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Mr. Rogers : The hon. Gentleman says that he has done well. That is how Tory Members measure their value as Members of Parliament ; they wonder how they can represent big business in the House. The Conservative party is the party of big business. If we look at the Register of Members' Interests, we see that it is riddled with the industrial connections of Tory Members with companies that receive Government contracts. The hon. Gentleman had better be careful because he is stepping into a rather dangerous minefield, even for him.
The right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), another ex-Cabinet Minister, has a most peculiar entry in the Register of Members' Interests. He is the honorary adviser to the chairman of British Aerospace--not to the
Column 1069company but to the chairman. As he is called an honorary adviser presumably he does not receive payment. If he does not receive payment, why is he declaring the interest? He does not have to declare it unless there is financial benefit, so it would be interesting to find out what his connection is with British Aerospace. As I have already said, the contracts received by British Aerospace from the Government in the last year are worth £930 million.
The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) is a consultatant to GEC, which had contracts worth £850 million from the Government in the last year. There is no point in mentioning the many others who are in the pay of defence companies, but it makes interesting reading.
Mr. Mates : The hon. Gentleman came close to making some insulting remarks about one or two senior officers who have gone into industry. He seems to be implying, first, that there is something intrinsically wrong with that, and, secondly, that the monopoly of people leaving this place to take appointments outside are Conservative Members. I shall reel off the names of six Labour Members who also left the House : Mr. Roy Jenkins, Mr. Stanley Clinton Davis, Mr. Bruce Millan, Mr. Edmund Dell, the chairman of a bank, Mr. Brian Walden and Mr. Marquand. I know that my right hon. Friend could tell me some more. The serious point I wish to make is that, before the hon. Gentleman produces names as distinguished as that of Sir Harry Tuzo, I would point out that he was hired not just because he had contacts with people--every general has those--but because in a 30-year career he has probably had more experience of high-class management than any of his civilian counterparts. That is one of the great assets of life in the services.
Mr. Rogers : I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman can reel off what appears to be the European Commission. I was not intending to be insulting but, if I was, I shall not apologise for it. All I was, in fact, doing was reading from the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee report of 1984. That Committee has a majority of Conservative Members. It says that there should be a time period between people leaving Government employment and taking up related industrial employment.
If the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence feels that that is not so--I am glad that he has put it on record--we shall look at what his Committee does in future years to see whether it is impartial in its approach. [Interruption.] Did the hon. Gentleman say that he was under inquiry or undertaking an inquiry? I would not know.
To show how impartial I am, my next quote will be again from a Conservative Member. I say to Sir Frank Cooper that those examples of right hon. and hon. Members should not be used to justify civil servants taking jobs. It should not be said that civil servants can take such jobs because politicians do. The examples should be used to highlight what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) described as "subliminal corruption". Indeed, the potential for corruption in this revolving door practice is immense. I am sure that the recent arrests of people intimately or recently associated
Column 1070with Marconi in connection with corruption, fraud and national pilfering on a huge scale are only the tip of the iceberg.
Mr. Cryer : The argument is that Sir Harry Tuzo went into Marconi because of his extraordinarily fine qualities of management, but will my hon. Friend accept that he was a signal failure? When he went to Marconi the costs of the production of Sting Ray torpedoes escalated from under £100 million to more than £1 billion during the reign of the allegedly wonderful Sir Harry even before production had started.
Mr. Rogers : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) for bringing that to my attention. As the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) knows, the fraud, the pilfering and corruption went on in Marconi under Sir Harry Tuzo. If Sir Harry is such a good manager--such a good friend of the hon. Gentleman--why did he not lay that particular nest of vipers to rest when he was there as chairman?
Mr. Brazier : I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's allegation about fraud and Sir Harry Tuzo. The point must be, however, that the bulk of the expansion in the cost of the Sting Ray programme occurred under the last Labour Government. It was a Conservative Government who eventually put it on a fixed priced contract. The hon. Gentleman has now been on his feet for more than a quarter of an hour. It really is time that he touched on the Royal Air Force, as that is the subject of the debate.
