
1199 You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are no doubt familiar with the old Chinese curse that one should be condemned to live in interesting times. We must live in interesting times now, given that The Daily Telegraph becomes the forum in which the leader of the Labour party confirms the maintenance of the independent nuclear deterrent as a cornerstone of British defence policy and calls for that same stability to which I referred.
How can stability be assured in terms that would satisfy Sir Michael Graydon and other senior commanders, as well as all those who serve in the armed forces? I do not believe that stability of the kind that most hon. Members would want will be sustained by further reductions in the defence budget, whether by frontal attack or covert action. It is impossible to have stability other than at present expenditure levels.
The reason why the hon. Member for Clackmannan felt that nothing had changed was that this evening we have had some rather unproductive and arid exchanges about a defence review. In reality, the words are meaningless until one sees what is done under that heading.
If the approach was to say that we must match our commitments to our existing resources, the inference would be that if there was an imbalance between resources and commitments, commitments would be cut. One cannot escape history and the words "defence review" have historically meant cutting expenditure and then being driven to reducing commitments. I say tonight, as I have said on several previous occasions when this topic has been debated in the House, if a defence review means anything, it must include a willingness to increase expenditure if that is shown to be necessary.
If there is one thing that we lack in these debates, it is any proper analysis of future defence funding. If we assume acceptance of the Government forecast—indeed, any Government's forecast—for inflation, we are entitled to expect that the defence budget will rise in line with that figure, whatever it may be. However, we know that defence inflation is historically higher than what one might describe as ordinary inflation. Therefore, if we seek to maintain real spending in our defence budget, we have to increase spending beyond the inflation rate. If we do not do that, we are, effectively, presiding over a real-terms cut.
Why do I place such emphasis on expenditure? It is self-evidently important for all the services, but I believe that it is particularly important for the RAF, because it has so many expensive procurement projects that are likely to come to fruition over the next few years. There are many besides me who believe that by the end of the decade the RAF will have exhausted the potential for savings from rationalisation and structural reorganisation and, shortly after the end of the century, major procurement projects such as Eurofighter and the replacement of the maritime patrol aircraft will reach their peak, so placing substantial demands on the RAF budget. There are some who believe that, if there were to be any effort to cut RAF expenditure at that time, it could be met only by cuts in the front line. I suspect that that issue will have to be faced by whichever party is in government at that time.
Let us take the matter further and consider the cost of the procurement of the new generation of fast jet aircraft. If we are to participate in the joint strike fighter or be part 1200 of the future offensive air system, there is every reason to believe that the cost of participation in those programmes will be very high. How will we be able to meet those costs? Some say, only by ordering a reduced number of aircraft; but if that were to happen, the result would be a fall in the front-line combat strength of the RAF and might well lead to the conclusion that it was no longer possible to maintain an air fleet in all areas of present activity.
I am convinced that one way in which we might meet those gaps is to consider closer co-operation and integration with other European air forces. The Minister properly pointed to the conceptual and now the implementation success of the Franco-British air group. That is likely to be the way of the future and it will not be only the United Kingdom looking for such arrangements: we know that the Belgian and Netherlands air forces have pooled their air transport resources and that there is a joint Dutch-Belgian squadron supporting NATO operations in Bosnia from an air field in Italy. If we consider for a moment the issue of ballistic missile defence—which I accept is an issue of great urgency and on which, I understand, as recently as last month the Ministry of Defence said no decision had been taken—we cam see that any useful programme of ballistic missile defence will have to involve our European neighbours and, almost certainly, the United States. The pressure for integration and co-operation will be driven by financial considerations. I say again, to maintain a full range of capability in Europe, in air forces as well as on land and at sea, three principles have to be embraced: common procurement, interoperability and force specialisation.
Like others, I wish to pay tribute to the men and women of the RAF. I do so, not only from an informed position as a member of the Select Committee on Defence and as someone who has taken an interest in defence matters for some time, but from my constituency interests. I regularly have the opportunity to see in practice the skill and professionalism of those who serve at RAF Leuchars, which is in my constituency. In July 1995, I had the opportunity, not afforded to many, to sit in the back seat of a Tornado F3 aircraft and, in the words of the station commander, to be shown a full range of its ability—a somewhat delphic promise, given that, just before the hatch came down, he handed in half a dozen sick bags. Happily none was required. My point is that that extraordinary opportunity, for which I am extremely grateful, allowed me to see at first hand what is involved in driving—if I may use the colloquialism—a fast jet. It allowed me to see, hear and experience the extraordinary skill and professionalism that is required. That skill and professionalism is being demonstrated from Gioia del Colle, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Falklands.
In recent times, there has been an increase in postings to service abroad and we cannot escape the conclusion—it comes from talking to RAF personnel of all ranks—that more time abroad for air crew and front-line mechanical support has brought its own strains and stresses. On an occasion like this, it is right to acknowledge that RAF morale is fragile; there is no point in denying that, but we would do better to recognise it and to take steps to remedy any problems.
It is also right that we recognise—as the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee, pointed out—that there have been occasions when operational effectiveness 1201 has been below what could legitimately be expected. As the Select Committee noted in one of its reports, on one day in September 1995, only six of the 30 Tornado GR1s stationed at RAF Bruggen in Germany were serviceable. We know also that we are still in the period of 12 months' suspension of NATO inspections, which was introduced by the RAF because of the pressure on personnel. There is a real question whether that period of suspension will be renewed in April, when the first 12-month period elapses. On the other side, it is clear that the new equipment orders of last summer have had a positive and beneficial effect on morale and that is entirely understandable.
Much of the debate has centred on Eurofighter, so let me make my position as clear as I can. I doubt that I have to make it clear to the hon. Member for Wyre, because I was part of a distinguished group of Members of Parliament who, under his leadership, were put in an RAF aircraft and sent to Germany in order to lobby our political equivalents in the German Parliament. There were members of all parties on that trip and it was clear that there was all-party support for the project. I am wholly convinced of the case for Eurofighter, but those of us who are convinced have an obligation to make that case, because outside the House and outside the circle of people who follow the issue closely there is a substantial volume of doubt. I do not mean only in the Bundestag or the Bundesrat, but here in the United Kingdom.
Given that the in-service date has slipped from 1998 to 2002 or 2003 and that there have been cost overruns, those who are sceptical have ready ammunition with which to assail the project. Why do I believe that the project is necessary?
First, the Royal Air Force needs Eurofighter; that is a fundamental principle of my support. Secondly, the proliferation of SU27s and Mig 29s and their derivatives, made freely available from Russia, suggests that if we are to be engaged—as we might be—in actions on behalf of the United Nations or otherwise, it is necessary to have an aircraft that will be able to meet and match them. Thirdly, if we lose this technology now we shall never get it back, and it has not only military but civilian application. Fourthly, many jobs are involved in the production of Eurofighter. British Aerospace is a cornerstone of the United Kingdom economy.
Those four factors make an overwhelming case for the Eurofighter project, but those who support it must continue to argue for it.
Reference was made to the fact that 232 Eurofighters are to be ordered. However, the evidence given to the Select Committee states that it is not inconceivable that 70 more might be ordered if the decision is taken to replace the Harrier GR7s with the Eurofighter. Three hundred aircraft may be ordered, not 232. That emphasises yet again the importance of the project.
I hope that the general election campaign will not be based on the question, "Will they order the Eurofighter or not?" Some of us remember that, for reasons that we could not understand, there was unfathomable enthusiasm in the Ministry of Defence for the idea of leasing in F16s and not proceeding with the mid-life update of the Tornado. Many people believed that, had that proposal been implemented, it would have had the effect of substantially undermining the Eurofighter project. If we are to argue about the relative commitment of each party 1202 to Eurofighter, I am not convinced—I am trying to be as fair and objective as possible—that the position of the Ministry of Defence under the direction of the present Government has remained entirely consistent.
Assessing German participation in Eurofighter is a bit like trying to read the entrails in classical Rome, but I believe that the latest signs are slightly more favourable. Two elements—one political, one military—justify increased optimism.
First, as Germany throws aside the necessary constitutional shackles which followed the second world war and as the inhibition is removed against operations abroad by German forces, opinion regarding Eurofighter may become more sympathetic. If one is to fight abroad or make oneself available to fight abroad, one justifiably hopes to be as well equipped as possible.
Secondly, there have been reports in the past week or so that Germany is set to order 40 Eurofighters in the multi-role version, capable of striking against ground targets, using stand-off precision guided missiles. If those reports are correct—if that is a genuine strain of opinion in Germany—I hope that that suggests, as it appears to, a confirmation of the German position, which in some respects we have been told may be made clear at least by the end of the month.
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. and learned Gentleman is making a perceptive contribution. To complement what he is saying, I remind him that the reading of entrails is also done by the Germans and that I can think of nothing that is more calculated to give succour, in the run-up to the Bundestag's decision, to those who would seek to scrap German support for Eurofighter than the dishonest rumours and stories put about that an incoming British Government would ditch the programme. That is the point about the juvenile irresponsibility of those who would seek to make short-term party political points about Eurofighter.
§ Mr. Campbell
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not intervene in what seems to be a private fight.
§ Mr. Campbell
I do not mean to deprecate what the hon. Gentleman says. I understand his point about the national interest. He must speak for his party. I speak for mine, and I point to my record of commitment for the Eurofighter project over several years as a justification for the view that the project must proceed, for the reasons that I have outlined.
It would be ludicrous to say that the future of the Royal Air Force would be threatened by any failure in the Eurofighter programme, but if the programme did not proceed it would substantially influence the shape and capability of the Royal Air Force.
I shall quickly mention one or two more procurement matters. I hope that the Minister may—if not today, then by letter—be able to say something to those of us with an interest in the matter about where the Government stand on the issue of the EH101. The Royal Air Force has an order for 22 in the utility version. That is a very large investment. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement knows that the Wessex, the Puma and the 1203 Sea Kings, in various roles, must all be replaced by 2010. There is now a head of steam behind the suggestion that variants of the EH101 would be suitable for their replacement. It would be useful if the Minister would share as much as possible the thinking of the Ministry of Defence on that important procurement issue.
It would also be useful if the Minister would—if not today, another time—give some hint of the Government's thinking regarding the offer by Lockheed in relation to the C17s. As the hon. Member for Wyre said, there is an important issue as between C17s and the future large aircraft.
§ Mr. Campbell
Indeed. I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon.
ASTOR has already been mentioned. A decision must now be made on the platform for the equipment, and I understand that a choice must be made between Gulf-Stream and Dassault. Can the Minister help the House with that—if not tonight, then later?
I am not persuaded in any sense by the siren voices that argue that the Royal Air Force should evolve into a support service. I remain convinced that it should remain a strategic force. I understood the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to confirm that as the present Government's policy; he has my support in that regard.
