HL Deb 14 November 1978 vol 396 cc683-702

4.23 p.m.

The Earl of KIMBERLEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government when they propose to re-equip the Queen's Flight with modern aircraft. The noble Earl said: My Lords, no one, I think, can deny that the Queen's Flight is the most prestigious in the world. The Andovers which it possesses are washed daily, polished weekly, and are painted every three years. I have not seen it but I am told that the floor of the hangar is so spotless that you could eat your dinner off it. So far so good, and I do not think anyone would argue that the situation should be any different, but there is one thing glaringly wrong: the three Andovers are 14 years old and are turbo-props. I admit that they are fine aircraft and they still have many other operational uses, but not for the aerial transportation of the Queen, the Royal Family, certain Ministers of State, visiting Heads of State, and other dignitaries from abroad.

To my mind, there can be no argument whatsoever for not modernising the Flight and re-equipping it with the British Aerospace 1–11. This country invented the jet aircraft and, as such, the Queen should travel in a modern British jet aircraft. The fact that she does not is really unbelievable. In 1972 the Air Board approved an order for two 1–11s, but this was turned down by the then Government. A re-equipment programme was examined again last year, and my noble friend Lord Kinnoull asked an Unstarred Question on, I think, 5th July, and just before Christinas the present Government turned the scheme down, although rumour has it that it was a photo-finish, so the Queen's Flight nearly won.

The jet operational performance for the Queen's Flight calls for short field and short sector performance together with a long-range potential for overseas tours, and the long-range requirement would save money by preventing the need to charter commercial aircraft. The 1–11 475 would meet all these requirements as it could be fitted with extra tanks under the floors, which would then give it a range of 2,750 nautical miles. One of these aeroplanes costs about £6 million, but, believe it or not, a third of this cost is in its avionics. However, it is by no means impossible that the three Andovers would fetch £1 million each on the American market, particularly bearing in mind their present ownership.

I would not argue that the running costs of the 1–11 would not be more expensive, but I think one must look at the other side of the coin and examine it very carefully. In 1977, there were 37 Royal VIP flights and/or tours abroad, and these entailed visiting 22 countries. This year, up to 8th November, which is only six days ago, there have been 32 flights which have visited 20 countries, and in the five years from 1973 to 1978 a total of 60 different nations have been visited. While I am on this subject of foreign and Commonwealth countries, I should like to point out to noble Lords that the Heads of State and Governments of 55 countries alphabetically from Algeria to Zaire have a total of 139 jet aircraft between them. Should any noble Lord wish to see this impressive list I have it here in my hand.

So what better chance or opportunity could we give the British Aerospace industry as a sales promotion platform for other countries to buy British? It is still not too late for the Queen's Flight to boost British air technology and engineering, but, even if this should not happen, let us look at one or two other perhaps more mundane reasons why the Flight should be re-equipped. First of all, more speed and greater range offers greater security. More day sectors flown mean fewer night stops, and this reduces security arrangements, whether they be against hoaxes or real threats from extremists. Thirdly, as an alternative to civil charter, RAF Transport Command has to provide VC 10s. This means taking an aircraft out of service, and fitting it out specially. The man-hours involved for this preparation, both primary and back-up, are prodigious.

The present Queen's Flight operates without back-up aircraft and with com-paritively few serving personnel. The latter are under the more than able command of Air Commodore Whinskill, who, alas, is not present this afternoon as he is en route to Saudi Arabia where he is arranging for next January's State visit by the Queen in a civil charter aircraft. Operating a 1–11 to such a distant destination as, say, Singapore would take an insignificantly longer time than using a VC 10, as the 1–11 would be ready to go at one day's notice. In addition to all this, the jet operating technique of quick rates of ascent and descent with the ability to cruise above the weather avoids prolonged flight in turbulence. Let us not forget that the Andover takes something like 30 minutes to reach its cruise height of 15,000 feet. Today, in the jet age, there is really no excuse for giving the Royal Family or VIPs a rough ride at turbo-prop cruising altitude. I believe it is known that whenever possible, Ministers —and I do not blame them—try to catch a 125 if they can, so as to avoid turbulence.