Mr. Rogers : I have given way a number of times to Conservative Members. If they were to shut up and take their medicine, we could get through it a lot quicker. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) should not display his ignorance in the Chamber. Before he goes any further, the best thing that he could do would be to go to the Vote Office and obtain a copy of the relatively recent Public Accounts Committee report on torpedoes. He could then speak with some authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South was right. I should have thought that Marconi was the last company that should be used as a symbol of efficiency.
The revolving door syndrome is not confined to this country. Recent events in America have also been quite dramatic. I am sure that the danger of subliminal corruption led to the rejection by the Senate of John Tower's appointment as Secretary of State for Defence. I can hardly imagine Senator Edward Kennedy passing a judgment on other grounds.
The procurement scandals of the Pentagon and Senator Tower's close connections with the defence industry, as a consultant and an adviser, must surely have been a great factor in that decision. Incidentally, those scandals have reached this country through the connection with Lord Chalfont, who the Prime Minister chose to be deputy chairman of IBA. Some of those practices are being investigated. For the sake of the nation, I hope that they will be pursued as assiduously as petty social security dodging.
Incidentally, it might be a gesture of good faith if the Conservative party refused to accept political donations from companies receiving Government contracts during
Column 1071the period that those companies are under investigation for fraud and corruption--perhaps is should eschew their political donations for good.
If those symbiotic or perhaps parasitic relationships were of benefit to the host body--the nation--one could perhaps justify them, however flimsy, but they are not. No benefit to the nation is to be gained from the relationship between generals, civil servants, Tory politicians and the defence industry.
Procurement irregularities are increasing ; procurement fraud is mounting ; there are long delays and overruns of time ; and staggering escalation of costs amounting to billions of pounds. The Minister mentioned earlier the question of my having a double header. I can, therefore, save further points on those issues until later.
The European fighter aircraft is potentially the greatest procurement disaster. It is difficult not to make political capital out of the Government's incompetence. However, what the Opposition find difficult to swallow is the fact that our armed forces will not have the right equipment to do the job on time and where and when it is needed. The Government refuse to learn lessons. They believe that, if there is not a quick identifiable return or profit, the project is not worth while. Funds are restricted at the feasibility study and project definition stages, often leading to cost and time overruns at later stages. That is why we want to keep a close eye on the progress of the EFA programme. By choking funds at this stage, as they are doing at the early stages of so many other projects, the Government are in grave danger of prejudicing the entire scheme.
While we welcomed the signing of the development contracts for the EFA last November, we were very much aware of the crisis in the associated radar project. On 10 November 1987 the House was told that a decision would be made on the EFA radar in early 1988. By 17 March 1988 the decision was expected in the summer of that year. The latest position is anyone's guess. Obviously, there are difficulties when there are four Ministries of Defence involved--although I cannot believe that the four are as bad as ours. However, it appears that the Ministry of Defence has not given the project the priority that it deserves.
Many thousands of jobs are involved. If the radar does not work, the plane cannot operate. Unless the Government are to produce planes and put them in storage, in exactly the same way that Tornados are put into storage, the whole project--plane and radar--founders. The Tornado is foundering because Marconi cannot produce the radar in an agreed and proper form.
The choice for EFA radar is either the Ferranti-led, all-European radar-- the ECR90--or the Marconi-led MSD-2000 which will be developed from the American APG-65. [Interruption.] If it is not to be the Marconi-led MSD-2000, will the Minister tell us who is leading the project? Will he tell the managing director and the chairman of Marconi not to bother hon. Members with circulars describing how Marconi is leading the project?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : It might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman got something right in his speech. The German company is leading the alternative radar bid for EFA.
The MSD-2000 is being promoted by Marconi as a low-risk project. If hon. Members received a copy of the Marconi letter this morning, they will know that that is so. It is promoted as a low-risk project which uses old technologies. That seems to be a very sad, if not pathetic, position to be taken by what is supposed to be Britain's leading electronics company which is led by Sir Henry Tuzo, the friend of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence.