There is little doubt that, in United Nations or other peacekeeping or peacemaking operations, the Royal Air Force will be called on to provide air support for essentially ground-dominated operations, but the need for strategic use of air power on behalf of and in the interests of the United Kingdom may well arise in future. For that we need a Royal Air Force capable of that role.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
I feel like an aging Lothario: I need more and more inspiration to perform, and in parliamentary terms we have had that inspiration from my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. There is nothing as exciting as a convert, and he certainly has the fervour of a convert. There is no one as fervent as an ebullient ex-hussar speaking up for air power, and he did so most effectively.
However, we need, not just parliamentary inspiration, but a bit of service inspiration. It is relatively easy for me; I need not go far—13 miles in fact, to the Polish war memorial at the corner of my constituency, by Royal Air Force Northolt. I look up and see the squadrons. For example, 303 Polish Squadron was the highest-scoring squadron in the battle of Britain. It only came in halfway through, declaring itself operational before it officially was.
Then I go further along the road, deeper into my constituency—I am always deep into my constituency, as we all are, especially with an election approaching—and I look at the main gate of the station. There I see a motto—my grandfathers were clergymen; they would have had to have a text—for my speech. It is relevant, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you, a former Air Force man, will recognise. The words are:Aut portare aut pugnare prompti",1204 meaning ready either to carry or to fight. We do both in this place. We carry the burdens of the long speeches to which we must listen, and we are always ready to fight when an election approaches.
Air power is the decisive instrument in modern war. The versatility that the service possesses is so relevant to our contemporary world, to carry the logistics for operations or, if necessary, to fight. The Royal Air Force must be capable of war winning or conflict prevention. An example of war winning was our contribution in the Gulf war. In the Falklands war, our air power was perhaps more naval air than RAF, but without British air superiority over the islands, they could never have been regained.
In Bosnia, as my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, the decisive intervention of offensive air power, so long called for by Conservative Members, and at last unleashed, brought the belligerents to their senses and restored a semblance of peace, which ultimately was ratified in the Dayton accords.
The obverse of the Gulf war is the operation of the no-fly zones over north and south Iraq, which persists to this day.
A final example was mentioned by my hon. Friend. I remind him of his early military days—I, too, was an ADC once—when I say:Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.How wise it was to send a Canberra down to Zaire, rather than sending 10,000 men to beat around in the jungle.
To express it in language that our American friends would understand, General Patton said that armed forces must have the decisive capability of being ableto get there fastest with the mostest".That is important for a country whose military resources are so small. It is essential to be able to deploy decisive fire power at the critical point or, even better, by rapid deployment of force, to be able to deter. There was recently a classic example of such deterrence. When Kuwait fell, we rapidly sent our squadrons out to Saudi Arabia, and Saddam Hussein was checked.
I move on from such combative themes to speak about the shouldering of a burden, which the RAF does well. I have always been rather Gaullist in my attitude to logistics. The general always used to speak deprecatingly of "commissariat". Then I went to RAF Brampton and RAF Wytton, full of pessimism. I remembered Wytton, as ex-Pathfinder Force station, Canberras, reconnaissance establishment—all sorts of exciting things—and now headquarters of Logistic Command. I expected it to be bone-shakingly boring, but far from it—it was fascinating and thrilling. I saw some innovative and exciting work in husbanding and deploying resources, using, to me, unintelligible information systems which transform modern logistics.
If I may weary the House, I shall speak about the air transport aspects and the major improvements in the RAF's logistic and air transport capability which the Government have put in place. I start where I began, close to home, at RAF Northolt. How exciting it is that No. 32 squadron, the resident communications squadron, having been merged with the Queen's Flight, should be the Royal squadron. Everyone appreciates locally that it should be stationed at RAF Northolt. It is a sensible sharing of the 1205 resources of the Queen's Flight, although I am not suggesting that the new royal yacht should necessarily be used in the same way.
I must, however, add a note of caution. The operations of RAF Northolt are crucial for the Government and the armed forces—the headquarters at High Wycombe, Northwood and Bentley Priory, for example, as well as the Ministry of Defence and the diplomatic and other services. It is used also for communications purposes by civil aircraft. I urge the Government not to allow the civil limits to be increased. There are currently 28 civil movements per day, Monday to Friday, and the hours are 8 am to 8 pm. If the limits were changed, the tremendous support that the station has from the local community might be put at risk, which would be a great shame.
At times of tension—for example, during the Gulf war—there can be military movements at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week. The area is heavily built up and entirely residential. My constituents, and people in neighbouring constituencies, do not object to military movements, but they would object to a serious increase in civil movements. An experiment started in October and will continue until the end of March to begin civil flying operations from 0700 rather than from 0800. I hope that, at the conclusion of the experimental period, Ministers will think long and hard, and that they will not make the extra hour a perpetual feature of operations at the station. I hope that they will stick to the original hours of 0800 to 2000, and no movements by civilian aircraft at weekends.
The helicopter force is a crucial element of our air transport capability. In the service, it used to be regarded as the poor relation, but not now, thanks to the ordering of the EH 101s and the Chinook 2s to augment the medium support helicopter force. I hope that the Government will soon be able to make the orders necessary to put in place the simulation facilities at RAF Benson, to get the show on the road and the training programme initiated.
The C-130Js were entirely the right decision, militarily and industrially. It is all to the good that the RAF is the launch customer. The Government need have no doubts that they did the right thing in ordering the aeroplane. However, there is still a gap in our capabilities—the heavy lift element about which we spoke previously.
I urge the Government preferably to procure, or to lease, the C-17. It is clearly the right aeroplane. It has been in service for many years with the United States air force. While I was at the Farnborough airshow, I had the great privilege of talking to the RAF exchange officer who had come across from Charleston on the aircraft. It still has important development potential. It could have an extra 10,000 gallons in the centre wing section for further range. It could have air-to-air refuelling capability. It can already receive fuel, of course, but as a tanker there is provision for Flight Refuelling Ltd.'s pods on the wings, the hard points are already there.
I shall quote some figures from a press release that was issued by the manufacturers McDonnell Douglas.The aircraft has a payload of 157,000 lbs.That is about three times the weight that a future large aircraft could carry.It can take off from a 7,600 foot airfield, fly 2,400 nautical miles and land on a small, austere airfield in 3,000 ft. It can be refuelled in flight and its ferry range is 4,300 nautical miles.1206 The feature of the C-17 aircraft is its volume. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said, it can take a main battle tank, armoured fighting vehicles, helicopters that have not been dismantled, missile batteries and associated radar systems, Bailey bridges, vehicle recovery equipment and tank transporters. We are in the business of power projection, whether in peace or in war, and that is the kind of instrument that we need to have at our disposition. At present, we rely on the United States Air Force and on chartering civilian aeroplanes. I have nothing against such charters, but the C-17 is the right way forward.
I join those who have spoken in paying tribute to Sir Michael Graydon who has been an outstanding Chief of the Air Staff. By his patience, courtesy and reliance on rational argument eventually to win the day, he has set an excellent example. We shall be sad to see him go, but we are glad that Sir Richard Johns is to succeed him because we know that he is experienced and well qualified for the job.
It is exciting that the Government and Sir Michael Graydon have put in place the total-force concept. I shall not refer to speeches that were made a long time ago, but my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) was exceedingly generous in referring to my consistent report for flying members of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. When I made my maiden speech on the subject twenty-six and a half years ago, I little knew that it was an idea whose day had almost come. Anyone who can get an idea across in a generation is doing well in this place. However, one also knows that it could take only another generation for it to be undone because that is the way of human affairs.
The total-force concept with a core of highly trained regulars is exciting. The process of reducing numbers has been painful but it is sorting itself out. The force is backed by a range of auxiliary capabilities with a merged RAFVR and auxiliary air force, and will come into operation as a reserve force from April. There will be auxiliary and medical, maritime and helicopter support, operational missile system, anti-aircraft gun and the Royal Air Force regiment units. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside said, there could be medical, provost or motor transport too. Of course, the raison d'être of the service itself is being addressed—flying. It was always an anomaly that the Territorial Army had flying squadrons and the Royal Naval Reserve operated Sea Harriers capably in a reservist capacity but somehow the flying service could not manage to get its reservists into the air.
The services are backed by contractors and for the party that believes in business, that must be right. The companies that are involved in supporting the RAF, such as Marshall, Shorts and Huntings, to name but three, do the job very well. Their personnel should be members of the sponsored reserve so that they can be subject to the Air Force Acts and appropriately mobilised in time of emergency or war. At the end of five years, in spite of all the alarms and excursions, the traumas, excitements and sadnesses of rapid change, the service now has a total-force concept that will stand the test of time. It is well equipped and I confidently expect that, before long, the only big remaining gap in its inventory, apart from ballistic missile defence—heavy lift equipment—will be addressed through either the lease or the purchase of the C-17.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
I do not normally participate in debates on the Royal Air Force but I have an important constituency case about which I intend to speak.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement wrote to me on 23 January with news that dealt a severe blow to me and my constituents. He told me that a contract for the maintenance of the TriStar RAF aircraft would be placed with the Gulf Aircraft Maintenance Company in the United Arab Emirates. I suppose as a means of softening the blow, he told me that a contract for the repair of TriStar components would be placed with Marshall of Cambridge. I expect that the Minister will refer to that contract in his winding-up speech.
The letter from the Minister stated that he had mixed news for Marshall. It is not mixed news: it is a disaster. The Marshall work force has carried out the work loyally and successfully for the past 13 years. The part of the contract that Marshall has retained will employ only about five people. With the loss of the main contract it is reckoned that, under the worst scenario, 300 jobs are now at risk. They are not ordinary jobs: they are skilled engineering jobs in a firm that has a high reputation for excellence and quality.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said that Marshall was one of the excellent businesses undertaking defence contracts. Therefore, he and many hon. Members will be aware of Marshall's reputation for excellence and quality. Some hon. Members may feel that the loss of skilled engineering jobs in Cambridge is not a disaster as unemployment in the area is low, but the constituency of Cambridge does not have a good employment record. According to the Library, current unemployment in my constituency is 6.1 per cent. which is only just below the national average of 6.6 per cent.
Those who think that they can sacrifice jobs in Cambridge without a fuss are wrong and anyone who thinks that he can deliberately erode the country's skilled engineering base without a fuss is equally wrong. According to Radio Cambridgeshire this morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), has told the workers at Marshall to forget about protesting because Gulf Aircraft put in a better bid. Does he think that workers whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened will lie down quietly and forget that this has happened? Does he think that workers will not continue to feel angry and betrayed because they have been sold out by their own Government? Does the Minister feel so supremely confident that he will hang on to his seat at the general election that he can be so cavalier with people's jobs and livelihoods?
More serious even than the loss of skilled jobs is the message that is being sent to the rest of the world. It is, "Do not come to the UK for your aircraft maintenance." The challenge for Marshall is to hang on to the rest of its commercial contracts. It has to convince the rest of the world that the quality of its work has not deteriorated, that it still offers good value for money, reliability and continuity which its competitor, Gulf Aircraft, cannot match. That is made much more difficult by the Government's perverse decision.
