HC Deb 23 April 1998 vol 310 cc979-94

[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report of the Defence Committee, Session 1996–97, on Heavy Lift (HC 233) and the Government's response thereto (HC 153 of Session 1997–98).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

4.3 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)

It is an honour and a privilege to open this afternoon's debate on the Royal Air Force, particularly in its 80th anniversary year. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I express the gratitude of Parliament, the people and many overseas for the stalwart work of the RAF in the past eight decades. It has been a testimony not only to its strength and adaptability, but to the commitment that RAF members have shown in the service of their country. It is also fitting that we are debating this gallant service on St. George's day, and I hope, Madam Speaker, that the House will forgive a Scot his temerity in alluding to that fact.

Many hon. Members who will speak in the debate will wish to make particular reference to the strategic defence review, but, given that this is a single service day, it would not do the RAF justice if I did not spend the bulk of my introductory remarks referring to its activities throughout the year. If I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, I shall refer to the comments made on the wider strategic context when I wind up.

The eight decades of the RAF's existence are short compared with those of its illustrious sister services. However, the junior service has a gallant and heroic place in this country's history during the 20th century. From the dark days of the second world war—when the bravery and skill of RAF pilots and crews helped to secure our freedom—it has been apparent that no modern conflict can ignore the importance of air power.

The long-distance air strikes during the second world war which struck a blow at our enemies proved that air power was here to stay. However, we also learned then that air power has a humanitarian face. While they were delivering fatal blows to our adversary—in a manner that has been well publicised—the aircraft of Bomber Command were carrying out a less aggressive, but no less vital role; dropping more than 7,000 tonnes of food to starving Dutch civilians.

The House will recall many such episodes, but one other anniversary deserves a special mention today. Fifty years ago next month, the Berlin airlift began. It was unprecedented for a beleaguered city, surrounded by hostile forces, to be sustained entirely by air, month after month. More than 2 million tonnes of supplies were flown into Berlin, nearly a quarter of which were carried by the RAF and British civilian aircraft, which flew more than 300 million miles and spent more than 200,000 hours in the air. They brought more than 130,000 people out of that besieged city.

That that great undertaking was begun and pressed to a successful conclusion was a tribute to a range of people, from those who expressed the political will and determination of this nation and of western leaders—Clem Attlee and Ernest Bevin prominent among them—to the airmen who flew those hazardous missions under constant threat. We remember in particular those who lost their lives in the noble operation, because, sadly, 70 airmen were killed during the airlift, including 17 members of the RAF.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

This may be the appropriate moment to pay tribute to the flying skills and dedication of those based at RAF Lyneham, whose Hercules, of course, were the main aircraft used in the Berlin airlift.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

No, they were not.

Dr. Reid

I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) if he wishes to make an intervention.

Mr. Clark

I extend my apologies for so uncouth an interruption to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), but I rely on the Minister to remind my hon. Friend when the C130 Hercules aircraft became operational.

Dr. Reid

It is a testimony of our times that, on a great occasion, we cannot give tribute in a spirit of nonpartisanship without the divisions in the Conservative party expressing themselves.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Reid

A third view from the Conservative party.

Mr. Howarth

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) was entirely right to mention the Hurricane's sterling work for the RAF, but, in the interests of setting the record straight, 1 should say that it was—I am pretty sure—the DC3 Dakota that did the job 50 years ago.

Dr. Reid

The nation has a range of Conservative views from which to pick. On a factual basis, I recommend that hon. Members agree with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), but I am sure that we are all united in spirit in paying tribute to the courage that was shown by the RAF and its personnel during the airlift.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to join Chancellor Kohl, among others, at the opening next month in Berlin of the museum commemorating the Allied role—I, and other Ministers, hope to participate in other events marking the anniversary of the airlift.

During the eight decades since the RAF was established, the advance of technology has continually and often dramatically redefined the nature of battle. Large static armies are a thing of the past. Agility, versatility and reach are now the key characteristics of a modern armed force. The RAF is now increasingly an instrument of policy rather than only of war—its professionalism is as likely to be called on to deliver humanitarian aid to a third-world country as to give a bloody nose to a protagonist in the defence of peace and freedom.

For most people, air power is something of an esoteric concept, both mysterious and powerful. It is seen to affect our lives only when, like an insurance policy, it is called on to pay out, or when the peace of a summer's evening is disturbed by a low flying aircraft—a matter that is constantly drawn to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who, because of the way in which we devolve power in the Ministry of Defence, deals with such important matters.