Marconi has clearly lost faith in its ability to research, design and develop products. That is not surprising in view of the long list of procurement fiascos in which it has been involved over the past few years. It is alarming to learn that Marconi intends to use components in the MSD- 2000 which are used on the upgraded Foxhunter radar. What confidence can we place in the radar equipment to be used in the next generation of fighter aircraft when its components do not even fulfil the requirements for the current generation of fighter aircraft?
Of course the Opposition recognise the technical challenge posed by the development of the ECR90. However, we also recognise that much of the blame falls on the MOD for continually changing specifications throughout the development phase. We should remember that the EFA is intended to operate primarily as an air defence aircraft and that the system must be tailored to that role and not be emasculated to fulfil some vague, grand strategic concept of the MOD.
One lesson that the Government, with their Thatcherite short-term approach, seem incapable of learning is that money cannot be saved by cutting expenditure in the development stages of a project. The long-term result is a botched job costing much more than intended with long time overruns.
If the decision of the EFA radar is postponed much longer, at best we may find ourselves storing planes that might fly with concrete ballast instead of radar. That is the present fate of the Tornado. At worst, the whole project might be cancelled and the defence of this country imperilled.
I want briefly to consider the Foxhunter radar which is another long- running saga. That radar was originally to have been in service in 1983, but it did not enter service until 1985 and then only to an agreed interim standard and after a 63 per cent. increase in development costs. That standard has been so interim that it is not fully or properly in service today.
At the end of last year, 32 Tornado ADV F3 fighters were in store at RAF St. Athan in south Wales. Those sophisticated, new fighters, which cost more than £500 million, were tucked away in hangars at a storage cost of more than £60,000 a year. I wonder who will be surcharged for that. If a Labour council had been responsible, the council members would be slung into gaol. I presume that the Minister will not insult the intelligence of the House by claiming that the planes are in storage for reasons of economy.
Column 1073Opposition Members are most concerned that the Foxhunter radars now in service with the RAF are not performing to the standards which the RAF requires. I want to quote from a "World in Action" programme--
Mr. Rogers : Again, Conservative Members may scoff. However, Sir Keith Williamson, a former Chief of the Air Staff, appeared on that programme. No doubt the public schoolboys on the Conservative Benches will praise Sir Keith Williamson as one of theirs. Let us quote one of "theirs". According to my transcript, the narrator in the "World in Action" programme said :
"One difficulty is this : Foxhunter' has to track up to 20 planes simultaneously. It can manage all right when the aircraft are travelling in predictable courses but if they twist and turn, as in dog-fighting air battle, the computer cannot keep tabs on them all. The fighter', one senior RAF man told us, had a peace-time capability only. It would have difficulties in the extreme conditions of war.' "
I am not sure why those planes are being built, but the ex-Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Keith Williamson, responded :
"And this is really a disastrous situation because, without the radar, the fighter version of the tornado is absolutely useless." That is the story of Foxhunter and of procurement under this Government. That is why I have devoted so much time to procurement. Conservative Members have said that this is an RAF debate. We may have the bravest men in the world in the RAF- -and I accept that, because I am not chauvinistic--but they are no good unless they have the right equipment to do the job. The Government stand indicted on one charge, if only one charge. Procurement fraud, overruns and fiascos are jeopardising the lives and futures of the service men who give so much commitment to this country.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) : Having listened to the catalogue of despicable slurs against my right hon. and hon. Friends which were masquerading as Labour party policy on the Royal Air Force, I want to bring the House back down to earth and consider what is happening in the RAF at the moment, particularly as it affects personnel and training.
This debate marks the culmination of a year's association between myself and the RAF. At the beginning of last year my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) asked me if I would like to take part in a pilot experimental scheme--no pun intended--for the armed forces because I have three RAF stations in my constituency. This scheme was to be similar to the very successful industry and Parliament scheme which benefited many hon. Members. I readily agreed to take part and enjoyed a most fascinating and illuminating year. I was able to participate in many flying exercises, so much so that I have been suffering withdrawal symptoms for some weeks because I am missing my flying experience.
