HC Deb 17 May 2004 vol 421 cc658-9
2. Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

If he will make a statement on manning levels in the RAF. [173150]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

On 1 April 2004, the trained strength of the regular Royal Air Force was 48,740, which represents a deficit of 830 against the current requirement.

Mr. Djanogly

The reduction in the RAF's manning requirement, some 4.5 per cent. over the past four years, is the largest out of all the services. Despite that, the manning deficit is, as the Minister says, growing. Does he consider that effective management and, given the proposed base closures and the scrapped Typhoon and joint strike fighter orders, does he have any idea of future RAF required numbers?

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman lives in a dream world and is extrapolating his argument from predictions. Recruitment for all three services clearly faces some difficulties and we throw a lot of effort at it. The more people speak up for the armed forces, the greater the chances of success; constant carping and criticism undermine both retention and recruitment.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

Is the Minister aware of the concern in Norfolk about the proposed closure of RAF Coltishall and the removal from service of the Jaguar? That comes on top of the Eurofighter, which has had its cannons removed on cost grounds, and the joint strike fighter, which is apparently too heavy to land with a full payload. Does he feel that he is letting the RAF down?

Mr. Ingram

I know who has let down the RAF in the past and we are recovering from those errors of judgment, which occurred across the three services. Again, the hon. Gentleman bases his arguments on press speculation, and I suggest that he wait for a decision—if a decision is made—and make a judgment call on it. His approach adds to the negativity created by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly).

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)

The Minister knows that large-scale restructurings are taking place among various trade groups in the Royal Air Force and that the defence airfield review teams—DARTs—have been examining different base structures. I am sure that he agrees that it is important to have a communications strategy to tell people on the bases about impending changes in a robust and informative way. Is he confident that such a communications strategy exists to minimise unnecessary anxieties on bases such as RAF Lossiemouth and Kinloss?

Mr. Ingram

I would be worried if we were not communicating the matters that we are currently considering. Of course, the end-to-end strategy, which takes into account land and air, has identified significant areas of potential efficiency within uniformed personnel and the civilian support elements, whether directly in support or in industry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would support such measures to ensure that we extract maximum efficiency so that every pound that has been spent goes to the front line. That is part of what drives our actions. I shall examine existing communications because I appreciate that much effort has gone into ensuring that our people are fully aware of why we are acting, the possible consequences and the benefits that can flow from it.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)

Since manning depends on the aircraft available, when does the Minister expect the Typhoon and the seriously overweight joint strike fighter, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) referred, to be in full operational service? Is not it the case that, if the proposed savage cuts reported in the press occur, they will reduce the RAF to a level below the critical mass necessary to maintain a credible air superiority capability for the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ingram

The answer has not changed from that about which the hon. Gentleman has been told. There is nothing new to change the in-service date. Again, he refers to press speculation and extrapolates from that a doom-laden scenario for the RAF. Let us talk up the RAF for a bit.

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