Nevertheless, air power is the cornerstone on which United Kingdom military capability is based—control of the air is, and will continue to be, the strong and resolute support of our land and sea forces. Given today's emphasis on joint and integrated operations, air power remains essential in the preservation of our national interests and a way of life that we hold dear. It enables us to deter our enemies and to secure peace and freedom for ourselves and for our friends and allies. In the past year, just as in the previous 79 years, the RAF has delivered that air power in an incomparably professional fashion.

The House need look no further than the latest tensions in the Gulf for a vivid recent example. Unfortunately, we have become used to Saddam Hussein's dangerous games of brinkmanship. In November last year, following the Iraqi regime's refusal to allow United Nations inspection teams access to several sites, precautionary military deployments had to be taken to underline our clear resolve not to allow the Iraqi tyrant to flout United Nations Security Council resolutions. Harrier GR7s from No. 1 Squadron were moved at short notice to join HMS Invincible at Gibraltar—RAF crews worked with and alongside the Navy, forming a potent force that left Saddam in no doubt about our intentions.

Although Saddam appeared to back down from the confrontation, in the new year we once again had to reinforce diplomatic ventures and efforts with a clear demonstration of military might. As the House will recall, HMS Invincible, with her joint air group, was moved to the Gulf; Tornados from No. 14 Squadron deployed to Kuwait; and Harriers from No. 3 Squadron embarked on HMS Illustrious, which in due course relieved HMS Invincible on station in the Gulf.

The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy together met the challenges of those deployments with their customary professionalism, most notably in the rapid integration of the RAF Harrier detachments aboard the aircraft carriers. The effective cross-training with United States and other forces in the Gulf was a further sign of our operational effectiveness and preparedness, as was the early adoption into service of the thermal imagery airborne laser designation pod for the RAF Harriers, although, thankfully, we were not required to put that new technology into action on this occasion.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Will the Minister confirm that the undertaking to deploy extra Tornados was given by our Minister in conjunction with the American Ministers in Washington on the Saturday, and that, by Monday afternoon, those aircraft and all their support capability were in operational flying condition? Does that not demonstrate the superb flexibility of our front-line pilots and all the support staff in the RAF, which enables us to deploy our aircraft faster than any other air force, including, I should say, the Americans?

Dr. Reid

I can confirm the facts that the hon. Gentleman adduces. He puts the point well that that occasion provided a practical illustration of the professionalism, preparedness, commitment and skills of crew members and others in the RAF. That is what the Ministry of Defence exists to do: what really matters is the output of fighting power in practice, rather than what we have on paper.

The determination of the United Kingdom and the coalition partners to confront Saddam' s intransigence, backing the diplomacy of the United Nations with the means to enforce compliance with Security Council resolutions, has been instrumental in gaining the UN Special Commission the full, unfettered access that is needed to unearth his weapons of mass destruction and the programmes related thereto.

Given Saddam's track record, it is clearly too soon to relax our vigilance. HMS Illustrious and the Harriers of No. 3 Squadron have left the Gulf, but we have increased to 12 the number of RAF Tornados at Ali al Salem air base in Kuwait, where a high state of readiness is maintained. At the same time, we should not forget the RAF detachments based in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which continue the task, started as far back as 1991, of monitoring the no-fly zones over Iraq.

We are committed to the full and final completion of the work of the United Nations Special Commission. Saddam Hussein's horrific programmes must be clearly and unequivocally accounted for and destroyed. We have consistently made clear our determination to see the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.

Britain is at the forefront of continuing international efforts to implement the chemical weapons convention, and we are working closely with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to develop further its inspection capabilities. That included a joint practice challenge inspection at RAF Valley in Anglesey earlier this year.

We are also working closely with our allies and partners to agree effective verification arrangements for the biological weapons convention at the current negotiations in Geneva. That is a priority for our presidency of the European Union, and our aim is to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion by the end of the year.

The House will recall that we also made clear in our manifesto our commitment to the goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons. On 6 April, we ratified the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. We are working hard for the establishment of the international monitoring system called for by the treaty at the earliest possible date. We have made it clear that, once adequate progress has been made towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we shall ensure that Britain's nuclear deterrent is included in multilateral negotiations. Only a few weeks ago, on 31 March, we withdrew from service the WE177 free-fall nuclear bomb. That marked the end of an era, as it marked the end of the RAF's part in providing our nuclear deterrent.

Mr. Alan Clark

I quite see that the Minister, conscious that many Labour Members will pay attention to what he says on the topic even if they are not in the Chamber, must include in his speech passages about the WE177 and the Government's good intention to phase out nuclear weapons. However, he cannot take the risk that any international treaty for phasing out nuclear weapons will ever really work. He could not disarm this country on the assumption and hope that bandit countries such as North Vietnam, rogue republics of the former Soviet Union and Muslim fundamentalists would disarm themselves, knowing what we do about the way Saddam Hussein and others practise concealment.