I want to place on record my gratitude for the positive and welcoming reception which I received throughout my tour at several RAF stations. I want to convey my thanks to the RAF and MOD personnel who allowed me to take part in the scheme.
All my many visits were extremely valuable and pointed to matters which we should really consider in this debate,
Column 1074to some of which my hon. Friend the Minister referred in his opening address, and which I hope to bring out by reflecting on the stations which I visited during my year.
The major theme of my year with the Air Force was the training of officers and aircrew, and we began by visiting the officer and aircrew selection centre at Biggin Hill. From that visit a number of conclusions are possible.
First, my hon. Friend is right to conclude that at the present time recruitment is not a major problem. There appear to be many very capable, eager young men and women who want to join the Royal Air Force. But the demographic change which we all know is coming in the future will cause problems if there continues to be a haemorrhage of trained officer aircrew into civil airlines. Indeed, there is civil airline competition in recruitment at the present time.
The selection procedures are extremely good. There is a very tough assessment lasting two and a half to three days, and to choose someone who will be capable of reacting to the pressure and demands of fast jet flying is not easy in such a short time.
The Royal Air Force has an enormous investment in a huge training machine, but the steady flow of a sausage machine of new recruits--that is the only way that one can describe it--is not easy to keep in balance. The Biggin Hill centre is to move to Cranwell. I cannot see from my visit that this will present a problem. There may, indeed, be some benefits of familiarisation of those seeking entry from going to Cranwell, as anyone who visits Cranwell will not escape an immediate impression of the atmosphere of discipline. It was very similar to that which I experienced when I was recruited to the Metropolitan police in 1965, and it was most impressive.
At Cranwell, new officers undertake what is only an 18-week course. It is very intensive, tough, physical and mentally demanding. It is to the credit of the recruits and of the instructors that, after that 18-week course, some three quarters of the recruits leave Cranwell as officers. One has to comment, however, that of late there has been a higher failure rate of some females following a purple patch. I will return to the question of the role of women in the RAF later. The quality of training of fast jet pilots was first demonstrated at Linton-on-Ouse, which is an officer aircrew training station within my constituency. As is well known, the present Jet Provost is soon to be replaced by the Tucano, and both instructors and students are very much looking forward to flying the new aircraft. The Jet Provost has served the RAF very well for many years and it is something of a tragedy and a cause of great sadness that yesterday, unfortunately, a Jet Provost crashed in my constituency. Obviously, it is too early to say what the outcome of the board of inquiry's investigations will be but, having spoken to the station commander last evening on the telephone, my impression is that the advice given to young trainee officers has been carried out.
The question of how we should instruct young pilots was brought home very forcefully at the Linton visit. A very clear balance between new pilot officers--which hon. Members who have been in the Royal Air Force will know are nicknamed "creamies"--and ex-front line pilots and specialist aircrew seems to work extremely well. Similarly, the station at Finningley, near Doncaster, like that at Linton-on-Ouse, is very well run, but there is more mixed training. Navigation training particularly appears to be moving forward briskly into the modern era,
Column 1075and there is a mood of enthusiasm, but resources are needed if we are to train navigators to get used to low flying in the fast jet world of the future.
I particularly recall a training sortie in one of the Dominies which brought home how physically demanding flying, even in such an aged aircraft, can be. There is some sadness that the Dominie cannot be replaced, but with refurbishment and an avionics update, which I think will come in the months ahead, it should be capable of many more years of service.
A question arises between Linton and Finningley about contractorisation. Contractorisation has been very successfully implemented at Linton. There is a suggestion that it be brought in at Finningley, but it is my impression that there will be difficulties in this. This is, first, because of the wide diversity of tasks and types of aircraft used at Finningley, as opposed to the single aircraft use of Provost at Linton, but, secondly, because of the availability of engineers to carry out the contractorisation tasks. There is contractorisation at Shawbury. My impression was that this was not quite so successful as at Linton. I feel sure that we have the right approach in attempting to contractorise training stations, but there is no formal programme for the training of civilian engineers. Generally the service is good but that is the problem--training civil engineers in the future who are used to these planes. The majority of the staff recruited are, of course, former Air Force personnel.
