HC Deb 20 December 2000 vol 360 cc71-91WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.30 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am glad to have the opportunity, along with my colleagues from neighbouring constituencies, to raise the issue of Royal Air Force low flying over rural communities. I admire enormously the skill and courage of RAF staff in the work that they undertake and, like most of my constituents, recognise that they have a vital job to do. They have skills to develop and keep in the best condition, and that requires training. Although most of my constituents recognise that, widespread concern exists about the heavy numbers of low-flying aircraft.

The Northumberland area, low flying area 12, takes a large share—nearly three times the national average—of the fixed-wing jet low-level flying that takes place in this country. I am not concerned primarily about helicopter low flying or the transport flights occasionally made by Hercules aircraft because those flights do not raise the greatest concern, and, of course, the RAF search and rescue operation conducted from RAF Boulmer is enormously appreciated. Concern about other aircraft comes from the collision risk, rather than any other problem that low flying might present, so jet low flying causes the real concern.

In 1997–98, we experienced an 11 per cent. increase in low flying when other areas experienced a reduction. Rural communities are mainly affected; bigger towns with a population of more than 10,000 are, supposedly, subject to avoidance. That does not entirely apply, however, as low-flying jets fly over Berwick, which is a town of more than 10,000 people. Larger conurbations tend to have civil airfields, which are subject to wide areas of exclusion. I would not prefer to be in the flight path of a civilian airport—especially in the case of somewhere like Heathrow, where several planes come over every minute—in contrast to the periodic low-flying exercises to which I refer. Conurbation exclusions do not mean that people have an easier life, as heavy civilian flights cause a great deal of disturbance and lead to a concentration of low flying over rural communities.

Low-flying jets create a disturbance of a very sudden nature. One does not normally know that a jet is coming; suddenly it is there, and one is aware of an aircraft immediately overhead. Among those who are disturbed are those who are also greatly impressed by the flying and, in fact, enjoy seeing it. A large number of my constituents go to RAF Leuchars every year to see the air show and to watch the skills displayed there. In a week in which I had received a particularly large number of complaints about low flying, I remember attending an agricultural show at which a display of acrobatics by a single-engine propeller plane took place over the crowded show field. I wondered whether any of those who had written to me were among the crowd directly underneath the manoeuvring aircraft. For those who are concerned, there are those whose concern is outweighed by the sense that the RAF does a good job and who are impressed by its skills. However, that does not alter the disturbance.

People worry about disturbance over schools and to animals. From time to time, we request that the RAF avoid common ridings, for example, and events in our area that involve riding for the disabled. I am glad to say that several of those requests have been met. There is also concern about apparent targeting, when an aircraft can appear regularly to make for a particular building—perhaps a farmhouse, a row of cottages or a reservoir. That, too, can give rise to anxiety and to a feeling that the locality is getting more than its fair share of the low flying.

Road safety is another factor. Jets sometimes fly beside the road, or even below the road if it is on a hillside and the jet is flying along the bottom of the valley. That can be a major distraction to motorists, and it can present problems.

I suppose that the most significant problem for the majority of people is the fear of a crash and the risk involved if there is a lot of low flying. The RAF obviously goes out of its way to avoid accidents and crashes because aircrew can be lost, as happened in one of the incidents to which I shall refer, and every incident involves the loss of equipment, or even of aircraft costing tens of millions of pounds each. But crashes there are, and, unfortunately, they have been fairly frequent in the past two years.

In December 1998, a Harrier jet hit power lines and crashed at Barnard castle in County Durham. In July 1999, a Harrier crashed in my constituency, just east of Coldstream; the report into that crash was published recently, and I shall refer to it in a moment. In October 1999, a Tornado crashed at Kirkheaton, just beyond the southern boundary of my constituency, with the loss of two aircrew. An hour earlier, that jet had been involved in a near miss with a Boeing 737 passenger aircraft near Newcastle airport. There have been other near misses in that area. On 27 October 1999, a Hawk was lost when it hit trees at Shap in Cumbria. On 19 November 1999, a Tornado crashed into the sea near the Torness nuclear power station, just north of my constituency. On 18 October 2000, an Air Force Hawk crashed five miles west of Holy island, quite close to the village of Lowick; the crew ejected, but sustained minor injuries. On 29 October 2000, a Jaguar aircraft crashed near Lockerbie in Dumfriesshire.

On every occasion, people on the ground avoided injury or fatality. That is the happy side of an otherwise sad sequence of events, but people worry whether that will always be so. I know that aircrew are instructed to avoid that risk as much as possible and that, if an aircraft does go out of control, they often take courageous actions to try to ensure that it does not crash over a populated area.

What have we learned from the inquiry reports? I start with the Tornado that crashed at Kirkheaton in October 1999 and resulted in two fatalities. When confronted with deteriorating weather, the aircrew found themselves on a heading for Newcastle airport's controlled airspace. While turning to avoid that area, the aircraft went nose down and could not recover in the height available. The inquiry board found that four factors had contributed to the crash—the weather, what the board called "poor crew resource management", an incorrectly executed manoeuvre and the proximity of Newcastle airport's controlled airspace.

The board recommended a thorough review of low-level abort procedure, the action that aircrew need to take when required to make a sudden change of direction at low level. It also recommended that a ground proximity warning system should be fitted to all aircraft. Recent correspondence from the Minister suggests that that has been done for some categories of aircraft but not all, and that there are some constraints—perhaps for reasons of cost—on how many aircraft will be fitted with the warning system. I hope that the Minister will tell us what progress has been made on that important recommendation.

I also have the report into the Harrier crash near Coldstream. That incident involved five Harriers, nine Tornado jets, three of which were supporting the Harriers and six of which were acting as the "enemy", and a Tucano aircraft that was on a completely different navigation exercise, presumably without the knowledge of any of the authorities involved. In turn, they did not seem to have knowledge of the low-flying activity that was taking place. One Harrier was lost when departing violently from its course to avoid collision with the Tucano.