The decision has given the Gulf Aircraft Company a new status which may enable it to take work away from the Cambridge work force. Is the new confidence that has 1208 been generated by the order fully justified? I have seen information that suggests that GAMCO does not have a sound financial base. The firm employs cut-price Filipino and Pakistani labour—which is cheap and unreliable—and, as a result, has been able to undercut Marshall's bid. Will the new contractor have to comply with the same standards of quality, security, and health and safety as we require of United Kingdom bidders? I thank that the answer is no, as that is a matter for its Government. Marshall is being penalised for treating its workers well—for the training it provides, the quality standards that it espouses, and for the health and safety measures that are mandatory in this country. Worker health and safety will not meet the same high standards when the work is done abroad.
Mr. Michael Marshall, the chairman and chief executive of the company, has written to me to say:our campaign to retain the contract was doomed from the outset. It is simply not possible for any company in the EU or the USA to compete with GAMCO, and their employment of low paid Far Eastern transient labour on a predominantly price consideration basis.That message will chill the blood of Marshall workers, but it should also send a serious warning to other skilled workers in the United Kingdom. The message is that the Government do not care about skilled jobs: they care only about capitalising on low-cost labour abroad in order to reduce expenditure in public departments. The Government do not care about the consequent impact on employment in the United Kingdom—no wonder the social security bill continues to rise inexorably year after year.
I am sure that the Minister will argue that the contract offers a better deal for taxpayers. However, if 300 skilled engineers in Cambridge are forced on to the dole and must draw unemployment and other benefits paid for by the taxpayer, what kind of good deal is that? It is not a good deal for my constituents who want to feel that their skills are being utilised—as they have been for the past 13 years—in working for the national interest. It is not a good deal for the taxpayer, as the Exchequer loses about £9,000 a year for every unemployed worker. Not only has this country lost a deal that could represent as much as £40 million in exports every year, but we are worse off by a potential £2.7 million a year in increased social security benefits and lost tax revenue. What kind of crazy economics is that?
When Marshall took on the contract 13 years ago, it had to commit itself for 25 years. A local newspaper, "Cambridgeshire Today", reported:This is a firm which has distinguished itself through generations of a family. In wartime it has played a major role in Britain's effort and in peace-time it has often shored up Cambridgeshire's economy, creating jobs for local people and enhancing the city's reputation in the local arena.I heartily endorse those comments, and I feel sure that Baroness Thatcher would do so as well. She visited Marshall as Prime Minister on 27 May 1988. During her visit, she asked Sir Arthur Marshall how the company had built up such a versatile and sophisticated design team. He said that the company was fortunate to have been involved, in some form or another, in every British military and civil aircraft designed since the war—what an achievement.
1209 Baroness Thatcher was particularly interested in the RAF TriStar tanker work, which was then in progress. Following her visit, she wrote a letter of appreciation, in which she added:And of course, your work for the Falklands campaign will never be forgotten".It is now clear that it has been forgotten. Marshall's loyalty to the British effort in war and in peace has not been reciprocated.
Marshall's expertise has also been recognised worldwide. In 1991, an employee visiting Canada noticed that the Air Transat house journal in Toronto contained an article, which said:Marshall's proven track record with Royal Air Force tankers and transports has gained them the reputation as one of the world leaders in Tri-Star heavy maintenance.Marshall has been mentioned on numerous other occasions when its outstanding record has been acknowledged. Much of Marshall's history is well documented in Sir Arthur Marshall's book, "The Marshall Story", which I highly recommend. It describes the marvellous history of the firm, its relationship with the RAF, and the unswerving loyalty and readiness to respond to national need that has characterised the company throughout its history.
The loss of the contract will not affect only Marshall. I received a letter today from Mr. Iain Sturrock of A. J. Walter Aviation, a firm based in Partridge Green in Sussex, which will have to consider laying off staff as a result of the loss of the contract. Mr. Sturrock says that the company is in favour of competition, but not at the expense of British workers' jobs and our international reputation. He highlights the fact that Marshall holds the design authority for converting the TriStar to freighter tankers and is best qualified to carry out the maintenance. He also makes the point—which is particularly pertinent to this debate—that sending our aircraft, with sensitive military systems, to a known politically volatile region of the world seems incomprehensible from a security standpoint. Many of my constituents will agree: this deal seems totally incomprehensible.
I have tried to discover through parliamentary questions whether any back-room deals have been done between our Government and the United Arab Emirates. I understand that the Secretary of State visited the UAE on 28 November last year and signed a defence co-operation accord between the two countries. Will the Minister explain what that means? If it means that we have agreed to defend the UAE in the event of future hostilities against that country, why on earth are we sending our jobs there as well? Was GAMCO awarded the contract as part of that defence co-operation accord?
Another suspicion is circulating that a deal has been done regarding orders for Hawk aircraft. My questions have managed to elicit information that the Indonesian Government have two outstanding contracts of 24 and 16 Hawk aircraft. There is a further outstanding contract with another country, but the Secretary of State declines to tell me which country. I understand that the conditions for keeping the information confidential are listed in the code of practice on access to government information, so I know that the Minister will decline to provide an answer tonight. However, the suspicions will not go away. My constituents believe it to be a shoddy deal, which does not benefit the RAF, the taxpayers or Cambridge. I hope that the Minister will come clean and tell us why the deal has been done.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)
I assure the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) that Conservative Members also have a longstanding affection for Marshall of Cambridge. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-North wood (Mr. Wilkinson) said that he was worried about his grey hairs. I first came into contact with Marshall of Cambridge when I was a young flying officer—I will not tell the House when that was, but it was a long time ago. Later in life, I had the good fortune to meet and to work with Sir Arthur Marshall in a voluntary capacity. I have also worked with his son Michael, who is regional chairman of the Air Cadet Council. I doubt whether anyone will ever fully appreciate the time and the effort that he devotes to the air cadets. All that work—and all the work done before him by his father, Sir Arthur—cannot be measured financially. They gave very valuable trophies, which were awarded to the cadets, and they undertook many other interesting sponsorships. Marshall's has a very soft spot for the air cadets, and we love them very dearly.
I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on their determination to proceed with Eurofighter. We need to realise that that project is about much more than merely providing jobs—important as those are. The Eurofighter is the aircraft that the Royal Air Force will need if it is to meet the type of demands that will be placed on it in the near future, over the next 30 to 40 years. Therefore, there should be no question about that aircraft's future. I will return to the issue of Eurofighter later in my speech.
I also congratulate my hon. Friends on placing orders for the anti-armour weapon, the conventional air-to-ground missile, the maritime patrol aircraft, the Nimrod 2000, the C130J aircraft, the EH 101 helicopter, and the extra Chinook helicopters. Those orders have given the RAF the encouragement that it desperately needed. Now, more than anything else, it needs a long period of stability, so that it can bring into service the new equipment and deal with the problems caused by the recent dramatic and fundamental changes. The last thing that the RAF needs is the threat or the probability of a defence review.
If the Opposition are serious about supporting our military, they should realise that, if there was once a need for a review, the need has long since passed. We do not need a defence review but a period of stability. A defence review would produce a further lengthy period of instability. It is unnecessary, and it can be motivated only by a desire to reduce defence expenditure.
In an earlier intervention in this debate, I mentioned an aircraft that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will remember: the TSR2. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) seemed to think that I should not have made an historical reference, although he himself drew attention to the very factors that killed off the TSR2—cost overruns and delays. Let us not forget that the media friends of the Labour party publicly attacked those overruns and delays, and said that the aircraft was too expensive. In case any Labour Members have forgotten, I remind them that a lady by the name of Mary Goldring was a leading light in killing off that aircraft.
The point that I am trying to make to the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid)—whose integrity I do not doubt: and I have no qualms about saying that— 1211 is that he should tell his colleagues that the danger to the TSR2, if there is any, originates among people who will harp away at cost overruns and delays. Their argument will be that the aircraft is too expensive and that we cannot afford it. If £60 million for the royal yacht is too expensive, just think what they will say about the £300 million figure that may or may not be the right figure for the Royal Air Force.
Opposition Front Benchers should constantly remind their Back Benchers of the facts, because they are not as sound on defence as the hon. Member for Motherwell, North. He is sound on defence, and I am not afraid to say so. He should realise that the danger will not originate in his integrity and determination but in pressure from those who will want the money spent elsewhere. We do not have that problem on the Conservative Benches, because Conservative Members do not try to spend defence money on other items.
§ Mr. Walker
No; we have now reached a period in which we will try to maintain current levels of defence spending in real terms. If we are to maintain our commitments and the military capability that we think is necessary, it would not be viable to spend below that level.
I believe that the TSR2 would have accomplished for the RAF and British exports what the Eurofighter certainly will, because they are the same type of agile combat aircraft. It was sad that it suffered at the hands of the Labour party's media friends.
What about the future? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans)—who is not in the Chamber; he has probably gone to eat—I believe that the heavy lift problems cannot simply be put up on the shelf and forgotten. We need a heavy lift capability. One option is the future large aircraft—which I would call a "paper aeroplane". It may turn out to be a very good paper aeroplane, but, at this point, it is only an idea. The other option is the C17, which is a reality.
I want my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to consider those two options carefully. Although I believe that the need is urgent, and that we should deal with it soon to meet the RAF's requirements, I do not care which of the two aircraft we end up with. I admit that I should like to see the C17 in service, and as soon as possible, but I will not complain if we get the future large aircraft, because the RAF will have received what it needs: a heavy lift capability.
We must consider future offensive air systems, and long-range air-to-ground missiles capable of being launched from transport aircraft. We need systems for the Tornado GR4, such as the future medium-range air-to-air missile SR(A)1239. I should also draw attention to the FMRAAM Meteor. It is a compliant, cost-effective programme, embracing contributions from GEC Marconi, Alenia of Italy, Dasa of Germany, Matra Defence of France and Saab Dynamics of Sweden. That should satisfy the Europhobes in the House. I must, of course, put in a plug for Scotland. So I shall say that Hughes—which has a large, very modern plant in Glenrothes, Fife—also has an interest in the programme, which I hope will progress.
1212 I should also like to mention the airborne stand-off radar, which is Ministry of Defence staff requirement (land/air) 925. I understand that Loral, which is now part of the Lockheed Martin group, has demonstrated its candidate—a Boeing 707 equipped with dual-mode radar linked to ground stations, which is transported to areas of disaster or combat in the C130J aircraft. They are the matters that we have to consider, now and in the future.
I join the many other hon. Members who have complimented the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Michael Graydon. He is soon to retire but has served longer in that job than is usual. He has seen the RAF through a very difficult period. I believe that he has provided leadership of a highest order in a period of change and of what, in modern terminology, is called downsizing. Enlargement is difficult but it provides opportunity and stimulus; to manage downsizing is an entirely different challenge. Sir Michael Graydon and the Air Force Board are to be congratulated on what they have achieved in a period of instability and downsizing. I am delighted that Sir Richard Johns is to be the next Chief of the Air Staff and am confident that he will provide the professional leadership necessary to build on that laid down by Sir Michael Graydon.