There is also an increasing problem of loss of flexibility on stations caused by reducing the number of airmen available for such duties as ensuring the security of the station. This is a particular problem at the present time because of the prospect of terrorist attack, and certainly at some RAF stations we have seen this. It is important for us to bear in mind the problems which the reduction in the number of airmen on some of these stations causes for the station commander.
At Shawbury, which is another mixed training station, the number of women being attracted into the officer grade came home very forcefully, particularly in the air traffic section. The training officers have developed a host of desk-top training aids to improve the training of air traffic controllers, but most of the male traffic control officers are not pursuing their first choice and because of this some of the trainees tend to struggle towards the end of their course. The girls seem to make extremely good traffic controllers, but there is a problem here too in that many of them take only a five-year contract and there are potential losses to civilian life and civilian air traffic control in the future.
Before leaving Shawbury, I must also mention the initial helicopter training carried out there. I found a very enthusiastic team. Many of the helicopter pilots are not following their first choice either, yet they seem to have responded very enthusiastically and favourably to helicopter flying. I must say that, of the several hours of flying with the RAF that I was able to enjoy last year, I particularly enjoyed those spent helicopter flying. I will leave for a moment the question of the aircraft we use, except to say that the Wessex is getting old and that the question of replacement will have to be addressed at some stage.
We then moved to Valley in Anglesey, which is a very active station embracing both training and the strike command role. It was at Valley that a number of features of life in the Royal Air Force came across very strongly.
Column 1076First, there are the social pressures on officers and airmen serving in such a remote part of the British Isles and on their wives and families. There are problems with housing and schooling. If parents choose to send their children to school off camp, they find that 50 per cent. of the teaching locally is in Welsh. Compared with some of the issues that we have been discussing in this debate, these are minor problems, but they are very important to the personnel, and solving them contributes to morale. At Valley I had an opportunity to fly in the Hawk, which, of course, is the aircraft used by the Red Arrows. This is a much better aeroplane, and by this stage students are beginning to look like real pilots.
That experience brought home to me the other side of the problem of low flying. In addition to the person sitting in the cockpit, there are those on the ground who have to put up with the noise and the experience generally. Low flying is a particular problem in my constituency, as my hon. Friends know. The accident yesterday to which I referred did not involve low flying, yet the immediate reaction locally related to the problem that low flying creates and to the feeling of danger of many local residents. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. He handled the matter with great sensitivity. I hope that his comments about the way in which the Ministry is trying to keep the amount of low flying across these islands to the absolute minimum will be much publicised.
My hon. Friend referred to the low-flying exercises that take place in north America--the red flag and maple flag exercises. Also, there is now increased weapons training in Sardinia and Cyprus, as well as three to four weeks' operational low-flying training--down to 100 ft--at Goose Bay in Canada. I must ask my hon. Friend to do everything he can to ensure that these exercises overseas are exploited to the maximum extent so that we may keep to the absolute minimum the amount of low flying over rural areas in the north of England and over other parts of the United Kingdom.
On flight safety, the fact that for quite some years no civilian has been killed as a result of an RAF accident is significant. However, I hope that in his reply my hon. Friend will be able to refer to that matter. The opportunity of this debate should be taken to show that people's worry about flight safety is not just ignored but that proper attention is being paid to their genuine concern. I want to move from the fast jet world, which I experienced at Valley, back to the helicopter world. At Valley we have rescue helicopters, and the rescue helicopter training takes place there. I will not go into detail about the excitement that I enjoyed in one of these helicopters. Certainly, any hon. Member visiting RAF Valley and experiencing helicopter flight for the first time would enjoy it. The helicopter rescue service of the RAF provides considerable aid to civilian life, not just in the event of tragedies such as happened at Lockerbie and on the M1, but also in mountain rescue and sometimes, sadly, in the event of industrial disputes. We ask a lot of the crew concerned, and a debate such as this gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to them for the work that they do.