The RAF board of inquiry's recommendations were that all military low-flying aircraft should have a collision warning system installed, and that a study should be carried out into aircraft data links, whereby proximity can be displayed in aircraft to reduce collision risk. The inquiry also recommended a review of the handling advice for Harrier aircraft on high-speed departure avoidance. Will the Minister tell us what is being done about those firm recommendations?

It would also be useful to know what has been done about the near misses. In October 1999 there were three near misses in an hour on the day of the Kirkheaton crash to which I referred earlier. One or two of them involved the aircraft that was eventually lost, and another involved a near miss of 100 ft with a helicopter. There were seven reported cases in the past year. I hope that something has been learned from them.

The concern in the border areas has led local authorities to work together in approaching the RAF. That is generally helpful to the RAF, as it does not have to make presentations to many individual local authorities. The RAF took a full and valuable part in a conference that I chaired in Annan in March 1999 at which there were good papers from various groups. A lot of good was achieved by our discussions, but several issues were left in the air about which I want to see more progress.

At the time of that conference, Gulf war activity was still taking place, which led to questions about the operational requirement for low flying. In several recent conflicts, low flying has not been the chosen method of attack, which has led many people to question its future utility. I am in no position to provide an answer. So long as the RAF can make a convincing case for the operational need for low flying, we as a community have to accept our share in ensuring that we have the capacity for it. From time to time, Ministers need to satisfy me that that requirement is kept under review and that its essential nature is being checked out in the light of experience in recent conflicts.

Questions on the amount of low flying concentrated in certain areas were raised at that conference. Much reference was made to the extensive scientific literature on problems that can be caused by noise and disturbance from low flying. A specific and positive suggestion that emerged was the idea of a charter for low flying, to set out clearly some of the responsibilities of the Ministry of Defence in policing low flying and dealing with the community, and some of the citizens' rights to pursue their complaints and receive information. Most of us thought that that was a good concept, and it is disappointing that more has not been made of it in the interim. It had attractions for the RAF as well as for the communities involved, as it would have set out what the RAF does already in terms of providing information and responding to complaints. It would also have given citizens some assurance of what they were entitled to if they had a complaint about low flying.

I want to return to the issue of distribution and its effects in Northumberland. So long as the operational requirement for low flying clearly remains, I remain firm in my view that we must take our share of the necessary burden, but that it should be fair. As well as being in the heavily used LFA 12, we are part of the Cheviot low-level training area known as LOTAC, one of the busiest low-level operating training areas. A wide range of manoeuvres, measures and risks are taken in those defined areas. Are they and their uses being reviewed?

What other measures would help? One that constituents frequently suggest to me, perhaps in rather broader terms than I shall use, would be a reduction in reciprocal flights in our territory by the air forces of other countries. I would limit my plea to one that we should not have to accept non-reciprocal low-flying training over Northumberland. We have arrangements with some countries, which provide reciprocal benefit in our ability to use their territory. That benefits my constituents and others. If there is no reciprocal benefit, flying by other countries could surely be reduced.

Some of the low flying that affects my area is generated by traffic on route to the Spadeadam range—both our own and that of other countries' air forces. The Spadeadam range is a valuable resource and is marketed. Its facilities are made available to other air forces for payment. I see nothing wrong in that, with this qualification: I am advised that it is often not necessary on the way to use the range to fly in at low level over LFA 12. The main operational requirement involves using the Spadeadam range. Given the amount of low flying that we experience it should, I suggest, be made clear, particularly to those from overseas, that low flying is to take place over the range and not over the approach to it through LFA 12.

It would help significantly if the targeting, to a disturbing extent, of properties, buildings and features, could be avoided. Instructions to aircrew should involve keeping that under review. Although that practice is not the main issue, the intensity of low flying in a locality seems greater if a feature is so attractive to pilots that they continually home in on it. It creates a sense that part of the area is under an even greater burden of low flying.

I hope that the Minister will tell us about what hopes there are for a reduction in low flying. What is his current view of the operational requirement for low flying and for the pattern of low flying over the next few years? What efforts is he prepared to make to secure a fairer and more even distribution of low flying in the large number of areas where low flying is considered necessary and appropriate? Previous Ministers in the Department have been able from time to time to reduce low flying over Northumberland. The present Minister, who has not been in the post for long, could rise to the challenge and bring about some benefit for my constituents. The vast majority of those people greatly respect the RAF, realise that it has a vital job to do and accept that they have to play a part in accepting the burden involved—but they want their share to be a fair one.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I lack guidance from the Liberal Democrats as to who is their Front-Bench spokesman. If no hon. Member is intending to wind up at the end of the debate, I shall simply call hon. Members as ordinary Back Benchers.

Mr. Beith

No one is here as a Front-Bench spokesman. In the best tradition of the newly created Westminster Hall we are all here to raise constituency concerns. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has made it known that he is willing to be the last called from our Benches.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The absence of a Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats must be a unique occurrence. I call Mr. Kirkwood.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I was confused. The hon. Gentleman intends to speak last for his party. Perhaps he will forgive me; I shall call one of his hon. Friends.

9.49 am
Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

I apologise for any confusion that has arisen. We like to think of ours as a team effort, which we have, I hope, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt this morning.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important matter of low flying and the RAF's role. Like my right hon. Friend, my constituents and I believe that the RAF's position in the armed forces is very important. We can all proudly proclaim that its pilots are the best trained and the finest in the world. We recognise that the training that underpins that must be done somewhere, and that low-flying training, whether during the day or the night, is an important part of the process. Because of our beautiful landscape and the thin population spread across many hundreds of square miles, we must also accept that the areas north and south of the border are a prime area for low flying. We have heard the statistics about the extent to which that is the case.

We accept all that, and would never seek to diminish the RAF's role or its ability to undertake low-flying training in our part of the world, but important issues need to be tackled. We hope that the Ministry of Defence in particular will have listened sympathetically to the points raised by my right hon. Friend—I am sure that other hon. Members will echo them—about ensuring that a balance is struck between the RAF's needs and the rights and sensitivities of those who live in the areas involved.