It will not surprise the Minister if I deal now with the auxiliaries, reserves and air cadets. I must declare an interest because I am involved. I welcome the news that the cadets, reserves and auxiliaries are to be expanded. The auxiliaries and reserves will become progressively more important and will contribute in many ways to the modern RAF's ability to meet the demands placed on it in this troubled and dangerous world.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, I remember when we were promised a helicopter squadron. It seems a long time ago, but it is now with us. We can only say to Ministers, "Thank you, you will never regret it."
Given that we have a much reduced Air Force and the need to build more into the reserves, politicians will face an even greater demand to create an environment in which employers appreciate their employees' need to have time off to meet their reserve commitments. I can say that with some feeling.
Many years ago I was offered a job as a managing director which, at that time, would have been a very important position and a superb opportunity for me. However, the offer came with a condition that I could not accept—I would have been required to resign my command of a volunteer unit. I could not do that even though I desperately wanted the job. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 will help, but much more still needs to be done. The Act alone will not create the right environment.
If we are to have an increasing civilian citizen component in our personnel, we need to widen the sponsored reserve element, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said. I think that any company tendering for RAF work must in future accept that its employees must be sponsored reserves, just as in the early 1950s all the employees of Airwork had to be members of the reserves. All future maintenance contracts must embrace—I use the word "must" deliberately—sponsored reserves. Only in that way will we begin to create an environment in which employers understand the importance of the reserves. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre said, the only light blue uniforms that 1213 will be seen in public in many parts of the country will, sadly, be those of the auxiliaries, the reserves and the cadets. It is important to bear that in mind.
I deal now with the expansion of the cadets, which I welcome. I was surprised to read about it in the press. I and others have been working on expansion ideas, and the challenge was to work out how it could be achieved. What would it call for? We realised that it would call for new money.
I had been chatting to various Departments to see whether they would be prepared to fork out the money, but my fishing did not produce many big fish. That did not deter me. Those of us who are keen to increase the cadet organisation know that the investment per cadet brings such a massive return—that is especially true of the air cadets—that I am surprised we even contemplated reducing cadet expenditure when the world has so many problems, including drugs.
We knew that, as well as new money, we needed innovative thinking and leadership action by people who understand the ethos and motivation of the adults who run the air training corps squadrons and who man the volunteer gliding schools, the air experience flights. Wings and the outdoor activity centres.
The recent changes brought about by defence cost studies and "Front Line First" have created pain and uncertainty among the volunteers. Many began to believe that the RAF and Ministers no longer fully supported the air cadets. I know from personal experience that that is not true—Ministers and the Air Force Board fully support the cadets.
In an intervention, I tried to bring to the Minister's attention the review of the Air Cadet Council. Obviously, I did it very badly because he did not understand what I was getting at—I take responsibility for not putting across my message sufficiently clearly. The review of the Air Cadet Council is an essential element in improving communications between the MOD and the people who man the squadrons, volunteer gliding schools and air experience flights. It works, as my right hon. Friend told me. I know that it works, but, like all things that work, it can be improved, which is the aim of the review.
The review was welcomed by the volunteers, but they were then told of a second review—the review of the cadet organisation itself, which is now under way. I thank the Chief of the Air Staff and the Air Member for Personnel for accepting the necessary element in that review, namely that we have someone in the team with first-hand experience of being a volunteer. I congratulate retired Wing Commander Jimmy Farrell, who was a wing commander of an air training corps wing and who has also commanded a volunteer gliding school in his time. I cannot think of anyone better to be part of the review team because he understands what is required. I therefore thank the Chief of the Air Staff, the Air Member for Personnel and Ministers for listening to us.
The review that is presently under way follows the substantial changes caused by the reduction in the air cadet budget. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre said, the air cadets may not have been reviewed, but the adult volunteers thought that they had been reviewed. After all, the air cadets have lost a region and a hands-on air officer commanding—I opposed that at the time and I still believe it was wrong. It was a great advantage for the air cadets to have an AOC to whom everyone had access 1214 and it meant a lot to the volunteers—the fellows in the blue uniforms. The loss of a hands-on AOC did as much as anything to make the volunteers think that the RAF and Ministers had lost interest in them. Such issues affect motivation.
Other problems include the move of the headquarters from Newton to Cranwell; the loss of a substantial element of air-experience flying; the loss of day-to-day command and control of the air-experience flights, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre mentioned; and the reduction in places available at summer camps. The volunteers saw all those actions as part of a substantial review of air cadet policy and activity. Consequently, it came as no surprise to me and others that the volunteers initially reacted adversely to the new review.
I place those facts on record not to moan, but to draw attention to the challenge that has to be faced if we are to turn hopes of expansion into reality. How can we make expansion a reality? We must first acknowledge the lessons of history. In the 1950s, conscription encouraged young boys to join the ATC and to remain members between the ages of 16 and 18 so that their period of service would be in the Royal Air Force. That experience has a message for us—that environment and attitudes are important. How can we, without conscription, create a climate of opinion about a citizens' military that would encourage boys and girls to join and to remain members of their local ATC squadron or Air Force section of the CCF? That is one of the challenges that we must face.
We should first examine how we can retain more boys and girls past the age of 16. If we keep more of them in the cadets when they reach 16, we will expand without having to add to the headquarters staff, the facilities or the instructors. If we can do that successfully, we could increase the present strength of the air cadets by some 30 to 40 per cent. without substantially increasing the overheads of the present air cadet units.
The reason why most youngsters join the cadets is the air element of their activities. Gliding and flying encourage them to stay. We must examine the availability of air-experience flying in gliders and aircraft and the opportunities for cadets to go solo, after training. First, we should consider the location of air-experience flights and the command and control of those flights. I suggest that that is included in the present review. We should also examine the success of the flying scholarship scheme—it is very successful—to see whether any lessons from that success can be applied to air-experience activity.
We should also ask the review team to examine the problems caused by the lack of suitable airfields for the volunteer gliding schools. Boys and girls who go solo in an air cadet glider are unlikely ever to steal cars for thrills. They have already overcome fear and have been risk-challenged. They get a pair of wings to wear on their uniforms and that makes them different. They do not have to prove anything to anybody else. Public money is well invested in such activities and the public get a massive return on their investment.
We must also ask the review team to examine the way that the ATC trains its future instructors and officers. The majority are ex-cadets, so we usually grow our own. With the reduction of the Regular Air Force, there may be opportunities for the older cadets, the auxiliaries and the reserves to become an integral part of every RAF station or unit. There is scope—just as was done with the 1215 Home Guard in the 1940s—for local air stations to build up more direct contact with volunteer reserve training branch officers, who have volunteered and completed the volunteer reserve Cranwell course. They could be used as guard commanders and for other tasks on the station. They could be assisted in their tasks by the 18 to 20-year-old cadets. Just as during the second world war, the cadets could be given colour flashes to wear on their uniforms—air crew cadets wore white flashes during the war. The flashes would show that the wearer was different, which is important for motivation and gives youngsters something to aim for.
Such cadets would remain active in their cadet squadrons and would be the source of future officers for the squadrons and RAF base units. Over time—it could not be done immediately—the RAF could insist that all future recruits to the service must have been either cadets or members of the university air squadrons, the volunteer reserve or the auxiliaries. That would create an incentive that would keep the youngsters involved. Such a policy would help to create the citizens' Air Force that we need.
Other aspects that should be examined are the outdoor activity centres and the summer camp facilities. Expansion of those will be essential if we are to enlarge the cadets and keep them. The tragedy is that not every cadet can go to camp. In fact, every year fewer go to camp and that issue must be addressed.
In the reports in the press about cadet enlargement, the connection between cadets and schools caught public attention. I do not wish to comment on the possibility of a cadet unit in every secondary school. It would be more realistic to ensure that cadet squadrons have access to school facilities. Too many local education authorities refuse the cadets access because they wear a uniform. Playgrounds can be used for drill practice. For many years, I ran a cadet squadron in Dundee and we used school facilities for drill practice. We won the Scottish drill championship nine years out of 10. In later years, we could not get access to the school playground and the squadron's performance worsened because it had no drill facilities. We need practical ways to address the problems and central Government could insist that those public facilities were made available. That would contribute massively to any expansion of the air cadets.
In conclusion, those in the Front-Bench team have the right ideas and are doing the right things. We on the Back Benches will continue to give them our support. I accept that sometimes we may sound critical of them. That is not because we think that they are doing a bad job—we know that they are not—but because we care so deeply about the issues that we are promoting that sometimes we feel that it takes too long to get what we want. I am not alone in having spent a long time trying to persuade the Government about flying reserves. It would be churlish of us to complain, because we have now got what we wanted and we are delighted. The Front-Bench team has brought that about.
The Royal Air Force recognises the support given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I am told that by all those in the Royal Air Force and the air cadets with whom I work. They should at least feel that they, like Sir Michael Graydon, have come through this extremely difficult period well. The future looks much better.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
I welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) and support his comments about the Air Cadet Force and the concept of Army cadets and sea cadets. I hope that his enthusiasm is deeply infectious and that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will take note. I know that they have already set in motion a plan to support the expansion of this admirable scheme.
I regret the recent decline of the cadets. There are several reasons for that—not just the lack of sufficient input and investment, but the lack of support for defence initiatives in schools, where I would like the scheme to expand. An anti-militaristic mood went through the teaching movement. That is not true of all teachers, but, regrettably, many dismissed the cadet movement as unnecessary to young people's lives. I am sorry about that, because many children were denied tremendous opportunities to learn about friendship, discipline, loyalty and the possibilities for a fine career in any one of the three forces.
I know the effects that being in the cadet forces had on some young people I know. I remember how much my son got out of the sea cadets. He joined as a boy and came out of it a man. He found himself pushed to do things that he never believed possible. Would it not be marvellous if young people, particularly those from inner cities who come from families that are stressed and riven by strife, had an opportunity to achieve things and go beyond what they thought possible? It would give them confidence that would help them to do better at school, and it might lead them to consider a career that they would otherwise never have thought of. In the long term, it would make up for our shortfall, particularly in the Army. I therefore welcome the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside and the comments that have been made about the expansion of the air reserves. There is a wider debate to be had on that, which includes the naval and Army reserves.
I find it exciting to hear, as I did earlier from the Front Bench, that the skills of those who have had expensive pilot training in the Royal Air Force, come to the end of their careers and joined commercial airlines will still be available to us. We have seen the benefits of people coming back to the Territorial Army and regular service. They are accepted on equal terms with those who serve full time. I was recently in Bosnia with the parliamentary armed forces scheme, where I saw how well the Territorial Army has worked and has given a vibrancy to those who are regularly there and to those who join.