What gives me great disquiet is that I am given to understand that no provision has been made in the Ministry of Defence budget in the next 10 years for money to re-equip the Queen's Flight. If so, then by that date the Andovers will be 24 years old. There is also a minor smokescreen which seems to be issuing that perhaps the new British Aerospace 146 might be obtained. I am in agreement on that, but with one proviso, namely, that the 146 will probably not fly for about five years and then it will take at least two years for it to be proven, so the earliest it could be in service with the Queen's Flight is in seven years.

There are a few "knockers" about who say the 1–11 is too noisy. Perhaps it was unfortunate at Farnborough this year that the commentator spoke about the hush kit in the 1–11; most people at Farnborough thought the demonstrator had that equipment fitted. In fact, the aeroplane was noisy because the hush kit was not fitted. As British Airways are supposedly buying three more 1–11s—my noble friend Lord Kinnoull will be asking about that next week—and given that these aircraft will meet the noise requirements in the mid-80's, the argument that the 1–11s for the Queen's Flight would be too noisy seems irrelevant.

To disgress slightly, on 23rd October last, it was reported in a newspaper that the Ministry of Defence would be spending £200 million on a new fleet of executive aircraft to replace the Devons and Pembrokes to transport Ministers, top brass and senior civil servants. This may be necessary because the Devons and Pembrokes are, I agree, very old, but please let us get our priorities right first and re-equip the Queen's Flight. It was also mentioned in that report that these replacement aircraft would be American Cessnas. In fact, a Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that this re-equipment was under "active consideration", but gracefully added: Naturally, in the course of this consideration we need to look at all possible options, foreign as well as British". I agree that, if there are no suitable British replacements, they should be European, and last of all should they be American. Next week in your Lordships' House there will be a short debate on the subject. Will the Minister confirm or deny that report?

Reverting to the Queen's Flight, surely the greatest argument of all is "prestige" in capital letters. If we are to sell our technology and aircraft throughout the world to foreign and Commonwealth countries, however immaculate the Andovers may be, it must be a terrific stumbling block to possible would-be purchasers of modern British aircraft. Fifteen per cent. of the Queen's Flight business is non-Royal and, as I said, in addition to VI Ps from our own country, in the last year it has carried Chancellor Schmidt, President Giscard d'Estaing and King Hussein. A civil servant once said, "There is no need to replace the State Coach, so why replace the Andovers?" A young Queen's Flight officer pointed out, "Britain is not in business trying to sell state coaches".

If the Minister gives a non-committal or negative answer, I ask Her Majesty's Government here and now to re-think the whole question all over again. If they do, I am convinced they will come up with a very different answer and that the balance sheet will come out on the plus side. This is the last opportunity we shall ever have of letting the Queen's Flight have a wholly British-built jet aircraft. Do not let us make yet another aviation blunder. I ask the Minister when she answers for Her Majesty's Government to give the reasons and objections in great detail for not re-equipping the Queen's Flight, if i that is their intention, because the old chestnut of "We can't afford it" will not wash, as to re-equip the Queen's Flight with 1–11s would be a gilt-edge investment.

Let Her Majesty have the type of aircraft of which she is more than worthy as well as one of which not only Her Majesty can be proud but millions of loyal and devoted subjects will approve, an aircraft which will enhance the prestige of not only the Queen's Flight but the whole of Britain. Perhaps on this day—a special day, 14th November—Her Majesty's Government might consider answering my Question with a positive and constructive reply. What a truly wonderful birthday present a satisfactory Answer would be for our intrepid aviator, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales!

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, we are, as always, grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for raising this matter; he often raises in your Lordships' House aeronautical subjects of this kind, and he has done so today with his usual clarity and force. Having said that, I am bound to say there is a certain air of déjà vu about all this. My noble friend Lord Kinnoull raised this matter 15 months ago and we had a long debate on it then, and the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, replied for the Government on that occasion.