The RAF has recognised over many years that a proper public debate about its role, and dialogue with local people, must be in its interest and in all our interests. I pay tribute to the work of individuals such as the south of Scotland liaison officer, who has regularly been quick to deal with any complaints from my constituents and me.

Over the past two or three years, the RAF has made many attempts to make its case to my constituents. I recall attending a slick presentation in the volunteer hall in Galashiels not too long ago, at which a good crew demonstrated the RAF's role in the armed forces and in NATO, and the need for low flying. Any sceptics would have been won over by the end of that presentation. We were impressed that the RAF took the time to visit us and go into a great deal of detail. Incidentally, the presentation was almost too slick. As the commanding officer answered questions at the end of the presentation, his squad had appropriate slides and captions appear on the screen behind him, and someone alleged that that was a fix. I was happy to check that out and was confident that it was not. I thought that we should be grateful if the skills that keep our pilots in the air also allow them to move slides quickly through a presentation.

In addition to public presentations and the like, we have benefited from and appreciated regular briefings from the RAF, as have many right hon. and hon. Members. My colleagues and I paid a fruitful visit to RAF Spadeadam just over a year ago and were impressed by the extent of its facilities and the commitment of the ground crew, officers and all those in the surrounding area to the work being carried out there. We had a proper, open and professional tour of the site and a good opportunity to raise many of the concerns that we are raising here.

We all recognise the RAF's need for low-flying training, but we frequently worry about the manner in which it is carried out. We want to stress again the need for a great deal of sensitivity. I shall focus on two sensitive locations in my constituency. First, the Borders general hospital, situated in the lee of the Eildon hills, which are a beautiful and stunning landmark, standing out for miles around, and are consequently a useful visual target for RAF crews using the area, in fast jets or transport aircraft. There is an exclusion zone around the hospital, but I get many complaints from people who say that, although the aircraft have not flown over the hospital, they have come close to it. Residents in Melrose, the adjoining town, are concerned about how close the aircraft come to the hospital, which is the major acute hospital for all three constituencies in the border area. I ask the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to look again at the use of the Eildons as a target area. It is important to consider the matter sensitively.

The second place that I want to highlight is St. Mary's loch. The area is thinly populated but the issue is none the less important for residents and farmers. I have held annual autumn community advice surgeries in its community hall, Cappercleuch—a beautiful little hall that one would drive by and ignore if one did not realise that it was the focal point for a vast surrounding rural area. It is one of the better attended of the community advice surgeries that I hold. Apart from such issues as roads, which are always of concern, low flying is a big problem. I have witnessed the aircraft while in the area. It is a false impression, but one feels sometimes that one could wave to or touch the pilots as they pass. That is all very well on a beautiful clear autumn day; it is more alarming when it occurs regularly at night or at other times of the year. I again appeal for some sensitivity to be shown towards that area; it is an easy visual target for passing aircrew but a balance needs to be struck on how often the area is targeted.

As my right hon. Friend said, apart from sensitive locations, many sensitive events—such as the common ridings—take place over the Borders summer. The common ridings are important to the towns and communities that hold them. As many as 300 horsemen and horsewomen often gather to ride over the moors and the hills. Selkirk common riding is one of the larger ones: I choose my words carefully because it does not do to decide what is better or worse in my constituency. It is one of the larger gatherings of riders and one of the longest established common ridings in the area. In each of the past two years, I have had to ring the Ministry of Defence while on top of a hill watching the horses because, despite exclusion orders having been issued for the day, low-flowing aircraft were buzzing the area. I am sure that the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence appreciate the sensitivity of a situation in which there are so many horses, people and visiting tourists and understand the importance of making a real attempt to ensure that low-flying aircraft are well clear of the area on such days.

I appreciate that mistakes will be made. It is in the nature of fast-moving, low-flying objects that a small change of direction can quickly have a huge impact on distance and location. What matters is the level of monitoring carried out by the RAF of such flying. One of the issues that we raised at RAF Spadeadam a year ago was the nature of the flight plans that are filed by pilots before their trips. We were encouraged to find how thorough they are and just how serious are the briefings given to individual pilots as they head out on their sorties. We were alarmed to discover, however, that there is no monitoring after the event to check where pilots flew. There may be an informal debriefing but there did not appear to be anything near the serious levels of debriefing needed to ensure that pilots did what they were intended to do or that if, for understandable reasons, there were deviations from the plan, those were explained and understood.

What impressed us at RAF Spadeadam was the Skyguard facility, the mobile radar that ensures that low flying can be policed Skyguard must be proactively and regularly used. It appeared from my correspondence with the Minister that it is used only intermittently and often in response to specific concerns raised after a particular incident. There is little sanction against pilots if they do not think that there is much chance of being caught when they have flown too low or too fast through an area. Is there a defined programme of monitoring using Skyguard, and what reporting procedure is there? To what level within the RAF does that report go?

We do not ask to understand the outcomes—for obvious reasons, we recognise that the Ministry of Defence and the RAF need to maintain that for themselves—but there would be no harm in the public knowing how often Skyguard is used and getting an idea of the types of measures and lessons that have been learned from it. We have come a long way in recent years. There is a great deal more openness now than ever before. I hope that that can be encouraged to go further.

My constituents are wholehearted supporters of the RAF and fully appreciate the need to have training facilities. We hope, in return, that the MOD and the RAF recognise the sensitivity of our part of the world.

Mr. John Maxton (in the Chair)

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), it might be for the convenience of hon. Members to know that I am not one of the listed Deputy Speakers and therefore it is correct to address me as Mr. Maxton.

10.4 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Thank you, Mr. Maxton. We are beginning to learn the revised rules of this place.

May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this timely debate? I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) indicated that this was a team affair. Not for the first time, I do not seem to have been included in the team, as I will speak from a rather different stance.