I turn now to ballistic missile defence—an important innovation. I remember going to the Pentagon some years ago, where I was given a tour by General James Abrahamson, head of the strategic defence initiative organisation. I learnt at first hand how science and technology could one day make it possible to intercept incoming missiles, even though it seems futuristic. Even 10 years ago, British companies were lending their research skills to that.
I would welcome our grasping the nettle and going one stage further. I accept that ballistic missile defence is a vastly expensive project with many unknowns, and that it will have to be organised internationally, but we should put research and development effort into it. The rewards 1217 will undoubtedly come in the next century. That investment could save the free world from the ultimate disaster. I think that it is worth while.
During my year with the parliamentary armed forces scheme, although I was attached to the Army, I had considerable contact with the Royal Air Force. My last abiding memory of that experience is of flying in the belly of a Hercules aircraft to Split. Inside, it was a dark, noisy and hardly comfortable experience, as I propped myself up against some packaging. All I could do was follow the example of a service man, and doze off.
The record of Hercules aircraft flying to Bosnia is magnificent. They have transported more than 7,000 troops, more than 2,000 tonnes of freight and well over 500 vehicles. With hours and hours of flying in and out of Split, reliable and trusty, they were an essential part of our service. I was proud at the way in which everything worked so efficiently.
In Bosnia, I had the opportunity to fly over the mountains in a Sea King helicopter. I observed the Serbian trenches and the skeletal remains of towns and villages. In this country, I have flown in Hercules aircraft on various exercises. I remember slinking up and down the Welsh mountains and valleys, barely 250 ft above the ground, and swooping off to East Anglia on a four-hour journey to drop off paras for an exercise.
The hours of air force personnel may be long—sometimes intolerably so on long-haul flights—but the men and women never complained. They took pride in their work. I pay particular tribute to the women who have joined the air crews. They never draw attention to themselves and there are no gender differences in the cockpit. They are professionals who get on with their work. It is marvellous to hear of the success of Flight Lieutenant Helen Gardner, who has been performing at the sharp end of flying aircraft.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
Quite right. She is a good man because a good woman is equal to a man and better.
The Royal Air Force has delivered excellence all over the world. It is respected for the quality of its work and its ability to be there—wherever it may be. As we approach the general election, it would be fair to ask just how certain we can be in future of continuing to deliver such a magnificent force at the same strength and properly equipped. As long as the Conservative party remains in charge, the country need have no fears. The defence of the nation is secure in our hands. Our armed forces are a vital part of Britain's standing in the world. They enforce our foreign policy initiatives and are respected for being world class—a class of their own.
I also have to issue a warning. The country should be alerted to Labour's plans for a strategic defence review, otherwise we would be failing ourselves. It would be wrong to allow an important idea to be floated and then submerged by the accusation, "You are just politicising the issue and taking us back to the nuclear election of 1983."
We have to examine Labour's plans and their consequences carefully. It could be a watershed. Nowadays, Labour tries to give the impression that it is the party of sound defence. Many of us read the article in The Daily Telegraph on Monday by the right 1218 hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). [Interruption.] I took a rather cynical view of it. I could not believe that he promised a review of our armed forces toreflect Britain's international interests and commitments.He boldly announced that the armed forces werea precious national asset to be treasuredand proceeded to offer the armed forces a period of stability. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]
Frankly, I do not believe the right hon. Gentleman, and nor will anyone else, because of his track record of twisting and turning his views to suit every political occasion. [Interruption.]
During the nuclear debate, I recall going up north and debating against the right hon. Gentleman in Sedgefield. He argued vibrantly and enthusiastically for one-sided nuclear disarmament.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. I do not expect a running commentary from the Labour Front Bench.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
The right hon. Gentleman wore his Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge with pride. I recall vividly that he pounded the table and punched the air with that messianic passion that we now see in respect of all sorts of other views. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has abandoned those ideas. He has seen the light. How can I believe that, when he has chopped and changed on every topic under the sun?
Once, the right hon. Gentleman had anti-European views; now, he is pro-European and does not want Britain to be isolated in Europe. He displays a new-found commitment to law and order, despite having opposed or abstained on every measure aimed at bringing order to our streets. The right hon. Gentleman twists and turns on education. He is in favour of grant-maintained status when it suits his family, but against it for the party.
How can anyone trust the right hon. Gentleman on defence? I would not trust him for a minute. Curiously, I cannot remember hearing any Labour Member calling for more money to be spent on defence. If Labour Members really meant what they said, they would go for it, but they have not.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
We are already committed to sound spending on defence.
In The Daily Telegraph on Monday, the leader of the Labour party raged about our policies to rationalise our modern armed forces in keeping with current demand, but what ideas did he offer? None. His views were negative. His only answer was to promise our armed forces a defence review and the clear threat of deep cuts to our funding, sacrificing among other sectors great swathes of the RAF by statingwe must stick to the tough spending limits Gordon Brown has proposed.So that is how the right hon. Gentleman plans to get away with it.
We should bear it in mind that the Leader of the Opposition has a long list of IOUs to pay off. No doubt the public sector will be first in the queue. In one way or another, the right hon. Gentleman has promised or pledged £30 billion.
1219 It is not surprising that the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) confirmed our worst fears on the "Today" programme recently. When he was asked directly to deny that Labour would obviously cut defence, he ignored the question and hurried on. We can draw our own conclusions from that. There was no denial, so presumably Labour would cut defence.
I would like to hear more from the Opposition what they would do for defence. Let us go a little further, if the House has any doubts, and recall the comments of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) in an interview in The New Statesman in November 1993. He said:we do not need to spend as much on defence.Only a few weeks ago, in the debate on the Loyal Address, he said:It is only by having a strategic defence review, with the painful consequences, that that problem can be addressed."—[Official Report, 24 October 1996; Vol. 284, c. 215.]In truth, defence is a soft touch for the Labour party, which has never had any taste for being robust. Many Labour Members want an easy option. They would like our armed forces to be reduced to a peacekeeping gendarmerie, zipping across the globe on the many missions much favoured by smaller and less significant nations. Labour is racked with bitter disputes about demands to cut spending, scrap nuclear weapons and ban defence exports. It is a rare Labour soul who will be positive and say, "Let's go for it."
Let us look at the lessons of history. The fact that Labour Governments usually cut defence has been mentioned. I remember the fiasco of Labour cancelling the TSR2 at a cost of hundreds of jobs. If Labour Members think that we will forget that and that it will go way, they are wrong. It will haunt them because we will not allow the country to forget that Labour cannot be reliable.
Let us consider the effects of a defence review on jobs. The immediate result would be a freeze on new procurement, defence orders or equipment until the review was concluded. Bearing in mind the long lead-in time from decision-making to handing over a weapons system, the armed forces would be operating in an antiquated vacuum. To put it metaphorically, it would be a matter of going back to pitchforks.
What would Labour be likely to axe? How many jobs would be put at stake by its proposed review? We should be told now, before the election, so that sober judgments can be made. Labour Members claim that they are still committed to the Eurofighter. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) said passionately earlier in the debate that he had made that commitment on television. Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was sincere, I also believe that he operates alone and will not be able to convince his colleagues, let alone the sisters, who will have quite different ideas.
I find it strange that Labour has promised to keep the Eurofighter. That promise sits uneasily with Labour's queasiness about spending £60 million on the replacement for the Britannia. When we press Labour Members, they always fudge. We have never received a clear message about whether the Eurofighter would be included in the 1220 review or whether Labour would stick to 232—the number to which we have committed ourselves. The truth is that the Eurofighter order will wither away and the under Labour.
We have to consider other issues. I believe that there will be redundancy notices at Rolls-Royce with the cuts in the replacement of maritime patrol aircraft. I can see a threat to the Apache attack helicopter, and the EH101 at Westland, and restrictions on the sale of the Hawk overseas. No sales; no production; no jobs; the dole. It is a very bleak picture. Is the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East really going to savage the workers of British Aerospace by cutting the Nimrod 2000 at Prestwick?
Throughout the land, 360,000 jobs depend on defence sales. They are found not only in the big name contractors, but in hundreds of small companies that make thousands of basic components such as valves, fuel systems and microchips. The Labour party is of course against defence sales.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 422, on theSale of Armoured Vehicles to Indonesiawhich condemns such sales, and has been signed by 59 Opposition Members. It declares:That this House condemns the decision by Her Majesty's Government to issue export licences for the export to Indonesia of 50 Alvis armoured vehicles, as well as a variety of police vehicles".That is negative and will kill jobs.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
Do I understand from the approach that the hon. Lady has adopted in the past moment or two that, so far as she is concerned, the United Kingdom should sell arms to anyone who is willing to buy them? Should we not have some regard to the history of human rights in some of the countries to which we sell arms, and not bear in mind our experience of selling arms to Saddam Hussein?
§ Lady Olga Maitland
We have a very clear policy on arms sales abroad: they are for defence and for friendly nations. We will not sell to a country that will use arms for an improper purpose. It is suggested that it is somehow improper to sell police vehicles to Indonesia. Such a policy would kill jobs—and that would be on the Labour party's conscience.
In the south-east, almost 40,000 people are employed in jobs that depend on Government defence programmes. How will Labour explain its policy to the 380 people who work for United Electronics in Greenford which makes anti-submarine warfare electronic systems, among other projects? Will it say that it is sorry, but it is going to have to ransack their jobs for false ideology? What about Racal Electronics, which employs 750 workers in defence-related jobs? They will not be too happy about the cuts. It would be a cruel trick to hit West-Air, which employs 45 people.
All those companies are naturally concerned about long-term commitment, as they put much of their resources into research and development as well as manufacturing. More important, the export orders that they receive are an extremely good earner for Britain. The development of leading edge technology reinforces 1221 Britain's position as a world leader, which in turn secures our position on the world stage and, indeed, the UN Security Council. The Labour party will have to face the fact that its defence policies will be a minefield of problems that will blow up in its face. We scrap an aircraft carrier at our peril. It would take 15 years or more to replace it, and I doubt that the world outside would be benign enough to wait.
I can imagine, for example, during the strategic defence review, the Labour party calling for its defence academics who, from the comfort of their armchairs, will advise it to trim this and cut that, with the result that resources for training will be virtually non-existent. Without training, we cannot perform. The mantra would be that our armed forces were no longer large enough to fight a serious war alone—so why should so many capabilities be kept; why should we not share more roles with our allies, leaving spare cash for pet projects in the social services?
I can see a Labour argument developing into, "Why not make tanks redundant, like battleships, since a major land war in Europe is less likely to be fought? And while you are about it, why not bring the Army home from Germany?" The result would be a drastic pruning of regiments, a slashed Air Force, which would have less to protect, and a decimated Navy. Many Labour defence analysts believe that 35 frigates and destroyers is overkill, and prefer to cut the number by 25 per cent.