The main helicopter base is at Odiham, where the Chinooks and Pumas are based. They have a major role in troop support with the British Army of the Rhine. Increasingly, troop movements have to take place at night, and the development of night vision goggles is helping to create a strong tactical capability in helicopter night flying.
Column 1077It is also worth bearing in mind that the Chinook helicopter is 20 years old. Of course, not all the Chinooks that the Royal Air Force possesses are actually that age, but a number are showing signs of wear, and the cost of keeping them fully serviceable is substantial.
The engineering workshops at Odiham are most impressive. The quality of the work, the painstaking way in which these aircraft are serviced,--the most minor blemishes being put right--is most impressive. The helicopter pilots at Odiham are very much in love with the Chinook as a flexible work horse which is very enjoyable to fly.
The next visit I made was to several of our stations in West Germany. It was at this point that the whole purpose, the whole raison d'etre, of the year came home very strongly. It was important in two major respects : first, it gave a complete picture of what RAF life and training are about ; secondly, it changed my perspective of the strategic role of the Royal Air Force in Europe.
Let me turn to the complete picture on training. We invest £3 million or so in every fast jet pilot. The fruits of that investment are clearly visible in the competence, enthusiastic, very dedicated and professional approach of the young officers. The transition from the raw recruits I had seen at Biggin Hill to the pilots in the front line--many of them on their first tour--was quite remarkable. I began to appreciate the RAF's role in providing about one fifth of one of the two Tactical Air Command resources in West Germany, and in providing air support for the Northern Army Group and its defence of the northern half of the Federal Republic.
It is important to remember the United Kingdom's joint role, with France and the United States, in policing West German air space in peacetime--to which, actually, the French no longer contribute actively. These first-tour young officer pilots were fully prepared to meet all the challenges thrown at them. Both mentally and physically, what we ask of them is very demanding, yet what I saw was a very tightly knit, disciplined unit.
What I really want to get across to the House, and place on record, is that, having spent many hours in the air trying to come to terms with the physical demands of fast jet flying, I realised in West Germany that that is only half of the story, that if ever these young officers are required to take part in active warfare they will face the problems of chemical attack. From what I saw there, I believe that we must have the best protective clothing and the best available protection arrangements against chemical warfare of any air force in the western world. It is difficult to describe because of its physically demanding nature, but the thought of having to fly in a cockpit in a rubber suit with one's helmet, "G" kit and all the rest on top is not attractive. However, the way in which the young men have been trained is most commendable, as is their willingness and enthusiasm to fulfil their task.
I detected some elements of public opinion in West Germany that do not completely welcome our presence there. Issues such as national sovereignty, the threat of foreign troops and noisy and dirty activity, particularly that associated with the Tornado, are becoming increasingly unpopular.
In the light of recent statements by President Gorbachev and a clear willingness to take part in serious
Column 1078discussions about reductions in defence expenditure and capability at all levels, it is far too early for us to think of major changes in our role in the defence of western Europe or, more particularly, scaling down our Air Force operations.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said recently that he did not want any reductions in aircraft at present. Our numbers are not that great and we must ask how far we can depend upon others. We must also bear in mind our other responsibilities throughout the world which can arise at any time, as we saw only a few years ago in the Falklands.
It is vital to maintain the best trained and equipped Air Force. I welcome my hon. Friend's statement today about the European fighter aircraft. Having seen the Phantoms and Jaguars in West Germany, I know how much pilots there will welcome the new aircraft in years to come. New weapons and aircraft have given the RAF a real cutting edge, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's announcement today will help to ensure that that continues to be the case.
One or two other problems were highlighted during my German visit, which may not be referred to in much detail today. First, there are problems for the Rapier squadrons of the air defence regiment. The four-month requirement means that many of those men are having to serve four months out of twelve in the Falklands and that is placing great strain on them and their families. No one has a solution to that, but today's debate provides an opportunity for their voice to be heard.