First, I shall speak about another area of the country, Somerset, rather than the borders. Secondly, I shall concentrate on rotary-wing rather than fixed-wing aircraft. Thirdly, and I hope that I will not be ruled out of order, hon. Members will be aware that the principal airfield in my constituency is the royal naval air station at Yeovilton, although in these days of jointery, there is no fixed distinction between services that fly from that base. Hon. Members who have heard me speak over the years will know that I am a great supporter of Yeovilton airfield. I believe in the work that it does and I want it to be developed. In previous years, the Ministry of Defence has put in considerable investment, but I worry that there are plans to close it. I hope that it will continue to be used.

Like my right hon. Friend, on making my customary tour of villages in my constituency this summer, I discovered that the recurring complaint, particularly from those living on the levels in the Yeovilton area, was of noise from helicopters that use the base. Curiously enough, the problem is caused by helicopters that use the Merrifield satellite station at Ilton, rather than Yeovilton.

Of course, fixed-wing jet aircraft such as the Harrier, which we have lived with for a long time, are leaving Yeovilton. We have recognised their value and taken considerable pride in them over the years, but there is now a greater emphasis on helicopter traffic. In the tiny communities such as Isle Brewers, Isle Abbotts, Beercrocombe and Curry Mallet—they are not much more than specks on the map—that fringe the air stations, people consistently complain about the considerable disruption caused by helicopters. In fact, many say that helicopters are more disruptive than jet aircraft because they hover rather than pass in an instant.

I should point out that, in terms of liaison, RNAS Yeovilton is first class. Mr. Richard Seymour, the liaison officer, does a terrific job. He talks to local parish councils and investigates individual complaints. Air station open days attract many people and allow them to see exactly what goes on there. Mr. Seymour works closely with Commodore Clapp, for whose attitude to complaints I also have nothing but praise. However, the fact remains that the low-level exercises that helicopters inevitably need to carry out cause disruption in the area. Although it is impossible to eliminate that disruption, we must consider how to minimise it for the greater good of the local community. With that in mind I shall make a few brief points.

First, liaison is desperately important. As I have said, although the existing systems are extremely good, I should hate them to wither away because it is important that the community understands what is being done and why.

Secondly, we must develop as far as possible family-friendly practice among pilots and those who plan their exercises. That can be achieved, for example, through the design of the exercises. Of course military exigencies might require flights at unusual times such as weekends. Nevertheless, much of what is done is carefully planned. Such low-flying exercises and other events should as far as possible avoid disrupting local communities.

It is questionable whether pilots stick rigidly to their guidance when out of visual range of the airfields. I cannot prove that—it is based purely on circumstantial evidence and hearsay. However, challenges from members of the community—for example, they may complain that there is a helicopter just above their church—are too often refuted by the air station. If the area is in visual range of the control tower, the air control people can prove that the helicopter is not there, but the systems that are in place at Yeovilton may not be sufficiently accurate—they are rather antiquated—to be able precisely to identify the position and altitude of a helicopter that is out of visual range. Perhaps the Minister can persuade me otherwise.

Thirdly, I turn to the interplay between current and future use of the airfields and planning processes. Many planning decisions depend on the way in which the airfields will be used. A process is under way to establish a flight path footprint for Harriers at Yeovilton, within which planning permissions will not be granted, or there will be a presumption against doing so. That will affect the value of property and people's legitimate wish to develop it. It makes sense not to put new houses under the flight path of a jet, but the position must be constantly monitored to ensure that it is consistent with current and future use of the airfield.

The crucial question that everybody in the area is asking is, "What will the future uses of Yeovilton and Merrifield be once the Harriers have finally departed?" I know that that is a big question and that careful consideration is being given to a wide range of options, which may involve much greater use of Yeovilton. Many aspects of those discussions are welcome and I look forward to the final decision being taken.

One consequence of the change may be that the satellite station becomes redundant. Merrifield's purpose has been to facilitate helicopter traffic when the Harriers are monopolising the main airfield, so it may become surplus to requirements when the fixed-wing aircraft depart and there is purely helicopter traffic. I assume that the Department has not yet made that decision. Rumours go around the local community that it is about to be disposed of for commercial use. People find that alarming because they feel that they will not have similar liaison with a commercial user. Commodore Clapp and others have said that they know of no such plans.

I would be grateful if the Minister provided some enlightenment, although, given that the prime subject of the debate is jet aircraft in Berwickshire, I accept that he has probably not come equipped to talk about helicopters in Somerset. My local community would like to know as soon as possible about the plans for airfields in Somerset. They want to know that jobs are secure and that the well-established relationship with the fleet air arm will continue. They also want to know about potential effects on the environment of the local area. For example, if twin-rotor Sikorskys come to the airfield, that will make a significant difference to the surroundings.

Will the Minister write to me with any information that he has and assure me that I will be made aware of any decision as soon as it is made, so that I can inform the people whom I represent?

10.14 am
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am pleased to be able to take part in this short but important debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing it.

This subject has been a key part of my constituency casework since I was elected in 1983. Every year, with almost inevitable regularity, we get a new Defence Under-Secretary. We last saw the Minister's predecessor in December last year and—this may concern the Minister—a few weeks after that, he resigned because the job was too much for him.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I am made of sterner stuff.

Mr. Kirkwood

Well, we look forward to that being reflected in debate. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) in the great reservoir of support for our active servicemen—brave young pilots who fly at high speeds at low levels in the interests of national security. I also share my hon. Friend's estimation of the work of the RAF. RAF Spadeadam, which we visited, is an impressive place where dedicated professionals perform what they consider to be an important role for the nation. I understand the Minister's attitude, that there is nothing new to have prompted this debate, but it is incumbent on the Ministry of Defence to argue month in, month out, year in, year out, why low-level tactical training is necessary.