There are two separate aspects to this matter. There is the undoubted need to give urgent consideration to the replacement of the Andover Fleet, and at the same time we must consider the need to replace the equally aging Wessex helicopters, of which the Royal Flight has two. When I spoke to my noble friend's Unstarred Question 15 months ago I asked the Government to undertake a study of the work carried out by the Royal Flight, not only flights involving members of the Royal Family but flights involving senior Ministers and visiting Heads of State. We cannot effectively consider the need for a replacement—rather, which aircraft to adopt as a replacement—without first embarking on a study of that sort.

Lord Kimberley confined his remarks to the need for a replacement of the fixed wing aeroplanes, but, as I said, we must also consider the rotary wing helicopters and I do not think the two can be divorced in any study that is taking place. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, will be able to give a sympathetic response to my plea, which I repeat, namely, that we must study this matter carefully before embarking on over-hasty decisions perhaps for the wrong reasons. Having said all that, quite clearly the choice of a fixed wing replacement comes down to three aeroplanes; the HS 125, the British Aerospace 146 and of course the 1–11. Like Lord Kimberley, I tend to think that the first two, the 125 and the 146, are, for various reasons, unacceptable. The 125 is very small—in fact it is already used by the Royal Family a good deal—and, as the noble Earl said, the 146 is not yet in production and is not likely to be available for four or five years. We are, therefore, down to the 1–11, which is undoubtedly the best British aircraft available for this purpose. I agree it would be quite unacceptable to consider anything other than a British aircraft, particularly as there is a very reasonable range from which to choose.

The 1–11, however, is a considerably larger aeroplane than the Andovers presently in service and it will therefore be necessary to consider the possibility of using these aircraft more widely than they are at present used by the Queen's Flight in order to justify the very high costs that will be involved. When I spoke on the last occasion I think I mentioned a figure of £20 million as the cost of securing a small fleet of these aeroplanes—perhaps, two or three—together with the necessary spares and the necessary introductory costs, not least of which would be a simulator for crew training purposes.

I have no doubt that the RAF would be reluctant to introduce a new type of aircraft into its inventory, but I fear that in these circumstances there will be no alternative. I believe that the question of the extra utilisation is of paramount importance in this matter because it is necessary to use a modern jet aircraft, at least to the extent of 2,000 hours a year, and on the information that I have so far the Royal Flight could not produce that kind of workload for two or three aeroplanes. Thus, we are obliged to contemplate an extension of the use of the aeroplanes by Ministers and others, and that does not always have a very favourable reception in Parliament and elsewhere.

When I was seeking material for my remarks this afternoon, I got in touch with the Under-Secretary of State's office, and they were kind enough to send me some information including photocopies of Questions asked in the other place by Mr. William Hamilton, and I do not suppose that I need tell your Lordships about the kind of Questions that he had been asking about the Royal Flight. If the Flight was to acquire a whole fleet of new aeroplanes, it would undoubtedly cause more Questions from Mr. Hamilton and his friends, and I do not think that particularly desirable.

The other important aspect of the matter is the question of the rotary wing aircraft. My noble friend Lord Glenarthur, who is to speak later, is a very much greater expert than I in these matters, but I believe that he will agree with me when I say that the two Wessex helicopters also need early replacement. The only possibility of helicopters available would be the Sea King helicopter presently used by the Royal Navy, or some derivative of it. That particular helicopter is a licence-built and much modified version of an American helicopter called the S61, and it may be that we would be better advised in thinking about the S61 itself, rather than the Sea King; but either way I believe that one of these two alternatives would be desirable.

As I said earlier, I believe that the secret of this matter must be the investigation which should be carried out into the scale of the problem and the best way of solving it. This was the point that I made as forcefully as I could on the last occasion we discussed the matter, and I make it again tonight. I hope that the Government will accept that this is the way to proceed, and that they can give us an assurance that the considerations that have been given in the past, and which have resulted in either no decision or a postponed decision, can now be taken into account again and produce a more satisfactory conclusion.