Dr. Reid

I repeat what I said earlier. We are prepared at some future stage, if we are convinced that adequate, verifiable progress towards nuclear disarmament has been made, to play our part in it. I think that that answers the right hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

What the Minister said, both before and after the intervention of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), does no more than reflect the obligations that this country has undertaken under article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty.

Dr. Reid

Indeed. While my remarks are important to the audience to which the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea referred, they are also an exact replica of what was in the Labour party's manifesto, on which we fought the general election.

Outside the Gulf, men and women of the RAF continue to operate with the British Army in the Balkans, sustaining SFOR and providing a visible, important symbol of our commitment to the peace process. The RAF has been supporting peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia since the international community's first involvement in the region. Between July 1992 and January 1996, the RAF flew some 25,000 tons of aid into Sarajevo airport. Air operations in the Balkans range from the daily flights of the RAF support helicopter force from bases in Bosnia and Croatia in support of our ground forces to the regular flights between the United Kingdom, Germany and the theatre made by the Royal Air Force transport fleet.

We should not forget our two E3D Sentry aircraft based in Italy, which form part of the NATO force maintaining airborne early warning and control over the theatre. Those operations underline the importance of joint or integrated operations, to which I referred earlier, and the crucial role of the RAF wherever and whenever United Kingdom military resources are deployed.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

May I pay special tribute to the detachment at Gioia and the E3D detachment at Aviano, which I visited a couple of years ago when I was a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme? Their involvement with the peacekeeping operation has contributed to changing the climate in Bosnia. Those who served in Italy as part of the RAF deployment shouldered some of the burden placed on the RAF by its increasing role in international peacekeeping missions. I pay tribute to RAF men and women out in Italy who contributed to that.

Dr. Reid

I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for many hon. Members in paying that tribute to the E3D squadron and to the wider role of the RAF, not only in fulfilling our international obligations but in respect of the United Nations' contribution to world peace. The House will be aware that we have recently redeployed six Jaguars from Italy back to their bases in the United Kingdom as a result of the improving situation in Bosnia—a situation brought about in part by the commitment of our armed forces to the region. They will, however, remain at high readiness to move, along with two Tristar tankers, to provide air support to our troops on the ground in Bosnia if required.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

The Minister says that the aircraft have been deployed back to the United Kingdom but will be maintained at a high state of readiness. Will he tell the House exactly what he means by that? Does he mean that they will undergo a continuing programme of intensive training or is it just a buzz word meaning that they are ready to be deployed at the press of a button?

Dr. Reid

Members of the Royal Air Force, when not in operation, normally undergo intensive training. A state of high readiness means exactly what it says. The Jaguars are at a level of readiness that would, if the political decision were taken, enable them to move at extremely short notice. When the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) alluded to the early dispatch of Tornados during the first stages of the Gulf crisis, he gave an example of what high readiness means in practice.

I have said before that it is a great privilege to hold the post of Minister for the Armed Forces, a privilege that I share with my predecessors—one of whom, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), is here. One of the great advantages of being Minister for the Armed Forces, of which the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, is having time to share and exchange views and involve oneself with, and to learn from, members of Her Majesty's armed forces on visits when they are on deployment and on exercises. In the 11 months that I have been Minister for the Armed Forces, I have been very proud to visit men and women of the RAF to learn a little of the work that they do and of the commitment that they give to it.

Only last month, I visited RAF Valley. Its role is to take young men and women who have already proved in basic training that they have the potential to make good pilots and turn them into first-rate pilots. I was deeply impressed by the skill and determination of the young people I met there and the professionalism of the instructors who ensured that the training that those young people received was second to none. I genuinely believe that what makes the difference between our Air Force and many other air forces is the skills and aptitude of the human beings who are part of the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

May I raise an issue relating to personnel that has been raised with me by the Dudley branch of the RAF Association? A real concern has been raised with me about the welfare of RAF veterans. Mike Houldershaw, the officer of the RAF Association in Dudley, has asked me to ask my hon. Friend whether he has had discussions with the British Legion, and with the RAF Association generally, about measures that might be taken in relation to the welfare of veterans.

Dr. Reid

It is not sufficient to consider merely the value and the contribution that is given to this country by service men and women while they are in the services. We have to meet a reciprocal obligation to bestow some form of benefit on them not only while they are in service but after they leave service. I have had a number of discussions on the issue, one of them with the British Legion, and we have very much in mind during the strategic defence the issue of veterans and some of the problems that they encounter.