In the old days, when I was first elected, the cold war was in its latter stages and people in my constituency were willing to accept the strategic need to fly heavy jets at low levels, because they understood the perceived threat from the Soviet Union. That was how our forces were configured, and one did not have to be a military strategist to recognise that there was perhaps a need, in extremis, to attack deep into Russia. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the need for low flying was much clearer than it is now. One of the biggest difficulties that I have with my constituents is trying to argue the circumstances in which such flying would be practised in a live theatre of war. There may be an argument about taking out airfields in Iraq, but it would help me if the Minister would take a minute in his response to stand back and justify the strategy. There may be elements of strategy that the Ministry of Defence has to keep up its sleeve to protect national security and secure its ability to respond to perceived risks. However, we are responsible people and I would not breach national security. What are the perceived military risks to which tactical low flying is a response? I am often asked that question.

Constituents telephone me because slates have just been taken off their roof or their stock has been disrupted or damaged by low overflights. They are hot with rage and want nothing more to do with low flying. I calm them, arrange to see them and talk them through it. During that process, I often come to the most difficult question: why on earth are we asking our young pilots to do this? What are the costs involved, not only in terms of the risk to life and limb? We know that young servicemen regularly put themselves at risk and some of them tragically lose their lives. A further, less substantial, consideration is the huge attritional cost to equipment. We are concerned not only with the cost of the damage, disruption and disturbance that our constituents encounter in an environmental context as a result of low flying but with the totality of the costs incurred by the Ministry of Defence. The Minister may say that we go through the same issue year in, year out, but I believe that the Ministry of Defence is obliged to keep winning the argument, year in, year out. Otherwise, in my experience, the game becomes almost impossible to defend.

I will add a couple of points to those already made eloquently by my two colleagues. I would like the Minister to tell us about some of the more recent crashes and what caused them. I am encountering concerns that equipment failure is not the prima facie cause, but rather a loss of control by the crew. That is a cause for concern. Can he reassure us on the matter? I am also increasingly concerned about the implications of manoeuvring and interceptions as causes of crashes.

On the volume of low flying, can the Minister bring us up to date about the four Tornado squadrons that have, I believe, been redeployed from Germany? The implication is that they have nowhere else to train. They used to train in West Germany, and in LFA 13, LFA 16 and LFA 12. That is a prima facie cause for concern, because if more jets are flying, even more of them will be flying over our constituencies. We need to know more about that issue.

I am sure that the Minister will wonder what all the fuss is about, because at 100,000 or 110,000 a year, the volume of flights is decreasing. That may be true in terms of fixed-wing heavy jets, but with the new deployments of Apache helicopters and of Tornado GR4s and Jaguars with night-flying capability, which are being used for night training, there is concern that new helicopter and Hercules activity is now becoming a problem. Although there may be a decrease in the level of flying undertaken by heavy fast jets, the Minister must bear it in mind that a reduction in some types of activity is being counterbalanced by an increase in other types.

In passing, I concur with my right hon. Friend about the use of foreign crews. It would be useful to know the current trends in the use of Spadeadam by foreign crews. That is a difficult issue to deal with when responding to constituents' complaints, when they read in the papers of incidents involving crews from overseas who are training there. The ALFENS—automated low flying enquiry notification system—computerised booking system was still being considered a year ago as a way of tracking low-flying sorties over some of the tactical training areas. If no ALFENS system is currently being considered for deployment, we cannot reassure constituents that there will be a fair distribution of flights. Quite frankly, the Ministry does not know where the jets are going, because pilots have a free hand over the route that their sorties take.

Technical difficulties or cost-efficiency savings may have caused the abandonment of the system, but the Minister previously founded his argument on the fact that a tracking device would be available, to track the flight paths of the aeroplanes. That would give us the confidence to go back to our constituents and say, "Here is the pattern. This is what is going on and we can assure you that we are not getting more than our fair share." As my right hon. Friend said, that is by far the biggest complaint. I should be pleased to have an update on the ALFENS system, if it is still on anyone's radar screen—if that is not an inappropriate metaphor.

Skyguard is another common feature of discussions that have been going on since I was elected in 1983. In spite of the fact that it is deployed professionally—there was a demonstration at RAF Spadeadam, and it is an impressive piece of kit—there is scepticism in the public mind about it. I cannot believe that in the debriefing room or in the lavatory back at base the crews do not share the news that there might be a Skyguard unit deployed in Duns, Dumfries or anywhere else. That must be so, because the results show that it does not pick up any breaches in regulations. The Minister's body language seems to say, "QED: there is no breach of the regulations," but that is in flat contradiction of the evidence of my constituents, some of whom have been in the RAF. I cannot believe that they are all wrong; there must be some breaches in the regulations that the Skyguard system does not pick up. If the Ministry had been notified of recent convictions for speeding track offences and one or two pilots were brought to book, it would, in a perverse way, reassure people that the Skyguard was working because it had picked up pilots flying outwith the regulations.

Landmarks are an issue in every constituency. Although I appreciate the Ministry's difficulties, if it dealt more sympathetically with one or two hotspots it might find its general case easier to argue across the board. Berwickshire high school in my constituency is one such hotspot. No one in the town of Duns can be persuaded that the school is not a target. There may be technical reasons for that: it may be in a corridor for planes coming in off the North sea and going north. It may not be the technical target of a toss and dive attack, but it suffers from overflights, sometimes in the middle of examinations. There are enough problems with the marking of examinations in Scotiand without the poor pupils being overflown for two or three days in the middle of highers and certificates.