4.45 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for raising this Question today. The noble Earl has built up an enviable reputation for his knowledge on aviation matters, particularly in terms of furthering the cause of British industry. I suggest that but for his energy and enthusiasm there would be many a day—including today—when your Lordships' Business would look a little thin and uncolourful. Like other noble Lords, I wish to pay a tribute to the Queen's Flight and to the 183 men and women who make up that elite team. Anyone who has been down to RAF Benson and has seen how they operate cannot but come away refreshed having been imbued with the spirit of dedication, pride and enthusiasm with which each member appears motivated. They give remarkable reliability and service with a punctuality which I think is second to none. Indeed, I consider that the Queen's Flight is a very special arm of the Royal Air Force, and one of which all those who have served, and who are serving, in it, can be justifiably proud.

The issue of re-equipping the Queen's Flight with modern jet aircraft is no new one, as the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has acknowledged. From what one has read the Air Board recommended it in 1972, and my noble friend Lord Carrington, who is sitting in front of me, probably has a good idea of that. But it did not happen. We read that the issue came up again last November, but again was not confirmed. One has assumed that on both occasions other priorities of the day on costs, on the precious defence budget that we have, have overruled a decision. We all miss the noble Lord, Lord Winter-bottom, from the Government Front Bench, though we welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, in his place. When we discussed the issue last July the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, said that the decision was not when, but how soon, in the light of the current restrictions on public expenditure. Like the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, I do not accept that one cannot justify now the updating of the Queen's Flight with, I suggest, two BAC 1–11s. The justification clearly falls into three parts. The first is obvious—prestige. It is not a question of prestige or loss of prestige to our Monarch, but it is a question of prestige or loss of prestige to our industry.

This is a very well-tried argument which I know at present has not won the stone hearts of the Treasury, but like the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, I believe that the question of prestige is very important when deciding this issue. It must seem very odd to many people, particularly in this country, where we are so proud of our industry, so proud of being the inventors of the jet engine, and the co-designers of Concorde, that we still offer our Head of State a 15-year-old Andover with all its limitations of range, speed and poor weather flying. What impressions do foreign Heads of State take back with them after experiencing a bumpy flight up to Aberdeen? Certainly they will take back a unique experience, because I do not think that there are any other Heads of State who have such an aircraft.

With regard to the cost, this, too, has been a very strong argument against re-equipping the Queen's Flight. If one looks at the capital cost one sees—and I am sure that the noble Baroness will confirm whether or not this is so—that the cost of purchasing two BAC 1–11 aircraft and their equipment would be in the region of £15 million. As the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has said, the resale value on the Royal Flight Andovers is not precisely known, but if one looks at the price which a second-hand Royal kilt made only yesterday, I cannot believe that the second-hand value of a Royal Flight Andover would not be a considerable figure.

The purchasing of two new aircraft is not entirely based upon the capital cost, but also on the operational costs. These aircraft will be operating for a very long time. I suspect we shall be told from the noble Baroness's brief that the Andover is a very suitable aircraft; it is very reliable, it is very good for short journeys, and it is very economical. And for the long journeys, what is wrong with chartering British Airways aircraft or the Royal Air Force DC 10s? How do the Government evaluate the operational costs of the Andover? How do they evaluate the costs of obtaining spares now for the Andover? How do they evaluate the extra costs of security necessary for the short flights that have to be made? How do they evaluate the lack of room for equipment on tour? How do they evaluate the cost of charters, the special fitting out of British Airways aircraft, against any costs of acquiring, say, the BAC 1–11?