I mentioned RAF Valley. I also had the chance recently to visit RAF St. Athan. Deep repair and overhaul of aviation equipment is a vital part of the support for the armed forces. For the RAF, this activity is currently managed through the RAF Maintenance Group Defence Agency at RAF St. Athan and RAF Sealand. The MOD has been considering the possibility of bringing this activity together with that conducted through the Naval Aircraft Repair Organisation defence agency at Fleetlands in Hampshire and Almondbank in Perth into one agency.

I have decided, subject to the outcome of consultation, to set up a defence aviation repair agency to manage the work as a whole. That will enable us to exploit the synergy between helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft repair and to implement best practice throughout aviation defence. It will be an important step in the development of joint organisations for the delivery of defence output, which is one of the key themes being progressed in the strategic defence review. I am setting work in hand to launch DARA as a new agency on 1 April 1999 with a view to moving the organisation to trading fund status as soon as possible thereafter. The agency will be overseen by an owners board, which will be chaired by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is in his place today.

The Royal Air Force bears its responsibilities with the professionalism and resolve for which it is renowned. In addition to its operational duties, the RAF has been engaged in many exercises with our allies worldwide. From December 1997 to February of this year, Harrier GR7 aircraft were deployed to Yuma, Arizona, for Exercise Hammer Fist, which provided an opportunity for live weapons training, low-level and operational low-level and simulated air combat sorties with United States marine and air force aircraft.

In March, I was able to observe our forces participating in Exercise Strong Resolve. That was a live, dual exercise in military response to an evolving crisis. In the north, the exercise was conducted around Norway and simulated a war scenario. Concurrently in the south, off the coast of Spain, the exercise involved a multinational intervention force at a level of combat other than war. The immediate reaction force, the rapid reaction force and the main defence force units joined other NATO forces in those simulated crises.

Nineteen main exercise and training objectives were designed to test the activation, deployment, employment and integration of the various air and land forces, especially in the context of the interface between reaction forces and regional main defence forces. The exercise was also useful in enabling us to gauge the success in practice of host nation support agreements. I am glad to say that I was joined on that exercise by four new members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. That scheme makes a marvellous contribution not only to our relationships with the forces but to an increase in knowledge in the House when we debate defence issues.

In June, the RAF will take part in a series of tactical training exercises that will be organised by our United States colleagues and the US air force. Tornado F3, Hercules and VC10 refuelling aircraft will train with US forces in combined air operations centred on Eilson air force base near Fairbanks, Alaska, in Exercise Cope Thunder 98-3. Later that month, Exercise Distant Frontier 98 will be held at the same location and will have a similar format. However, that exercise will be organised by the UK combined air operations centre, which will generate the scenario and plan and disseminate tasking. Its involvement will also serve to establish the basis for future participation in deployed exercises and will refine internal procedures and expose personnel to deployed exercises in a coalition environment. That is becoming an increasing feature of operations.

Hon. Members may have noticed a common thread in the exercises and in the operations of our armed forces. It is the thread of interoperability or inter-operations not only between our own armed services working closely side by side to achieve a desired aim in the most effective and efficient manner, but between nations. As clearly demonstrated by the deployment to the Gulf region, the RAF is able to integrate seamlessly into a royal naval task force, to provide that additional force needed to get the job done, and done well. As I speak, Exercise Head First—an Army exercise—is taking place in Wales and the west country, whereby RAF helicopters are lending their unique support to Army land forces.

In addition to such exercises, the RAF is playing a full part in our contacts with the countries of central and eastern Europe through NATO's "Partnership for Peace" initiative. Last June saw the first participation by RAF fast jets—Harrier GR7s—in a PFP exercise with Finland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. Given the situation in the mid-1990s, it is a testimony to how far we have moved in the past decade that that list of names should be enumerated to the House as our partners in peace and in exercises.

Mr. Alan Clark

A short while ago, the Minister mentioned the integration of RAF personnel and naval personnel in combined operations in the Gulf. If he would throw a little light on that, it would be a great help to me and to some of my hon. Friends who might wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister elaborate a little on the command structure in that situation? Obviously, the relative service boundaries and their change of command are relevant in such a situation. How did the command structure work, and how did the levels of seniority interoperate, when those two services were integrated under those conditions?

Dr. Reid

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the ultimate command structure runs through the permanent joint headquarters based at Northwood, so, instead of establishing, on an ad hoc basis, a temporary joint headquarters for each venture, for the vast majority of our overseas operations now—in fact, for the vast majority of our operations excluding Northern Ireland—the control and command system runs through the permanent joint headquarters. At the level beneath that, no blueprint is imposed irrespective of the circumstances. It depends on the objectives and on the combined weight of the various forces involved in terms of command structure and seniority.