Labour could conclude that nuclear-powered attack submarines, whose task is to protect Trident, could be phased out and not replaced. Some argue that there is no merit in maintaining an ability to wage amphibious warfare—in other words, mounting an opposed landing from the sea—so out would go the two new amphibious landing platforms that have just been ordered. There are many who see no military purpose in the Territorial Army, so out that would go. The debate will rage. Backed by one of its gurus, Bradford university's Malcolm Chalmers, who says that Britain could and should spend substantially less on defence, Labour will plough on suggesting that we are exaggerating our role in the world.
As it is, 20 Labour Members of Parliament tabled an amendment to the defence estimates, calling on the Government to cut spending on defence to the European average—totally ignoring our responsibilities. At the Labour party conference, seven resolutions or amendments were tabled for the scrapping of Trident. About £4 billion at least is at stake—but it could be much more. That figure alone would wipe out the entire RAF or the Navy. The generals, air marshals and admirals would all be up in arms; the soldiers, sailors and airmen would be in despair; there would be deep demoralisation; and workers in the defence industry would become desperate as their numbers piled up on the dole.
Above all, the great British public will tear with unprecedented ferocity into Labour as they see our great traditions in defending ourselves honourably and playing a key role in the world disappear. The Labour leadership, preoccupied with spin doctors and many spending pledges to fulfil—and the desire to win the general election—does not regard defence as a high priority. It certainly does not recognise what a minefield the proposed review will be. We have a duty to unmask that review, because it will certainly mean less for defence and less security for our country. I for one would never trust Labour with defence, and I do not believe that the electorate will either.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
I am struggling for a word to describe that speech—breathtaking, I think, especially the biblical Gotterdammerung that was conjured up in the event of a Labour Government. I suppose that it was, however, an indication that "Care in the Community" sometimes can work. "Wired to the moon" is probably the only expression that comes to mind.
I would not mind so much about the people who roar like lions about defence from those green Benches, had they not sat meek as lambs over the past 10 years while we have seen a 27 per cent. cut from the defence budget in real terms. I would not mind the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and her hon. Friends referring to the distant prospect of a decimated Air Force, a slashing of the number of regiments, and reductions in the Navy, if that were not precisely the definition of what the Government have done for the past 10 years.
I would not mind lectures on the need to retain stability in the armed forces, were it not for the fact that over the past 10 years under the Conservative Government, there has been a desert of chaos, after which the prospect of two or three years when the defence budget remained as planned—that is what we have pledged—would be an oasis of stability.
I have been provoked into responding to an individual speech, but now I shall return to my original text and join in a brief moment of consensus with the tributes paid to Sir Frank Whittle, welcome Brigadier Richard Holmes to his new post and pay a formal, if early, farewell to Sir Michael Graydon, who has served the Royal Air Force well, and often proved a perceptive observer of political personalities and events We wish him well in the future.
At the opening of the debate, we were treated to the normal stentorian delivery of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who, as usual, appeared before us as a family-size Richard Todd, taking us through the tributes to the armed forces. As has been said, he managed to avoid subjects that could have arisen during the Navy debate had it taken place in the normal way—subjects such as the royal yacht, which I shall not pursue now—or in the Army debate, such as its dramatic under-strength, and the failure to bring the Army up to establishment levels.
However, I fully endorse the Minister's initial comments about air power. The speed, flexibility and reach that he described were amply illustrated during the opening session of the Gulf war. There we saw the utility of air power—the destruction of Saddam's command, control and communications, the prevention of Iraqi control of the air, the damage inflicted on the Iraqi troops through bombing attrition, and the destruction of the morale of the enemy, which is one of the elementary aspects of any impending victory.
I shall refer briefly as I go along to the contributions by other hon. Members. I have listened to many speeches by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), but today his speech was witty, moving in parts, informed and incisive. If I single him out, it is because tonight he has something to celebrate. I congratulate him on the fact that after 26 and a half years' campaigning, he has secured the flying reserves.
1223 That reminds me of the old story about the militant Liberal activists who go on to the street screaming, "What do we want?"—"Gradual change." "When do we want it?"—"In due course." The hon. Gentleman has certainly achieved that. In this case, Ministers have fully observed the strictures of the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) to the effect that we do not want anything to happen too suddenly, and that gradual change is always better.
While we are talking about air power, which both the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood and the Minister mentioned, I shall mention in passing the report by the General Accounting Office of the United States into the comparative utility of modern technology as opposed to traditional methods of bombing and air power.
I know that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who takes an interest in such matters, will be aware of that report which, although it may be only a superficial, initial report, seems to illustrate the fact that in difficult conditions, such as those affected by weather, and when it is hard to assess battle damage and so on, some of the more traditional platforms are every bit as effective as extremely expensive new technology. That idea is worth examining more closely.
I pay tribute, as other hon. Members have done, to the professionalism of our Royal Air Force. That was exhibited during the Gulf war, and the testimony of that exercise was to the value of air power. The Minister, of course, mentioned the Balkans, where with both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, the Royal Air Force has been assisting IFOR and SFOR; the middle east, where it acts as the eyes, and if necessary the claws, of the United Nations over Iraq; and the Falklands garrison, which operates mainly out of Mount Pleasant.
That service is performed not only in defence of our country. The Minister and several other hon. Members have mentioned the utility of our armed forces to the civilian population in times of emergency, especially, although not exclusively, through search and rescue. We identify ourselves with those comments.
We very much support the progress of co-operation and co-ordinated activity with our allies—particularly the French—to which the Minister and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) referred. We identify with the hon. and learned Gentleman's comments on the progress that he would like to see in common procurement and interoperability. We would welcome that, but there should be no question of political decisions being taken during such co-operation on any other basis than an intergovernmental one, and there must be no question of acceding to those who would seek to place our troops, or those of the Western European Union, under the control of a European Commissioner or a European majority voting system.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, is learned on military matters, and he made an extremely wide-ranging speech on global geo-politics, which I shall not attempt to encapsulate in my brief summing up. He asked about the shortage of spares following the Government cuts, and sought assurances on that matter. I hope that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will respond to him, either tonight or in 1224 writing. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside also pointed out the detrimental effect that overstretch can have on morale—a point that hon. Members have been making in the House for a decade.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside also mentioned the effect of cuts in the defence medical services, and referred in particular to the danger to the service men and women who are isolated in national health service wards and who may be in an environment that does not encourage the ethos of the armed services as the medical services previously did—a point raised also by the hon. Member for Wyre.
The dangers of undermining the ethos of the armed services need to be pointed out. Most hon. Members would agree that the ethos of the armed forces is sometimes misunderstood outside the House, and is almost always underestimated. It is one of those items that is difficult to quantify in the ledgers of cost accountancy or to measure in terms of operational effectiveness. However, I have never spoken to anyone in our armed forces who does not believe that in an emergency—when the armed forces are asked to kill the enemy or to defeat its will—the ethos of the British armed forces takes an almost concrete form. We must look at the long-term effect that contractorisation, privatisation and cuts could have on the martial ethos of the British armed forces. If we undermine that ethos, we may find that we pay a heavy price in operational effectiveness for short-term savings.
A number of hon. Members referred to the defence industry. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside commented that if we are to remain a major player in the world market and provide back-up for the skills of the RAF, we need to encourage innovation and development. That is why we welcome the technology foresight programme, and we are enormously encouraged by the active campaign mounted in support of it by the Society of British Aerospace Companies.
A number of rather nervous Conservative Members raised what they insist on calling a defence review, but what we have always referred to as a strategic security review—which I know is a more complex subject, and is therefore more difficult for the Conservatives to grasp. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam went half way by calling it a strategic defence review, so progress is being made. We have made it plain that the review is not a cover for cuts.
The shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), was attacked by the Conservative party last week for saying that departmental budgets will stay the same under the next Labour Government for at least two years. I do not think that Conservative Members can attack him last week for saying that we shall have stability, and then attack him again tonight for saying—supposedly—that we shall change the budgets. I make this simple point to some of the Tory lions who have been roaring tonight, but who have been as quiet as mice while their Front-Bench colleagues have slashed defence expenditure: two years of maintaining the plans as currently set out for defence expenditure would be an oasis of stability in the desert of financial chaos created by the Government.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition had said in his article in The Daily Telegraph that the security review was to give stability. She will forgive me if I say that she only half-quoted. I know the phrase by heart: 1225a period of stability and reflection".The stability comes from two years' maintenance of finance and budgets; the reflection comes from forward planning and the need to have a long-term strategic assessment of our aims five, 10 or 15 years down the road, exactly as we would have for any individual item of expenditure in the defence budget; and from interleaving foreign affairs with defence—after all, defence is the daughter of foreign affairs—and with the industrial dimension.
That is important because, as several hon. Members have said, if we do not have an industrial strategic dimension to our defence planning, we shall end up merely transferring costs to the welfare budget or losing out in science, technology, unemployment and so on. In other words, we hope that we have the capacity to institutionalise strategic thought at the centre of the Ministry of Defence, as that has not been too evident to date.
The question of Eurofighter has been raised repeatedly. I understand that an election campaign is under way and that it may seem convenient to try to gain a few votes in seats that are considered strategic, by bringing the debate down to a party political level and attempting dishonestly to portray the Labour party as being opposed to Eurofighter.
I merely ask every Conservative Member to consider whether it is in the national interest, when there has been a united front on the issue for six years, to allow the untrue story to go abroad in the next two months, in the immediate run-up to the decision in the Bundestag, that the United Kingdom parties are divided on Eurofighter. If the German Opposition can put about a credible story that the next Labour Government oppose Eurofighter, Conservative Members will have done their country no service.
We are committed to the programme as it stands. We shall order Eurofighter, provided always—these provisos apply to the Government as well; there is no blank cheque for the Germans—that there is a continuing agreement on work share, numbers and financial arrangements that is acceptable to the British Government and British industry.
On numbers, we are committed to the programme as it stands. I cannot be clearer than that. If any Conservative Member thinks that, lowly though my position is, I would be stupid enough to repeat the words that I have said tonight and to say what I have said today and last week, without discussing the matter with my Treasury team and my leader, they are either naive or believe that I have a death wish as regards my future career. I cannot make the position any clearer. I hope that from now on the issue will not be used as a party political tool to the detriment of our country.
We have long expressed our support for the staff college and for the moves towards more joint service activity and operations, which were mentioned by various hon. Members. I was able, courtesy of the Minister, to visit the joint permanent headquarters at Northwood, and was greatly impressed by the progress being made in that direction. That is the context in which we have supported, and continue to support, the concept of a joint staff college.
However, even his best friends would agree that the Minister, or whoever is dealing with the matter, has not handled it in the most coherent fashion, to say the least. 1226 In some ways, it has been spectacularly mishandled; the college has had more venues at different stages than the Scottish Grand Committee. I do not know the full details of the latest proposal, but assuming that they remain the same until the general election, we shall continue to support the concept of the joint staff college. However, obviously, we shall want to look closely at the details. Anyone seeking power would be expected to say that, because there would have to be a good argument to throw aside the inherited traditions not only of Greenwich but of Camberley and Bracknell, particularly as the latter two are only five or six miles apart. It is possible, as many universities have shown, to run a joint course on a split site. We shall consider such arguments if the electorate entrust us with power.