Turning briefly, if I may, to the use of the aircraft and the extra capacity the 1–11 would give, clearly this is another argument which, in the past, has swayed against a decision. We know that the number of operations that the Royal Flight perform every year has to be of a fairly low nature compared with similar aircraft, if there are any, in airlines—and the reason is obvious. The Royal Flight has no backup or reserves; it has to be serviceable all the time. My Lords, 85 per cent. of its operations, I believe, are performed for members of the Royal Family and 15 per cent. for either Ministers or Government use. How can one justify purchasing new equipment with extra capacity when existing equipment appears, by airlines standards, to be underused? The answer, I believe, is simple: it is to rationalise the Government use of the Queen's Flight; it is to widen that use; it is to allow more Ministers to fly by Queen's Flight on trips abroad; it is to examine whether the Department of Trade really need, separately, the HS 125s, and whether the Civil Aviation Authority need, separately, their HS 125s. Should not all of these come under the flag of the Queen's Flight? The savings by way of Government chartering aircraft and air fares by Ministers would, I believe, be very sizeable; and the rationalisation of use, I am sure, would help if examined when looking at this re-equipment decision.

The last argument I use in support of the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, is the industrial one. I do not think there is any doubt at all that the decision by British Airways to buy virtually entirely American aircraft in their very sizeable re-equipment programme has come as a real body blow to British Aerospace, particularly to its civil division and particularly to the BAC 1–11. I believe it would be a very great fillip to that industry if a small order from the most prestigious carrier, the Queen's Flight, could be placed. Not only would it help the production lines: it would help those who have to sell the aircraft abroad. I hope the noble Earl's Question today will give an opportunity for the Government to say that a decision on re-equipment is not only under review but is likely to be made very shortly. This would be cheering news coming from the noble Baroness, whose first sortie into aviation matters I think this is; and seeing her smile, I am indeed hopeful.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, as your Lordships have heard, this is the second occasion within 16 months when the re-equipment of the Queen's Flight has been discussed in your Lordships' House; and I, too, should like to say how grateful we must be to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for once more bringing the subject to our attention, because a debate of this kind highlights the technical and practical aspects, but particularly, as has already been said, the strength of feeling on the much more important aspect of prestige. I concur entirely with the sentiments expressed by earlier speakers in connection with the need to replace the Andovers. These aircraft have served their purpose, and indeed they continue to serve it well. They have proved reliable and adaptable, and not altogether unpopular with their passengers; and they are a very fine aircraft in their own right. But they are slow; they cannot always fly high enough to avoid the weather; they have a limited range; and they are, let us face it, becoming old-fashioned. On the positive side, however, they have excellent short-field performance, and this is certainly an advantage in many cases where airfields are small, particularly abroad and in some of the remoter areas of the United Kingdom.

It occurs to me, however, that in addition to this there is one rather tenuous advantage to these aircraft in that they in fact take rather longer on short sectors than a jet might, which probably allows members of the Royal Family, in particular, time to relax a little between their engagements. In speeding the whole process up there might be a temptation to expect an already very full programme to be filled still further. It also goes without saying that heed should be paid to the views of those for whom the Queen's Flight primarily exists. After all, they include two accomplished and knowledgeable aviators in His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales.

I should like to leave my comments on fixed-wing aircraft at that, but I want to draw attention to the helicopters in the Flight. The two Wessex helicopters are about nine years old, and their rate of use has risen significantly. The Wessex is a fine aircraft with twin-engined reliability; it is reasonably economical and in general, proven service with the Royal Air Force. Indeed, it has the considerable added safety factor of having among the best single-engined performance in the event of one engine failing of all helicopters on the market. But with its special interior it can carry only three or four passengers and rather limited baggage, and its range is limited to about 200 miles.

It seems to me that notwithstanding the success of the Wessex—and here I speak as a professional helicopter pilot—the needs of the Royal Family and others who use the aircraft might be better served by a helicopter of greater range and greater capacity—greater payload—than the Wessex. I should like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, if consideration will now be given to the replacement of the Wessex in due course by, for example, a version of the Sea King or the S 61, as we have already heard suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, or, ultimately, the proposed Sea King replacement, the WG 34. The range of the Sea King is double that of the Wessex, and the pay-load, also, is at least double that of the Wessex. Such an aircraft would add considerably to the scope of helicopter travel within the Queen's Flight.