The close-knit integration of land, air and sea forces is not only sensible but, in terms of effective fighting power and output, becoming essential in the modern world, with a three-dimensional battle space. I should have thought that the classic example of that for the future, in an area in which the right hon. Gentleman has had a particular interest historically and contemporaneously, is the aircraft carrier. The aircraft carrier is at heart a floating airfield, which is not just a naval asset but a defence asset and which requires the closest integration of the sea and air elements.

I mentioned those countries of central and eastern Europe with which we have been taking part in an exercise through "Partnership for Peace". That not only enhances military skills but is, obviously, a major political initiative. In July, two Tornado F3s will take part in a PFP exercise in the Slovak Republic—Exercise Co-operative Chance. That involves setting up a multinational NATO headquarters in an overseas operational environment and is aimed at practising command and control of the air component of a peace support operation. Later in the year, there will be a return visit to the United Kingdom by Slovakian Mig 29s.

In September, we shall provide a Nimrod to take part in a search and rescue exercise in the Baltic sea. More significantly, in the same month, the Royal Air Force will be hosting a major "Partnership for Peace" exercise, code-named Co-operative Bear 1998, in Cornwall. The scenario will be based on a humanitarian mission this time, including aeromedical evacuation and air-delivered emergency aid, and we expect at least 10 partner nations from central and eastern Europe to play an active part in the exercise. Others will participate by sending observers. That is a remarkable illustration of the extent to which things have changed in less than 10 years.

In addition to its multinational activities, the RAF is playing a major part in our own outreach programme. Activities range from expert exchanges on air defence with the Czech Republic to exchanges of junior officers with the Bulgarian air force; from seminars on aviation medicine with the Russian Federation air force to participation in the Kiev air show in Ukraine; and from joint helicopter exercises in Romania to joint fast jet activities with the Russians in Scotland. One cannot get more international than that.

That combination of confidence-building measures with activities aimed at improving our ability to operate alongside our partners wherever we may be called to do so not only enhances our air force operationally but is at the heart of defence diplomacy, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done so much to promote.

Looking to the future, the former Franco-British European air group has been aptly renamed the European air group to reflect the increasing diversity of the countries participating in it. Italy is in the process of acceding to full membership alongside France and Britain; Germany is an observer nation, and we hope that Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands will accept recent invitations to become observer members with the intention of acceding to full membership in the near term.

It would be inappropriate in the present circumstances if I did not mention Northern Ireland. The recent agreement in the multi-party talks represents a new beginning—a chance of putting behind us the violence of the past 30 years—but it is just a beginning. We hope that everyone will now look to the future—the verdict of the people will be given in the referendums on 22 May.

However, while we look forward to peace, we cannot afford to relax our guard prematurely. In that context, the RAF continues to play an important role in the support provided by all three services to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in combating terrorism and maintaining law and order.

There are just over 1,000 RAF personnel serving in Northern Ireland. They provide essential helicopter support, ensuring that troops can move quickly and easily to where they are required, together with a search and rescue capability. A field squadron of the RAF Regiment provides security for RAF Aldergrove, where two squadrons of helicopters are based. Force levels in Northern Ireland are reviewed continuously to ensure that the RUC has whatever support it requires to counter the terrorist threat.

In mainland UK also, RAF personnel and equipment are regularly called upon to provide support to civil authorities and emergency services. Twice in the past 12 months, the RAF and the Army have provided invaluable assistance to communities affected by flooding—first in Morayshire last July, and then just recently, over Easter, in the midlands. They provided the usual vital help in rescuing vulnerable stranded civilians from their homes, transporting the injured to hospital and filling sandbags.

Let me draw attention to the valuable work undertaken by the RAF in response to other civil emergencies. First, the whole House would wish to praise the courage of the dedicated personnel of the RAF's mountain rescue service, a volunteer force whose members brave the most atrocious weather conditions to bring assistance to those in difficulty in some of the country's most inhospitable terrain.

I shall say no more than a word or two about the search and rescue helicopter crews, because I am sure that their valour and effectiveness are known to all in the House. Together with Royal Navy crews, they provide emergency assistance to the military and civilians alike. During 1997, RAF search and rescue assets were called out on 1,769 occasions, providing assistance to 1,289 people. I have heard it estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 people are now walking the streets of the United Kingdom who would not be were it not for the valour and effectiveness of the search and rescue forces.

It is not only British citizens who are assisted by the efforts of the search and rescue forces. Those rescued include the 10 crew members of the Spanish trawler the Sonia Nancy, which was adrift and sinking off the Scilly Isles in atrocious weather conditions in January. The rescue involved two Nimrod aircraft and a Sea King helicopter. The Nimrods attempted to release dinghies to the trawler, but the appalling weather inhibited their efforts, and the ferocious seas tore away those few dinghies that reached the vessel. It was clear that the fishermen's only chance of survival was rescue by a Sea King.