There should be more sensitivity to specific complaints. I accept that the Minister may say that Berwickshire high school is not a target and that, in any case, if there are too many exclusion areas it sets precedents, but if specific complaints are not dealt with sensitively, people think that their legitimate complaints are not taken seriously. In this case, the schoolmaster and members of the school board are making the complaints, and they are not disruptive people. If the Ministry was more sensitive in dealing with one or two areas with a relatively high intensity of low overflights, and if it took a more sensitive approach to hotspot landmark targets, it would find it easier to win the argument that low flying is a positive thing that is necessary in the long-term public interest.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale that the liaison officer works hard; continuing consultation is needed all day and every day to win the argument. The Select Committee on Defence carried out a thorough and useful full-scale inquiry into low flying in the early 1990s. Opposition Members want the Ministry to tackle the issues raised this morning as a matter of urgency, or our next port of call might be to say to the Chairman of the Select Committee that, after 10 years, it is time to have another go. In the not-too-distant future, it might be persuaded, if it thinks that the Minister is not addressing the issues properly, to attack the question again and consider what improvements or changes are necessary and how the issues have evolved.

I hope that the Minister will accept that the debate is not meant to attack the good faith of the RAF or any of the professionals involved. It is an attempt to make representations positively on behalf of constituents who are constantly in touch with us and who are genuinely concerned about what is a real public issue in our rural areas.

10.30 am
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate. He and his hon. Friends all seem to represent particularly beautiful parts of the kingdom, some of which I know quite well, especially the constituency of the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore). The Borders general hospital, to which he referred, is the only general hospital to which I have been admitted as an in-patient. I was enormously impressed by the professional thoroughness with which I was treated. If I ever have to return to a general hospital—I hope that I do not—I would love to go to that one. Although no one knew what I did for a living when I was admitted, I was there for several days, and it came out. The staff therefore talked to me quite a lot about public issues in the area, but no one mentioned low flying as a problem.

I speak not only on behalf of the Conservative party but as a Lincolnshire Member. No part of the country has a greater concentration of RAF stations. I would be surprised if Lincolnshire experienced less low flying than the areas represented by the Liberal Democrat Members present. I was amused to hear about people who persuade themselves that their houses or schools are targets for low-flying operations, because the Davies family has been persuaded for a very long time that our house in Lincolnshire is a target of the same kind. There is a great deal of low flying in our part of the world, and the family dog always howls at low-flying aircraft, which is a technique that she is persuaded works well, as they end up going away. She has been defending the family against such intrusions for many years in that very effective fashion.

As a Lincolnshire constituency Member, I have often heard complaints about low flying but have never complained on my own behalf, and only rarely, on two exceptional occasions during the past 13 years, have I raised the issue of low flying with the Ministry of Defence. The only occasion on which I mentioned the subject previously was during my first Parliament as a Member, when I accused a lot of the complainants of being whingers and whiners, which landed me in the tabloid press. I am happy to repeat that phrase today, as many such complaints should not be taken seriously, and certainly not in the context of the enormous seriousness of having effectively trained RAF crews who can handle their aircraft, operationally, in the whole range of situations in which they might be required to fly. That is absolutely vital.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) displayed a characteristic and, if I may say so, Liberal propensity to pick up whatever populist issue happens to be hanging around, and to recite the usual litany of the politically correct brigade about family-friendly policies. Is he proposing family-friendly low-flying policies? What rubbish! Another typical Liberal proposal is to have a charter—again, what rubbish! The need for flexibility in conducting low-flying exercises is an absolute imperative. It is vital for national security.

Mr. Beith

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies

No, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because I do not want to take too much of the Minister's time.

Mr. Beith


Mr. Davies

Well, if the right hon. Gentleman insists and is brief, I will take one intervention.

Mr. Beith

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman's criticisms extend to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), his Conservative colleague, who said: The whole issue must be properly investigated. We put up with a lot of low flying in Northumberland and most people do that because they recognise that the RAF needs to do it. He went on to argue that low flying needed to be properly controlled and that recent crashes needed thorough investigation.

Mr. Davies

Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to disagree with the latter proposition, that crashes should be properly investigated by the RAF, as I believe they always are. The procedures are thorough, and we shall hear shortly some of the conclusions from the reports that have been undertaken.

Some hon. Members have got their priorities fundamentally wrong in the emphasis that they place on this matter. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made some reasonable points, however, and I sympathised with his proposal that ground proximity warning systems should be installed in all aircraft, as should collision warning systems. I have often taken the Government to task for not equipping the RAF with the appropriate, up-to-date avionic equipment; recently I have taken them to task on the matter of secure communications. The area to which the right hon. Gentleman refers may be another on which the Government have let down the RAF by failing to install equipment that would bring a significant reduction in the risk of collisions and would save lives. There is force his criticisms in that respect, and I fully endorse that aspect of his argument.

It is important that I do not take up too much of the Minister's time, because we want to hear his response to these matters. I hope that my contribution may cause him to take a more robust stand against some of the more unreasonable whingeing that we have heard this morning. I make a practical suggestion to him. Thanks to him, his colleagues and the Ministry, I visited the Falkland Islands earlier this year, which was a fascinating experience. I came back with many conclusions—most of them are not relevant to this subject, but one of them is. We do not use the Falklands efficiently for low flying and live firing operations. There is no public resistance among the islanders to such operations. The area has magnificent scope for training, with the endless seas, mountains and other interesting landscape features. Four F3 Tornadoes—a pretty good minimum—are based at Mount Pleasant air base, which has every possible facility and is well organised. I hope that, if the Minister thinks my suggestion worth pursuing, he will pursue it irrespective of the fact that it was made by a Conservative Front-Bench spokesman. I would like to think that it could be considered on its merits.

Conservative Members totally support the necessity for the RAF to continue to conduct low-flying training. It is absurd to say that those skills are no longer necessary because we have not used low-flying techniques in recent military operations. Equally absurd is the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that we do not need those skills any more because the cold war has ended. We live in a world of great uncertainty and it is more difficult now than it was during the cold war to predict the circumstances of the next armed conflict or peacekeeping mission in which we might unfortunately be involved. The tactics that we adopt must make sense in terms of the threat that we face—ground-based air defence systems, the characteristics of the enemy radar, and so forth. It is vital in this uncertain world, in which we have to train for a much wider scope of potential military tasks, that no flexibility is lost in the skills in which our aircrews are trained.