I should also like to ask whether, given the increase in use of the Queen's Flight helicopters, consideration might be given to the acquisition of one of the smaller, faster, new technology third generation helicopters. These are capable of carrying a load similar to that of the Wessex for Queen's Flight purposes and at considerably higher speeds—one is talking of 110 knots going up as far as 150 knots nowadays—with much less vibration and noise, and indeed more cheaply. Coupled with this, can the noble Baroness also say whether the requirement to "buy British" is absolutely sacrosanct?—because among the smaller new technology helicopters there is sadly not a suitable British type. The Lynx, although an excellent aircraft in its military role, is not really a suitable passenger-carrying aircraft; and the Puma, which is also partly made by Westlands, is not full of passenger appeal either. Helicopters such as the Sikorsky S 76 and the Bell 222 come to mind as possible starters. I strongly endorse the ideal of using British aircraft, but a purchase of American aircraft would not be entirely without precedent because, after all, the Whirlwind, the Wessex and the Sea King are all of United States ancestry.

In summary, therefore, the priority must go to replacing the Andover; but will the Government now consider adequate replacements for the Wessex and possible augmentation with new-technology aircraft to meet the Queen's Flight helicopter requirements for the future? It is in this area that there has been such a significant increase in use, and, in the field of helicopters particularly much progress has been made in recent years which could enable those serving in the Queen's Flight, with their zeal, enthusiasm and professionalism, to carry out their duties even more effectively than they do at present.

5 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I should like first to welcome the tributes paid to my noble friend Lord Winter-bottom and perhaps I am the one who misses his presence most on this Front Bench, for I find myself unexpectedly taking his place in this debate this afternoon—I think as perhaps the only amateur who has taken part in it. I have listened with interest to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, and other noble Lords about the re-equipment of the Queen's Flight with suitable aircraft. Her Majesty's Government recently examined the case for re-equipment. It was, again, concluded that replacement of the aircraft of the Queen's Flight was not justified at this time. Before I go on to deal in more detail with the reasons behind that decision, it might be helpful to noble Lords if I gave a little more general information about the Queen's Flight. At present, the Flight operates three Andovers, which it has had since 1964, and two Wessex helicopters, which it had had since 1969.

Noble Lords will appreciate that the primary factor which must be taken into account when considering aircraft to be employed in the Queen's Flight is safety. On this count, the Andovers and Wessex have such impressive records which result from a combination of the extremely high standards of maintenance and airmanship achieved by the members of the Queen's Flight and the excellence of the aircraft themselves.

May I digress for a little and talk about the role and the justification for the Queen's Flight, how it is commanded and controlled, and about its cost and manpower at the present day? The Queen's Flight, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has told us, is a dedicated and self-contained unit which is used for the routine official journeys by Her Majesty the Queen and by other members of the Royal Family and for some years, with the approval of the Palace, the use of the Queen's Flight has been extended to certain senior Government Ministers, Defence VIPs and, as we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, important foreign visitors to our shores. In all, something like 600 passengers are carried every year, of whom about 150 are not members of the Royal Family.

The existence of the Flight derives from the need to provide a service which is geared to meet a heavy round of official engagements with very tight schedules to meet. This demands very high standards of flight, of aircraft safety, administrative efficiency and physical security because VIP travel itself poses its own particular problems and experience has shown that these are best handled by experienced staff. The Flight is composed of volunteer personnel who are trained, equipped and organised to maintain the special engineering and supply standards for aircraft maintenance and component inspection that are required. The historical association of the Queen's Flight with the Royal Family is one of 30 years' continuous service and one which is held in very great pride by the RAF. The establishment and retention of the special unit has brought prestige and favourable world-wide publicity to the RAF as a whole.

The essential justification for the Flight is that it is the most cost-effective way of providing the special facilities and personnel that are required. A study has been carried out in the past few years by the RAF to see whether the Queen's Flight could operate more efficiently and effectively as part of one of the RAF's normal operational commands. It was concluded that there were many disadvantages of organisation, command and control of maintenance of security and of cost in such a proposal; but it is something that is kept under review by the Ministry of Defence, and no doubt from time to time they will ask the RAF to have another look as to whether there cannot be some sort of integrated service within other RAF units.