The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) mentioned the cadet forces, as did the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, whom I congratulate, because last year she did a bit of flying herself. At any rate, she flew downwards with the Parachute Regiment with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We value the work of the cadet forces. The hon. Member for North Tayside has continually advocated their value. I have been fortunate to spend some time with them and I in no way underestimate the value for young people of all social backgrounds of experience with the cadets. I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that such experience could help kids from deprived backgrounds, not people who have committed offences, but people at risk, who have perhaps never had the chance to see outside the inner cities. Kids who have never had confidence instilled in them may be able to show their leadership potential and so on. There is vast room and potential utility for cadet forces to contribute to the social well-being of many such kids.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
The hon. Gentleman probably does not know that the Air Training Corps is carrying out pilot schemes with youngsters at risk. It is not taking people who have committed offences but is taking youngsters whom social work departments deem to be at risk.
§ Dr. Reid
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I was aware of that. The Army has also done it. I have spent two weekends on such schemes and I was deeply impressed.
I was surprised by the peremptory nature of the story that appeared in various newspapers. I know that this was nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence. It certainly was not a leak. It was merely a coincidence that when the story appeared, the Secretary of State for Defence happened to be out with the cadets, and press photographers were there. No costings were attached. The story did not distinguish between the sea cadets and the other two cadet forces. The sea cadets are funded by local government, not the MOD; their funding has been slashed for the past 10 years. There was a hint of compulsion and it was all to be done through schools. None of those factors is helpful to those who want to operate through an extension of the existing cadet scheme. I hope that the manner in which the story was put out and the flaws in the argument do not kill off expansion for the Government who will take over after the general election.
I must deal briefly deal with the aberration of the last five minutes of the Minister's speech. I cannot believe that it was his own work. It was out of character for him 1227 to launch a vicious attack on the Opposition. I can suppose only that he was instructed to read it by some central office spin doctor. Does he honestly think that anyone will believe his promise of stability in finance and manpower this time round? Does he think that everyone has already forgotten that the Government have cut defence expenditure by 31 per cent. in real terms, or that RAF personnel have been cut by 38 per cent. since the Prime Minister came to power?
When the Minister says that the Labour party in government cannot be trusted with the ethos of the armed forces, does he think that people have forgotten that service men and women's houses have been sold off to the Japanese or that the Royal Naval college was to be sold to the highest bidder? When he talks about the administration of the future of our armed forces being in danger, can he not recall—as even his colleagues would politely admit—that the past 10 years have in large part consisted of incoherence in strategy, instability in structures and, in some ways, incompetence in finance? Certainly, on occasion, there has been indifference to some personnel matters such as morale and overstretch.
The Labour party does not claim that it would get everything right, but the Conservative party's persistent claim that it is the only patriotic party and the only party capable of defending this country has a rather hollow ring in the country, because no one believes that the defence budget, for instance, is any safer in the Conservative Government's hands than the national health service budget. The resonance of the comments that have been made tonight will be regarded as neither effective politically nor useful for the future of our forces.
The people who have to suffer from instability and incoherence are those in the RAF. The 1990s have not been an easy period for any of our forces. The Government have struggled with the great changes—they have been difficult changes—of the previous decade and, all too often, the armed forces have been asked to bear the burden of the Government's inadequacies, or perhaps the inadequacies of the House, in coming to terms with those great changes. The forces have, as ever, borne that burden with a fortitude bordering on the miraculous. They have displayed the professionalism and dedication that everyone in the House has come to expect of them. They have borne the burdens that they have been asked to bear, as well as the increasing commitments and diminishing resources, with determination and commitment. They have stood sentinel in the defence of their country, but they have also served in the interests of the wider world through NATO and the United Nations.
Whatever our differences in the House, we are united in our respect, gratitude and admiration for the men and women who so selflessly serve our country. They deserve the respect and thanks of all of us, and I am sure that they have it from all of us.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)
First, I echo the words of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), in thanking Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon for a long and extremely distinguished 1228 contribution to the Royal Air Force and to the defence of his country. I am sure that the whole House will wish his successor well when he takes up his post.
A number of important points have been made during this debate on both sides of the House. I cannot answer all of them, but my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces or I shall write to those hon. Members whose points we cannot cover.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside, in a thoughtful and wide-ranging speech, and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), asked about TACEVALs. To reduce the burden on units until April 1997, the Chief of Air Staff directed that tactical and operational evaluations were to be postponed and formal inspections and staff visits scaled down. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend and the hon. and learned Gentleman that temporarily postponing those evaluations will not prejudice the RAF's NATO role, nor its operational capability. NATO is currently undertaking a complete review of the TACEVAL-OPEVAL system and it is intended to resume evaluation of RAF units in line with the new NATO guidelines later this year.
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee asked about spares and fleet serviceability figures. Again, I reassure him that corrective measures are in hand and some have already begun to feed through to the serviceability of aircraft, although it must be said that some have not yet fed through. We expect the figures over the next six months to show a marked improvement.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) made a moving speech about the Mull of Kintyre Chinook accident, a tragedy that saddens us all. I cannot deal in this speech with the details that he raised. The RAF's investigation was scrupulous. It found no evidence of structural or technical malfunction, nor of hostile action. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman asked some important questions and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will write to him to answer those questions.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) spoke about her constituency—
§ Mr. O'Neill
Before the Minister goes on, I have to tell him that that was a most disappointing response. I got in touch with his office yesterday and sent him a fax detailing the points I was going to raise today; I did so with the express purpose of getting the Minister to respond to those points today. I think that 16 to 24 hours' notice of points to be raised is more than enough to allow any Government Department to deal with them. I took the trouble to do that because I did not want to be palmed off in the way that I have been this evening. That is not a fair way to treat the House or to deal with a matter of such gravity in a debate of this kind, which represents one of the few opportunities that Back Benchers have to raise issues of this nature.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has reacted in that way. The reason why I am treating his important comments in the way that I am is that, while it has been possible to produce a complete and detailed answer to the points that he raises, it would not provide a balanced winding-up speech for this debate to spend the 20 minutes or more that would be needed to cover the whole of the Chinook accident. I have details about which 1229 my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will write to the hon. Gentleman, who will be able to make those details public in whatever way he wishes. It was important that the hon. Gentleman should have made his speech, because I know that he felt strongly that the families of those who were held to blame for that crash had not had their points put on the record and he has had the opportunity to do that. It is, however, right to deal with the details in the way that I have suggested.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I do not want to take up the Minister's time and I understand his point, but he will understand my frustration. All I would say is that I take his point and I would hope that, at the appropriate time and after I have received his response, I shall be able to bring the relatives to meet the Minister for the Armed Forces to discuss the matter. I should like to think that will be possible and that the Minister's response to me will be put in the Library and be available for anyone else to read.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I see no reason why the response should not be put in the Library. As for a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, that is a matter that the hon. Gentleman will wish to raise with my hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Cambridge spoke about her constituency interest in the Tristar maintenance contract. As she knows, the Government are committed to a policy of international competitive bidding. That has two effects: first, it provides value for money for the taxpayer; and secondly, it prompts British industry to become very competitive. As a result of that competitiveness, British industry is doing very well, not only by taking over 90 per cent. of British defence orders by putting in the best bids, but by taking 25 per cent. of the entire world's defence trade last year—up from 19 per cent. in 1995, which figure was up from 16 per cent. in 1994. That is a remarkable achievement. It is obvious that our defence sector is extremely healthy—second only to that of the United States and supporting 360,000 jobs.
On the occasion that we are talking about, Marshall put in one bid that was competitive and one bid that was not. The hon. Lady does her constituents no service by suggesting that Marshall is going to collapse as a result of GAMCO putting in a better bid. Marshall will continue to act as the conversion design authority for RAF Tristars, unless the hon. Lady insists on talking the company out of the job.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell
Does the Minister agree, however, that in putting Marshall of Cambridge in direct competition with a firm such as GAMCO he is driving down quality and wages in a way that we would find totally unacceptable in this country?
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
No, I do not agree with that. We expect to get very high quality out of the bid that we have accepted.
The Government's commitment to air power and its importance to the defence of the United Kingdom's interests at home and abroad is clear. The Royal Air Force is better equipped now than at any time in its history. It has experienced, and will continue to experience, no less than a technological revolution, which affects the whole spectrum of Air Force capabilities. That is not 1230 merely a re-equipment exercise, it is a step change in equipment capabilities, which reflects the needs of the RAF in the 21st century.
That step change has required us to create a highly efficient, streamlined support structure, and to bear down on headquarters costs. It has entailed challenging the ways in which we previously worked and has meant being open to ideas from inside and outside the traditional defence organisation.
We must never forget that the RAF's most valuable asset is its personnel. This has been a period of dramatic change for the RAF and we recognise the challenges that have had to be confronted during the manpower drawdown—a matter which was mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The measures that we have taken to reorganise the RAF personnel management and training structure mean that our air men and women are the best trained and motivated Air Force in the world. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced last week the formation of the RAF personnel management agency, which will ensure that we invest properly in the careers of our officers and non-commissioned personnel.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) for his constant support for the reserves, the auxiliaries and the cadets—a support based on his long knowledge of, and involvement in, the RAF. His contribution tonight was especially constructive.
Maintaining morale involves, not only good career management, but ensuring that personnel are fully supported and able to perform their vital tasks. In the RAF, especially, investment in equipment is vital if our military capabilities are to be effective in future. Such investment also has a large positive impact on morale, as the welcome given by the RAF and other services to recent orders has demonstrated. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) in a telling speech, as the House would expect from someone with his experience.
To review the operational activities of the Air Force since the last debate is to realise the importance of such investment. Since June 1996, the Air Force has continued to be involved in operations world wide. In the former Yugoslavia, the RAF has provided air support to the NATO stability force with the Harrier and, as we heard tonight, has even flown my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who has taken such a close and effective interest in our armed forces for a considerable time. In former Yugoslavia, the Jaguar fleet, aircraft from which are taking over the SFOR support role this week, is part of the way through an extensive upgrade programme to improve mission avionics and to provide a laser designation capability to deliver precision guided munitions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) mentioned the valuable contribution of the support helicopter force to operations in the region and elsewhere. When the RAF's additional Chinooks and new EH101s enter service from this year and 1999 respectively, the lift capabilities of the helicopter fleet will be greatly enhanced.
In the middle east, our support to UN operations is demonstrated by our Tornado GR1s based at Incirlik and A1 Kharj. The capabilities of the Tornado ground attack force are being massively upgraded by the mid-life update 1231 programme. That will entail 142 aircraft being provided with improved avionics, navigation and other systems which will enable the aircraft to seek out its targets more effectively, as well as improving the Tornado's self-defence capabilities. The first squadrons of GR4s will start to form next year.