In the interests of giving the Minister at least 28 minutes to respond, I conclude my remarks.

10.39 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate and particularly on securing an hour and a half, as that gives us all ample time in which to make our points. In case I do not reach the end of my carefully prepared text, I shall give the right hon. Gentleman some good news now. In the training year April 1999 to March 2000, booked low flying reduced by 7,388 hours—15 per cent.—across the United Kingdom, compared with 1998. In low-flying area 12, there was a 25 per cent. reduction. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be happy to take that good news back to his constituents. I sincerely hope that the next complete year will also show a satisfactory reduction, although there are bound to be fluctuations at times.

If the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) painted a nice large white cross on his roof, it would make it much easier for us to target him. I hasten to add that that was a joke, although there is an apocryphal tale about someone who painted a white cross on his roof because he thought that the RAF had targeted his remote farm a number of times.

Mr. Quentin Davies

I was in no way suggesting that the Davies family were volunteering to take part in live-firing operations in Lincolnshire.

Dr. Moonie

I had better move on.

I propose to answer as many individual queries as possible and I will go over my prepared statement if I have time to do so. On several points, I will have to write to hon. Members, as I do not have the full information available. In the nature of things, we cannot cover every eventuality, and I do not want to give inaccurate answers.

We realise that low-flying military aircraft can distract drivers. Aircrews avoid carrying out prolonged or unusual activity near major roads, but a typical fast-jet sortie may cover a distance of 500 to 600 miles. It is, therefore, impracticable to avoid all major roads at all times, particularly in valleys, although we do our best. Of course, the highway code states that a driver must be in control of his vehicle at all times, and one or two of my constituents have written to me in the past after finding that distraction is no defence for an accident.

The overall number of accidents for all types of RAF flying has approximately halved over the 10 years between 1988 and 1998, but fluctuations in the trend will occur. In 1999, the RAF lost 12 aircraft and, I am sorry to say, five aircrew. An Italian air force pilot training in the UK was also killed. Our target remains to achieve the lowest possible accident rate, and we make constant efforts to reach that goal. Aircrew always do whatever is humanly possible to pilot a stricken aircraft away from any remotely populated area, as happened in the Jaguar incident on 27 October this year.

The investigations into the full circumstances of the Hawk crash near Lowick on 18 October 2000 and the Jaguar incident on 27 October are still proceeding, and we will release their findings in due course. I think that the Hawk incident at Shap on 22 October 1999 was also mentioned. I expect to be able to release the military aircraft accident summary to Parliament early in the new year. Boards of inquiry not only determine the cause of an accident, but try to establish what can be done to prevent such accidents from happening in future.

The Tornado crash on 14 October 1999 tragically killed both crew members. The finding was that, during a low-level abort, the aircraft was manoeuvred into a position from which recovery could not be effected in the height available. Those who have read the report will know that the board identified a number of factors that might have contributed to the accident, including poor weather in the operating area. It was impossible for us to identify which factor played the largest part.

Flight safety is clearly a high priority for us, and the highest in training. All aspects of flight safety are kept under continual review, and there are many continuing initiatives. We strive for open and honest reporting of incidents, and a system of confidential reporting enables individuals to raise issues anonymously if they prefer. We do our utmost to ensure that as much information as possible is given to us about any aspect of flight safety, without people feeling obliged to conform to some real or imagined code of practice.

We are pleased at the high level of co-operation between military and civil aviation communities. Regular civil and military air safety days are held, usually at RAF stations, to provide a direct safety link to the general aviation community. Military and civil air traffic controllers are closely integrated to try to ensure the highest safety standards.

Development work on a collision warning system for the Tornado GR4 is making progress. The requirements deal with the mitigation of mid-air collision risks relating to various types of civil and other military aircraft. The Civil Aviation Authority has been directly involved and is happy that the programme is consistent with developments in civil air safety policy. We expect the collision warning system to be introduced as part of a scheduled refit programme beginning in 2004. The technical solution for the GR4 may be able to be used on other types of aircraft, and we will keep that possibility in mind.

The programme to fit ground proximity warning systems to all fast jet aircraft except the Hawk continues, and I shall write to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed with an update. He mentioned a charter, but we have no proposals to set one up. The RAF works within a clearly defined set of regulations that are strictly enforced. The public are well informed through annual statements on low-flying training, our Department's website and written and video material which is freely available. Local newspapers also pick up such material, especially in the borders where the issue is so important.

Use of our low-flying airspace by non-UK based foreign aircraft is a sensitive subject, and all such use of the system requires approval by officials. The principle of reciprocity is a key consideration, and approval is generally given only when British aircraft are afforded the opportunity to train at low levels in the countries concerned. Other factors must be considered, including the rather less tangible mutual benefit that UK and allied forces may receive from such training, as well as the wider defence interest.

My Department views exercises and squadron exchanges with other nations as excellent training opportunities to develop the capabilities that are increasingly employed in multinational responses to emerging crises. When foreign use of our low-flying system is approved, the aircrew will be fully briefed beforehand on the requirements of the system. They are subject to stringent flying regulations that are the same as or stricter than those that apply to our services. During the last year for which I have full data, foreign aircraft took part in less than 0.5 per cent, of the total sorties booked in the UK low-flying system, so such exercises are small in number.

The Spadeadam range is a designated facility for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and is available to it on a repayment basis. Low flying by non-UK based foreign aircraft using the range is generally restricted to LFA 13, with transit flying to and from it conducted at medium level. There is an exception, as Italian aircraft are permitted to conduct their transits to and from the range at 1,000 ft. That dispensation continues in recognition of the assistance provided to our forces supporting the NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia from Italian air bases.