On command and control, the command of the Queen's Flight is vested in an Air Officer Commanding in Chief Strike Command and is delegated by him to 38 Group who exercise the operational and disciplinary control through the Captain of the Queen's Flight who is a retired air commodore. When established in post, the Captain of the Flight by tradition retires from the Service but continues as a civilian member of the Queen's Household. Thus, he is responsible both to Her Majesty and through the Air Officer Commanding in Chief Strike Command to the Ministry of Defence for maintaining the operational, administrative and engineering efficiency of the unit and for its Service and civilian performance. As the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has said, the present officer in charge of the Queen's Flight is at this moment proving, as it were, the flight to Saudi Arabia for Her Majesty's future visit.

The present establishment of the unit is some 20 officers, 152 other ranks and three civilians. All of these are highly-qualified and specially selected volunteers; and, although the Flight is part of the RAF within Strike Command, it is a separate and self-contained unit and most of its personnel are not subject to the normal operational tours of duty elsewhere in the Service. Many of the ground crew remain with the Flight for several years despite the pressure of many long hours and exacting standards which are created by the need to maintain the highest technical expertise and to provide aircraft often at very short notice. For the air crew, the longer tours are particularly valuable in providing a long and thorough apprenticeship necessary to build up to the required efficiency and familiarity with all the aspects of Royal and VIP air travel.

As we were reminded today, the unit is sited at RAF Benson, within easy reach of Heathrow and RAF Northolt as well as the grounds of Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace. It is completely self-contained with its own officers, hangars, workshops and stores. I welcome and join in the tributes to the personnel concerned with the Queen's Flight for the magnificent job they do and the way they keep all these aircraft available at a moment's notice.

On the running costs and manpower, the latest available annual running cost of the Flight is about £1.8 million. On the hourly running costs, the cost per flying hour in terms of spares, petrol and lubricants for the Andover is about £200 per hour and for the Wessex £230 per hour. If the BAC 1–11 (which has been suggested) flew as many hours as the Andover—and I accept that they fly faster or go further in the same time—their cost on a similar basis would be £720 an hour. This costing information is at the moment in process of up-dating. The final figures were not available for me to use this afternoon but it is expected that the increase is likely to be in the order of 10 per cent. On the manpower, we have the 20 officers and the 152 airmen and three civilians. In 1977 the Queen's Flight flew 1,118 flights including 729 positioning flights. In my innocence, being new to this field, I had to inquire what positioning flights were and I was told that they were the flights to get the machines from Benson to wherever the actual journey starts. One could argue that they arc part of the journey itself, but they are counted separately. Fifty nine of the flights carried Government Ministers, Defence officials, or important foreign visitors. In the first six months of this year, some 532 flights have already taken place of which 383 were for training, positioning and testing and 32 have been for Ministers, officials and foreign visitors.

The unit at RAF Benson has the facilities and expertise to carry out not only the first and second line servicing but also third line major overhauls. Because of the great utilisation of aircraft, the maintenance standards are extremely high and exacting. The aircraft must be 100 per cent. serviceable before each flight and, on their return, they are immediately serviced regardless of the time. Those components which have particular safety or functional importance are changed when only half the life predicted by the manufacturer has expired so that these machines are always well within the bounds of safety.

As a general rule, the Andovers are employed for the longer journeys up to 800 miles and the Wessex for the short journeys up to 200 miles. I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Glen-arthur, and I will mention the point he raised to my right honourable friend, because personally I found his arguments, so far as helicopters were concerned, very convincing. The need for a helicopter was very well demonstrated by Her Majesty the Queen's visit to Northern Ireland last year. As for the Andover, it is still an excellent aircraft for the job and, bearing in mind the meticulous maintenance standards applied, it could remain safely in service for many years to come. One of the most important capabilities that the Andover offers is the ability to operate in the smaller airfields. The 1977 Jubilee Tour made by Her Majesty the Queen to Papua New Guinea and the Fiji Island Group demonstrated this admirably.