The severe head winds hampered progress and, despite two transit refuelling stops, by the time it reached the trawler, the aircraft was operating at the very limits of its range. The only possible winching area was the small and cluttered bow area, and the ship was rolling and pitching violently in the massive swell. As the sun was setting, an attempt to lower the winchman was made but aborted as the ship was hit by a freak wave. The winchman was injured and winched back into the helicopter where, despite his injuries, he continued to assist the winch operator.

In all, the operation lasted some nine hours, although all the fishermen were finally recovered within 20 minutes. I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the crew of that Sea King, who performed such heroics while in peril of their lives, and provided us with a perfect illustration of why the forces of this country are held in such respect.

I shall deal briefly with personnel issues. Hon. Members will know that, over the past eight years, the number of people employed in the Royal Air Force has been reduced by almost 31,000. At the beginning of this month, the trained strength of the service was some 53,000. Although some reduction was warranted by the reduced direct threat to this country and its airspace, the RAF has continued to be committed to a wide range of operations. It reflects great credit on the personnel that those commitments have been met. There is still a manning shortfall—some 1,800 as at 1 April 1998—although that is expected to decrease in the coming year.

Recognising that the men and women of the Royal Air Force are its most precious asset, I can assure the House that the Government will ensure that the RAF can continue to recruit and retain the personnel whom it needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The retention of personnel in the RAF will become more difficult as the demand for pilots, particularly from the civil airlines, increases. That is a challenge to us. It does not make the position any easier, but the Government are prepared to confront the challenge. It is central to our consideration, and a key aspect of the strategic defence review.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

That is an important point. Is the Minister aware that, the longer the strategic defence review announcement is delayed, the more apprehension there is among RAF personnel? I urge the Minister, if necessary, to make representations to his Cabinet colleagues to make sure that that announcement is made as soon as possible—and certainly before the summer—so that apprehension can be alleviated and there is no danger to the future recruitment and training of those highly qualified personnel.

Dr. Reid

We are extremely keen that everyone in the RAF should be assured of the continuing validity and importance of the RAF in our defence plans. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point; I hear what he says, and he can be assured that we are doing all we can to ensure that we reach a coherent defence configuration in the shortest possible time. I assure him that, although the strategic defence review is continuing, it has not stopped us taking parallel and integral measures to develop methods of retaining pilots and aircrew. That involves giving them some form of security as regards their future.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Following on from my hon. Friend's question, can the Minister confirm that the strategic defence review has now left the Ministry of Defence, is being considered by the Public Expenditure Committee of the Cabinet this week, and will be considered by the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee of the Cabinet next week, so that, as long as it is not unpicked by the Chancellor, we can expect an early publication of the SDR—perhaps in the next two or three weeks?

Dr. Reid

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the strategic defence review—and the Air Force configuration—never leaves the Ministry of Defence. It has been overseen from the start by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office in the first stage, and by the Ministry of Defence in the second stage.

The hon. Gentleman speculates about a meeting this week and next. I can inform him that those are not the first such meetings. Throughout the process there have been various meetings of a series of committees, inside and outside the Ministry of Defence, inside and outside Government. That will continue, and the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will take the minimum amount of time necessary to achieve a coherent configuration and a relevant defence posture for the present circumstances. I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he sought.

We have made plain our view that, in all three services, we wish to recruit from the widest possible reservoir of talent and, following recruitment, we wish promotion to be based on merit. That policy will continue. As part of that on-going drive, the Royal Air Force is committed to increasing the number of recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds. Like its sister services, the RAF is an equal opportunities employer, within the limits of the law. The principles of equality of opportunity in employment, promotion and training—based on ability, performance, experience and aptitude—underpin all RAF personnel policies. Progression through the ranks is, and will continue to be, based solely on merit.

The House will no doubt recall that I announced in January that the recruiting target for ethnic minorities would increase year on year until it reaches 5 per cent. in 2001–02. As part of that initiative, the RAF is participating in discussions with a range of leaders, including religious leaders of non-Christian faiths, in an attempt to identify and then remove any potential cultural barriers to recruitment. In addition, the RAF is holding an equal opportunities open day at RAF Cosford on 15 June. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will attend the open day in order to underline the senior-level and political support for the Royal Air Force's decisions. He will be joined by Sir David Cousins, the Air Member for Personnel.

In view of some press reports this morning, I wish to make it plain that racial discrimination or harassment is not tolerated in the armed forces. There is no place for racism in the British armed forces, full stop. We have embarked on a major programme of equal opportunities awareness training. The RAF has further demonstrated its commitment as an equal opportunities employer, under the Race Relations Act 1976, by becoming a member of the race for opportunity.