Investment in equipment will also enhance our forces stationed in the permanent garrisons. In the Falklands, airborne air defence is performed by Tornado F3s. I announced last March that the F3s are to be upgraded to enable them to carry advanced short and medium-range air-to-air missiles. A contract for that work was signed in November with British Aerospace Warton. That is one of the enhancements that we have introduced, which would presumably be put at risk by the strategic defence review—for the first time this evening, I heard it referred to as a strategic security review—proposed by the Opposition. Or are the Opposition prepared to say that that enhancement would not be included in such a review? The recently introduced field standard C variant of the Rapier surface-to-air missiles are manned by the RAF Regiment from Mount Pleasant airfield.
Our support to the Falklands, and our other garrisons and other operations around the globe, will also be enhanced when the 25 C-130J Hercules II transport aircraft enter service next year. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said about the C-130J. As regards his point about the C-17, clearly we must listen carefully to what he says. We are closely examining our future requirements for strategic and tactical airlift to support our deployments.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
There will still be immense pressures on the defence budget and a critical need for new equipment, such as a future medium-range air-to-air missile, the ASTOR, and ultimately ballistic missile defence. In those circumstances, is it not much more cost-effective to buy a proven aircraft, the C-17, which has shown itself to fulfil the role admirably, probably two or three times better than a future large aircraft ever could, than to invest development and production money in a new aircraft that is only marginally better than the C-130J? Airbus can build a new aircraft—a Jumbo equivalent, the 3XX, for example—but we should not put money in a multinational programme when a proven aircraft already exists and is in service with the US air force.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I hear what my hon. Friend says. He makes an extremely important point, but several of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members are interested in the future large aircraft programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre raised the matter, as he has done on several occasions. I know that he takes a close interest in it.
We continue to work with partner nations on the future large aircraft with a view to rejoining the programme, ensuring first that a number of conditions are met. Broadly, those are that the programme should be commercially managed under the Airbus umbrella; that our price and productions requirements are met; and that resources are available for the programme. Into that calculation must go the point that my hon. Friend tellingly makes.
§ Mr. Mans
Does my hon. Friend agree that, to provide our heavy lift requirements, we must analyse the different 1232 options open to us, and decide on the basis of value for money which is the best aircraft, and that at this stage, without that analysis first being carried out, we should not prefer any specific aircraft?
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
We must, of course, make our decisions very carefully indeed. We must make such calculations. We are making good progress in evaluating the options available to us, but there is more work to be done before all the conditions are satisfied. We will make an announcement once a decision has been taken. The mini-debate that there has just been among my hon. Friends shows how difficult that decision will be.
Equipment programmes are in place across the spectrum of RAF capabilities. Many of them are collaborative, and in that context I wholly agree with the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). I have mentioned the Harrier, which is built by British Aerospace and McDonnell Douglas, and the EH101 from GKN Westland and Agusta of Italy. Such collaboration offers the chance to transfer technological skills and to share the risk and costs of development. We shall continue to seek opportunities for collaboration where it is practicable to do that, both within Europe and across the Atlantic.
Shortly after the previous RAF debate we announced the outcome of three major equipment programmes. The RAF's maritime fleet plays a vital role in seeking out enemy submarines and surface vessels. Therefore, it plays a key role in support of the nuclear deterrent. It also contributes significantly to our ability safely to deploy and sustain our contingency forces, including the joint rapid deployment force, as well as carrying out routine maritime surveillance and search and rescue tasks.
In addition to their operations in the north Atlantic, Nimrod aircraft played vital roles in the Gulf conflict and more recently in the Adriatic in support of operations in Bosnia. The existing maritime patrol fleet of Nimrod MR2 aircraft has been in service for a quarter of a century and the aircraft are nearing the end of their life. Therefore we decided, following competition, to buy 21 Nimrod 2000 aircraft from British Aerospace.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I should say that the Nimrod 2000 will, in effect, be a new aircraft with the most modern mission systems of their type in the world. It is a British solution, and it was selected because it was the most cost-effective way to meet our forces' requirements. A contract was signed in December. As prime contractor, British Aerospace is wholly responsible for systems integration and for the airframe. Rolls-Royce will supply the engines and Racal will supply the radar. Key elements of the mission system, which is crucial to the effectiveness of maritime patrol operations, will be provided through a strategic partnership between GEC and Boeing. In all, more than 200 companies throughout the UK will benefit from the decision, sustaining some 2,600 jobs.
The RAF is rightly keen to take delivery of the new aircraft as soon as possible and delivery will start in 2001. The Nimrod 2000 will be in service for at least 25 years, but it too would be at risk from a Labour strategic security review, or would Labour exempt it from the review?
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
At least that is a helpful start.
At the time of our announcement on Nimrod 2000, we announced two major decisions on air-to-surface weapon systems which will greatly enhance the RAF's counter-air and offensive support capabilities. Matra-British Aerospace's air-launched cruise missile, Storm Shadow, was selected to meet our requirement for a stand-off weapon for the precision attack of high-value infrastructure targets. The Gulf conflict demonstrated the value of that capability, which will be of the utmost importance in future operations, including high-intensity conflict.
Storm Shadow will enter service in 2001, and will be carried by Tornado GR4, Harrier and Eurofighter aircraft. The total procurement cost of this order is about £800 million, and at its peak it will sustain about 1,600 jobs in the United Kingdom. We also announced that we would buy Brimstone anti-armour weapons from GEC-Marconi. A contract was signed in November. Brimstone will replace the RAF's current stock of BL755 cluster bombs, which are becoming less effective against modern armoured threats and which require overflight of the target, putting the launch aircraft at risk. When it enters service in 2001, Brimstone, which will be carried by Tornado, Harrier and Eurofighter aircraft, will provide a vital capability, complementing the Army's attack helicopter force. At its peak about 700 British jobs will be sustained by this order, the total procurement cost of which is about £700 million.
Those two highly sophisticated systems will also be key air-to-ground weapons for Eurofighter, which remains our No. 1 procurement priority. In September, we announced that we were ready, in principle, to proceed with the production investment, production, and support phases of the Eurofighter programme. We hope to be able to sign the appropriate contracts in the next couple of months. In terms of employment, the some 6,000 jobs sustained by the development programme are expected to increase to 14,000 when Eurofighter production is at its peak.
Meanwhile, the aircraft's flight test programme is going well, and five development aircraft are now flying. The first twin-seat aircraft, DA6, made its maiden flight on 31 August and its public debut on 23 September. The DA7 made its debut flight on 27 January this year. The sixth aircraft, DA5, is scheduled to fly tomorrow, fitted with the ECR90 radar that will be so crucial to the Eurofighter's effectiveness. The seventh should fly by the end of this month. The EJ200 engine will power the last two aircraft, and is already flying in three aircraft.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have paid tribute to Eurofighter many times in the past. I agree entirely with the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, who said that we must continue to emphasise that Eurofighter is an incredible aircraft. It is simply the most capable multi-role combat 1234 aircraft ever built. I am happy to take this opportunity to agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, particularly as yesterday I was able to sit in the cockpit of DA4 during a visit to British Aerospace at Warton. It will not only be a potent air superiority fighter, replacing the RAF's current fleet of Tornado F3s, but will be extremely capable in the air-to-ground role that is currently filled by Jaguar.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and for his felicitous remarks. He may recall that during the debate I mentioned reports that Germany was considering acquiring 40 Eurofighters in the multi-role form. Has the Ministry of Defence considered that option?
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
Yes. The hon. and learned Gentleman is correct to suggest that we could buy a further 70 aircraft to fulfil that role. However, that decision does not need to be taken yet, and we have decided to take the 232, which will be the keystone of the RAF's future capability.
The aircraft represents the latest advances in aerospace and avionic technology, and the industries of the United Kingdom and of the other partners can take great pride in their achievements. Through Eurofighter, we have maintained our great history of ground-breaking aerospace programmes. In the air superiority role, a key armament for Eurofighter will be the future medium-range air-to-air missile. We are presently evaluating responses to the invitation to tender, and I hope to take a decision on the way ahead in the near future.
In December, I announced that we had decided to undertake a feasibility study into a future offensive air system. The Tornado GR1 force—which is being upgraded to GR4 standard—will, in combination with the new weapons systems being procured, continue to provide a long-range power projection and air interdiction capability well into the next century. The study will examine a range of options for maintaining this capability beyond the planned withdrawal date of the GR4 in the second decade of the new millennium.
A future offensive air system would be in RAF service until the second half of the next century. By taking a long-term view, we can ensure that the RAF has the capabilities it requires to undertake its vital tasks. The RAF is better equipped than ever before, and it is continuing to benefit from massive investment in new systems.
I was heartened by the recent comments of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North about being prepared to honour contracts. I was also heartened, to an extent, by his comment on Eurofighter. However, we have not yet placed a contract with Eurofighter, and I was disappointed that he did not say that he would exempt it from the security review. Many of my hon. Friends have raised the review issue in this debate, but the hon. Gentleman has made no commitment to exempt the Eurofighter—that hugely important aircraft—from such a review. Unless the 1235 Labour party can come clean about that review and about where the "painful consequences" described by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. It is very clear that if the Minister or any other hon. Member who has the Floor does not give way, the other hon. Member must resume his seat.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
The hon. Member for South Shields has himself stated that there would be "painful consequences" from a defence review, and we need to know where those "painful consequences" would cut most deep.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, now that he has been fed his lines by the hon. Member for Clackmannan.
§ Dr. Reid
I do not want to confuse the situation, because I have already made a pretty clear statement, which the Secretary of State can read tomorrow in Hansard. I shall merely ask the Minister a question, to which I know the answer. Will he tell us whether Eurofighter was excluded from the Government's review, "Options for Change"?
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
We had not made any decision to buy 232. However, now that we have, we are promising a period of stability. We can promise a period of stability, whereas the Labour party promises a strategic defence review. Labour's defence review is a policy that dare not 1236 speak its name, because it is the political skulk of the century. It is a policy mask, behind which Labour Front Benchers try to hide from Labour Back Benchers, who are desperate to cut defence, and who would like to cut defence spending to the bone. We know that that is why the Labour party is promising a defence review.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
We have had plenty of time for the hon. Gentleman to speak. I will give way to him one last time, but he must tell us what he proposes to leave in his defence review and what he proposes to leave out.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
It is perfectly clear that, next year and the year after, we plan to keep the defence budget exactly the same as it is, and that, the year after that, we plan to increase it a little. The hon. Gentleman could not say that, because he has promised the instability which would be caused by a defence review. He knows that the instability that the Labour party would offer the RAF is precisely the opposite of what it wants.
The RAF is better equipped now than it has ever been, and it is continuing to benefit from massive investment in new systems. We have a world class Air Force, with world class personnel and equipment, and we are already taking the action necessary to ensure that it remains so in the next millennium.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.