Noble Lords will appreciate that there are occasions when the Queen will need to fly over longer distances than is possible in the Andover. On these occasions, satisfactory arrangements have been made to utilise either an RAF VC 10 or an aircraft provided by British Airways or other civil airlines. "Why cannot the Flight have more modern aircraft?" and "Why cannot the Government consider being equipped notably by BAC1–11s, HS 125s or others?" are questions which every noble Lord has asked today. If we may deal with the HS 125 first, this aircraft is already in service with the RAF Communication Fleet and has been used on occasion by members of the Royal Family. It would not be a suitable replacement for the Andover because, as has been explained this afternoon, it cannot carry as many passengers, it has limited baggage space and does not have such a good short-field performance.

The BAC 1–11 has fewer drawbacks although it would not be able to get into some of the smaller airfields that the Andover can safely use now. The BAC 1–11 is undoubtedly a first-class aircraft and to procure it for the Queen's Flight would no doubt be an excellent advertisement for a British product. But the existing Queen's Flight, together with the RAF's VC 10s, also continue to provide an excellent service. The cost of the Queen's Flight is of course borne on the defence budget. Any proposal to re-equip the Queen's Flight must therefore be considered alongside other demands on the defence budget.

I am sure that noble Lords appreciate that there is at this time much pressure on Her Majesty's Government to improve our military capability. The Government have accepted this and are carrying out the promises that they have made in response to President Carter's initiative at last May's NATO Summit. These improvements to our Armed Forces, many of which have been announced by my right honourable colleague in another place, have to be funded from the defence budget at a time when the fight against inflation, to which the Government are all so heavily committed, requires strict control over public expenditure.

The Government are well aware of the arguments in favour of re-equipping the Queen's Flight. They have been admirably and forcefully expressed here, not only by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, in asking his Question but by all other noble Lords who have spoken. The Government accept the force of many of these arguments, but they still consider that they are not sufficiently strong when considered alongside the other demands on defence resources to justify the re-equipment at this time. Perhaps I am really repeating in rather more words Lord Winterbottom's earlier reply when he said that the answer is still not when but how soon the funds are available for this project as against the other priorities.

The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, said that the Ministry of Defence were spending some £200 million to replace the Devons and the Pembrokes. My understanding is that these are communications aircraft which can last well into the 1980s. The Department is at present studying their replacement, but the cost quoted in the House this afternoon we think is wildly exaggerated and might be more of the order of the £20 million quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, in another instance.

The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, suggested the Department of Trade and Civil Aviation Authority's HS 125s ought to be integrated in the Queen's Flight. I am sure that we may find when we look at this that it is impracticable for the same reasons as those for not integrating the Queen's Flight in the RAF's operational fleet. But I will certainly bring that point to the attention of my right honourable friend.

I welcome the opportunity to hear the views of the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, and his colleagues and to learn more about this subject for myself as well on the question of re-equipping the Queen's Flight. We are aware of the need to keep the question under review, not least because of the need to maintain rigorous safety standards, and I can assure noble Lords that all the points that they have made today will be brought once again to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and particularly the idea of another detailed study and the suggestions for rationalisation and increasing use of the Queen's Flight, but that I am afraid is as far as I can go this afternoon in answering the noble Lord's Question.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask whether it is possible to indicate to your Lordships' House when she thinks it will be an opportune moment to consider replacing these somewhat ancient Andovers? Are we thinking of 1980, 1985 or when?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, my information is that the Andovers can quite safely remain in service for another six years. I understand that they have a flight life of something like 20 years and only 14 have gone by at the moment. Further than that I could not say at this point in time. All the while the Queen's Flight is part of the Defence budget it means that its needs are weighed against all the other military decisions that have to be taken by the Government. It is a question of when that priority gets to the top or more money is available to enable us to do this job.