In addition, the Chief of the Air Staff has personally signed up to the Commission for Racial Equality leadership challenge. The service will also be playing a full and active role in the partnership agreement recently signed by the MOD and the CRE. I remind the House that not only was the non- discrimination notice lifted that the CRE had hanging over the MOD's head, but we were singled out by Sir Herman Ouseley, the commission's chairman, as a leadership model in Britain.

In view of some of the rather lurid attacks in the tabloid press, hon Members will expect me to refer to women in the Royal Air Force. The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently considering the issue of wider employment of women in the armed forces. Women have flown non-combat aircraft in the RAF since 1989, and combat aircraft since 1991. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, who, as Minister of State, introduced progressive equal opportunities policies in 1991. The Government claim no monopoly in advancing the case of women in society. I am sorry that so many Conservative Members are embarrassed by such an accolade. I hope that I have not damaged the right hon. Gentleman's career.

I do not like to single out individuals, but I must mention the recent case of Flight Lieutenant Jo Ashfield—or Jo Salter, as she was known before her marriage. I deeply regret the ignorant and inaccurate way in which some sections of the media have chosen to report her decision to have a baby. Let me make it absolutely clear: Flight Lieutenant Ashfield is a fine Tornado pilot. She has completed two operational tours, and is currently serving—as RAF pilots do from time to time—on ground duties. She has balanced the needs of her service with those of her family life to perform well in the most demanding of roles that any individual—male or female—can be expected to perform. She has achieved this with the dedication and professionalism expected of all those who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. We demand no less—and she has given no less.

We look forward to seeing Jo resume her career and return to the cockpit of a fighter aircraft when it is appropriate. I dare say that the cockpit of a fighter aircraft is a rather more demanding environment than the desk of the average media hack who has sat in judgment on that lady. In the meantime, I hope the House will join me in offering Jo and her husband congratulations on their happy news and in offering thanks for the way in which they have planned the birth so that she can return to duty in the service that she loves and in which we wish to see her serve.

I now come to the Reserve forces. The first Royal Auxiliary Air Force crews are now flying the Hercules out of RAF Lyneham. They were recruited from a pool of retired Hercules aircrew, and now provide a much-needed boost to our ability to support naval, army and air operations world wide. Four role support squadrons have already formed at RAF Benson, RAF Cottesmore, RAF Marham and RAF Brize Norton, and another will form at RAF Leeming later this year. Those squadrons augment regular RAF units when necessary. The developments are part of an approach to develop the skills and capabilities of Reserve force personnel as a vital element of the service's manpower mix. As 1 speak, members of the Reserve continue to support the regular RAF in operations in the Gulf area, Turkey, Italy and the former Yugoslavia. They play an important part in the RAF and will continue to do so.

I have taken considerable time describing the year's activities of the Royal Air Force because I think that it is appropriate to do so in the single-service debate. I have not concentrated on the strategic defence review in which my Department is currently engaged. I know that the House is tense with anticipation that I may have some news on that front. In order to relieve that tension, I must tell hon. Members that I will not be making any announcements this evening on the final outcome of our deliberations. However, I know that the House will want me to touch on the review and return to it later this evening if I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall give a few basic facts. We said that the review would be foreign-policy-led, and it has been. We said that the service chiefs would be closely involved from the start, and they have been. We said that the review would be open and inclusive and would aim to build a consensus on defence into the 21st century, and it has. All those promises have been kept.

Mr. Blunt

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Reid

I would not complete my comments on the strategic defence review without giving the hon. Gentleman the chance to attack me, but I ask him to allow me to continue a little longer.

Of course, our task has not been made easy by some of the rumours and ill-founded speculation in the press—much of which, incidentally, has concerned the RAF. For example, I recall reading at an early stage of the process about the Government's desire to abolish the RAF. That then became a desire to merge the three services or to split the RAF between the other two services. Without going into any details of the review's conclusions or revealing any secrets about our final decisions, I assure the House that the SDR will not result in the abolition of the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Blunt

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I refer him to the issue of openness. The SDR has been like a black hole: it has sucked everything in. However, Ministers have failed to expose any of the difficult issues and arguments with which we know you are having to grapple. You would have had the sympathy of everyone in the defence establishment and the academic defence establishment if you had exposed those ideas, but you did not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember that he is addressing the Chair.

Dr. Reid

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Bayley

The second division of land command is currently based in my constituency and its future will be affected by the outcome of the review. I have had a very helpful and open relationship with Ministers—

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

And a negative one.

Mr. Bayley

It is not negative at all—far from it. Because Ministers have taken an interest in my comments, the Department is now considering a wider range of options, which I believe will benefit the review. Two dozen parliamentary questions have been answered. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have met me on the issues. The process has been as open as it could be at this stage of the review.