One does not have to be an active conspiracy theorist to imagine that there might be collusion on skyguard. On the days when it is deployed inconveniently, everyone knows about it. That is not our practice—just as we do not warn units when we are about to carry out random drug tests, a fact borne out by the numbers who regularly fail them. I am sorry to say that the fact that skyguard virtually never picks up evidence of irregular activity shows that what bothers people is normal activity by low-flying aircraft. I fully accept that normal low-flying activity is highly intrusive and annoying. I have experienced it over many years—not, I hasten to add, where I live, but certainly when fishing. Few more disconcerting things can happen, when one is standing waist deep in a fairly fast flowing river, than to have a Tornado fly overhead.

Mr. Kirkwood

The MOD knows where the hon. Gentleman goes on holiday.

Dr. Moonie

Yes, one could almost imagine that one was being targeted by those aircraft. I have had the experience only once this year, so perhaps I have been lucky.

Skyguard is a covert programme. I intend to observe it in the new year in an area that I shall, of course, not mention. If any right hon. or hon. Members want to see it in operation I should be happy for them to go out for a day to see what will be done in the area in question. As they will know, there are usually about 12 deployments a year, of three or four days. On the last occasion, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, when monitoring was carried out at locations around Alnwick and Morpeth, between 7 and 9 November, 37 military aircraft were tracked. I am happy to say that none was in breach of regulations. The equipment was put on public display in Alnwick on Friday 10 November, and 56 members of the public visited it. It is not deployed solely in response to accidents. We try to implement a constant random programme as well. We should hope to cover all relevant areas of the country in a year.

On the point about Newcastle airspace, the MOD employs a three-nautical-mile buffer zone to protect Newcastle airport's airspace during exercises. Military aircrew are stationed in the tower during exercises. Regular consultation takes place with Newcastle airport managers. In fact, a meeting took place last week. An airspace users conference is proposed for Newcastle in May, to be led by the RAF's inspector of flight safety.

The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) spoke about the avoidance of sensitive sites, including the Borders general hospital. I am of course highly sympathetic when there is any allegation of disturbance to a hospital. In general we are always willing to consider requests for temporary avoidances. I want to make it clear that the hospital is excluded from low-flying activity—that is our official policy. As to ride outs, we avoid them in general provided that we receive notification. I shall see that that advice is strongly reinforced this year.

We do not target farmhouses or other places of human habitation during exercises—apart from the home of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, of course. There are turning points in exercises, which are flown to predictable, pre-set patterns. Of course, hills are often used as aids to navigation. It is our policy to try never to use turning points in built-up areas, or where avoidances are in place. There is constant rotation, so that one area is not disproportionately penalised. We are happy to investigate specific allegations.

On the matter of Yeovilton and rotary-wing aircraft, I am sympathetic about disturbances from helicopter activity. Low-flying techniques require regular and realistic practice. Helicopters are often authorised down to 50 ft or even sometimes ground level. We would always try to seek permission from landowners when landing on private property.

I will probably have to write to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the future use of Yeovilton. I cannot find the note that I have made on the subject in my pile of papers.

On the automatic low-flying booking and control scheme, I am sorry to say that parts of the project have been the subject of litigation between the contractor and my Department. I take it that I do not need to expand further. Negotiations are at an advanced stage. I expect to be able to write to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence early in the new year. I will place a copy of my letter in the Library. I do not believe that flight safety has been compromised at any stage by difficulties with the project.

Skyguard was deployed to the Duns area earlier this year in order to determine whether Berwickshire high school was seeing an unreasonable amount of low-flying activity. I believe that I wrote to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) about it. I will keep these matters under review.

I have now found the note about Yeovilton. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will be delighted to know that the study is on-going. He is well aware of that as I can remember signing the letter to him recently. I regret to say that the study is still on-going and that is unlikely to change before next summer, when I will be happy to write to him again.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire asked why low-flying training was necessary. Our pilots are not always required to use their low-flying skills, as was the case in Kosovo last year. However, as a nation we continue to demand and expect well-trained armed forces, ready to defend our interests and those of our allies at short notice, anywhere in the world and often in unstable and unpredictable conditions. With those expectations, we must ensure that when we send them to deal with the unexpected, our armed forces have the ability to achieve their objectives, which includes taking control of airspace at the earliest opportunity.

Kosovo does not provide the only template for future conflicts. Our armed forces must be ready to go anywhere at any time. Sierra Leone is a case in point, where low flying by Harrier aircraft was a factor in ensuring that our mission objectives were achieved. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, considerable use of low flying was made in the Gulf war where low-level missions by RAF Tornados made an important contribution to coalition air operations.

Low flying remains a vital element in our armoury of tactics to enable aircrew to penetrate and reconnoitre hostile airspace with minimum risk to themselves. Our aircrew must be able to reduce the effectiveness of an enemy's air and ground defences when required to do so. They therefore need to train to be able to do that. Low flying is a specialised skill and like many other skills, it requires regular practice. The warning time to prepare for the type of operations to which our forces deploy, does not allow, in the main, for the acquisition of new or unfamiliar flying skills. So, rigorous training in a realistic environment is essential to preserve professional skills.

I can assure the House that maximum use is made of simulators, but they complement, and do not replace, low flying. We continue to monitor carefully advances in simulator technology to assess the scope for their future use, but for the foreseeable future at least, simulators will be an aid to and not a substitute for low-flying training. The UK low-flying system, as right hon. and hon. Members are well aware as they represent a large chunk of it, comprises the open airspace of the whole of the UK and the surrounding overseas areas from the surface up to 2,000 ft above ground level. Helicopters are permitted to train down to ground level, but 250 ft is the lower limit for fixed-wing aircraft undertaking routine low-flying training, although on occasions lower sorties down to 100 ft are permitted in the three specially designated tactical areas.

My Department remains committed to exploring and exploiting all opportunities for low flying overseas. Over the last year, our forces have participated in exercises that involved low flying in north America, Europe, Africa, the middle east, Asia and Australia. Our aircraft have flown down to the national limits in many countries and have been cleared to fly down to 100 ft in the United States, Canada, Oman, Egypt, Poland and Sweden.

We take constituents' complaints seriously. We do everything in our power to mitigate the effect of low flying, but we cannot stop it.

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