Dr. Reid

I thank my hon. Friend for his robust defence of the manner in which we have approached these matters. My hon. Friend is not the only person who has been consulted. Discussions have taken place and people have been invited to seminars that have taken place in the House. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, has been involved in discussions. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the shadow Minister for the Armed Forces, and the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, have been involved. The Select Committee on Defence—the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who has already asked a question, is a member of it—has also been involved. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was in my office only 48 hours ago to discuss these matters with me.

I could refer to another dozen individuals who have been involved. The openness of the consultation exercise has been unparalleled, and it has not finished. Once decisions have been taken, they will be incorporated in a White Paper that will be put before the House. We shall then have further debates on the issues.

I am prepared to accept that everything is relative. However, in relative terms, I would challenge Conservative Members to find any exercise that has taken place over the past 50 years inside the Ministry of Defence that was conducted with the openness of intent an inclusiveness of membership that have characterised the strategic defence review.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The Minister has referred to great openness. Can the hon. Gentleman now answer the two questions that I asked him last summer, which he has been unable to answer so far? Will he now publish the foreign policy base line, which is the most important element of the strategic defence review? Has he yet been able to come up with the mission statement for the Ministry of Defence which he promised last summer?

Dr. Reid

If we do not accept a premise, we shall not be able to reach a conclusion. I do not necessarily agree that the foreign policy base line, in the abstract, is the most important element. The force planning assumptions arising from the foreign policy base line are probably more important.

The foreign policy base line that the hon. Gentleman seeks to extract in some abstract fashion from the previous and sequential analysis has been outlined on any number of occasions in speeches and articles delivered and written by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The hon. Gentleman, like an American advertising executive, seems obsessed with the mission statement. We have discussed aircraft carriers, strategic analysis, fast jets, intervention in Bosnia, humanitarian missions and global analyses, but the hon. Gentleman keeps coming back to the "major" issue of a mission statement.

Having reflected on the matter about 10 months ago—I nearly forgot to tell him this, but I shall update him—it seemed to me that it was probably more sensible to wait until we had completed the strategic defence review before incorporating other elements into it. I shall send the hon. Gentleman a personal invitation and probably give him an engraved copy of the mission statement when we finally produce it.

I return to the more substantial elements—while still trying to be as inclusive as I can.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

In the context of all the openness to which the Minister has referred, I hope that he may be able to agree to the meeting for which I asked at the end of 1997 to discuss the position of RAF Uxbridge, which he was then unable to grant me.

Dr. Reid

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we have refused a meeting with him? I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. To my knowledge, I have never refused a request from any Member to meet me. When the hon. Gentleman refers to the end of last year, I can only suggest that perhaps he made his request immediately before the death of my wife, and that somehow it was lost. The request was not brought to my attention. I shall discuss any matter with the hon. Gentleman. If he wishes to write again, we shall make some arrangement.

In the context of the strategic defence review, we fully recognise the unique and distinctive contribution made by all three services to our country's military capability. We will not sacrifice that, and the future of the RAF will be safe. That is not to say that there will be no changes. We did not embark on the SDR to maintain the status quo. It is clear that, in the new strategic setting, there is much greater scope for our armed forces to be able to operate together.

The House knows all too well that when we came to power we inherited shortfalls in key areas of capability. These are being shown up during the SDR. I hope that all of us will apply our minds to how we can best backfill the areas that have been hollowed out. They include strategic lift and logistic support.

We must be able to send our armed forces rapidly wherever in the world they are needed and, crucially, to support them there. This requirement is more demanding than during the cold war, where we expected the enemy to come to us. In future, we may need to transport our forces more quickly and over longer distances to emerging crises, whether in Europe or beyond. We must also work to resolve the inherited problems of overstretch and undermanning that put such a strain on service personnel and their families. These will be some of the key elements in the SDR.

Part of the inclusive process of listening will involve the next four hours. During that period I shall listen, as ever, to the comments that are made in the Chamber. If I am lucky enough to catch your eye towards the end of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall attempt to elaborate at greater length and in more detail on aspects arising from the SDR. I hope to say more at that stage about our defence equipment programme.

In the meantime, I hope that we can look forward to an interesting and lively debate on Royal Air Force matters this afternoon. Before we embark on that debate, I say to those men and women who play such a vital role in our services that they should not in any way mistake differences of opinion expressed from either side of the House on how we best approach the future of defence as representing divisions over the commitment to the Royal Air Force and over our support and appreciation of those people who serve in it. Whatever party we represent in this place, and on whatever side of the Chamber we sit, there is a full commitment to and a deep appreciation of the service that the men and women of the Royal Air Force give to the country.

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