There is also concern throughout the Air Force at the general gradual erosion of the quality of service life. As the financial quest for efficiency and value for money is pursued, for which clear support exists within the Air Force, morale, motivation and an esprit de corps remain vital. The removal of perceived benefits and the imposition of what appear to be penny-pinching changes, such as a reduction in the number of leave warrants, charging for food on detachments, the abolition of home-to-duty travel allowances, are not popular. It would be regrettable if, in pursuit of efficiency, there was a reduction in effectiveness.
My hon. Friend referred to the future role of women in the RAF. The studies into whether we can have women pilots are extremely worthwhile. I have already mentioned the potential future problem of demographic change. I detected within the officer aircrew a willingness to see women piloting multi-engined aircraft, if not our fast jets.
There has been over 40 years of peace in Europe, the longest period of peace for six centuries. To maintain that peace in the future, we need a properly equipped Air Force as well as other armed forces. We also need young men and women who are committed to their task. My experience of the past year shows that the RAF hierarchy has confidence in its young men and women, many of whom were left to brief me in their own way, without relying on their superiors. That is a tribute to them, their training and their managers.
I place on record my thanks to those who helped me to take part in the year. Any hon. Member who has an opportunity to take part in the scheme should do so. I do not usually find defence matters easy to grasp, but I hope that in my few remarks I have demonstrated the worth of the scheme, and I commend it to other hon. Members.
Column 10796.25 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : In a way, the main point that I wanted to make has already been made. Listening to the speeches so far I have heard no reference to the enemy. The debate has been about important questions such as uniforms, allowances and low flying. As an old RAF man I enjoyed the latter very much, but it was dangerous when I learned it. But we must not forget that what we are discussing today is part of a defence budget of nearly £20 billion, which comes out of taxpayers' money. That is £344 per person, and for a family of four more than £1,000 a year. That runs at the rate of £37,000 a minute. During my speech, however brief it is, a substantial sum of public money will be spent. That money must be justified in terms of its absolute necessity.
Strangely enough, my mind goes back 52 years ago this week when, as a boy of 12, I sat in the Gallery and heard the then Mr. Churchill speak on the Service Estimates. I looked it up, and found that he said :
"It is admitted and well known that we are in times of great danger-- grievous danger. Our Air Force is far from giving us security ; our small Army is more of an Imperial police than a military force ; munitions factories are almost in their infancy of
reconstruction".-- [Official Report, 11 March 1937 ; Vol. 321, c. 1398.]
When I heard that, Winston Churchill was sitting where the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) usually sits. There was a sense of urgency. In Churchill's view--not a view shared by the then Government--those estimates were needed because there was a danger of attack.
Thirty-two years ago this week I made my maiden speech from the Opposition Front Bench as the number two Opposition spokesman on the Air Force. I looked up that speech and at that time all the debate was about a Soviet attack--whether there would be one and whether we would use the deterrent. I shall not do as Harold Wilson used to do and quote my own speeches, but I asked the Minister what would happen if there was a Soviet attack with conventional weapons. I asked whether we would use nuclear weapons and whether the deterrent would be used. At that time Duncan Sandys was talking about massive retaliation. I have forgotten the exact phrase that reflected the current view.
Now we have to ask ourselves, how many hon. Members believe that there is a military threat? What is happening? Although the Minister said as an aside that we must keep the deterrent, he did not think it necessary to elaborate. I am not complaining, quite the opposite ; I am almost congratulating him for not warning the nation of the military threat.
I speak today not because I claim any special knowledge of the modern Royal Air Force, or anything of the kind, but because what has happened to the public's perception of defence is hardly ever alluded to in the House. People do not believe that there is a Soviet military threat. I know that the Prime Minister says that the Russians have changed because they have decided to adopt her philosophy of market forces and because they are frightened by Polaris.
I never believed--although I must confess that I was struck by the anxiety at the time--the idea that, 40 years ago, the Red army was planning to move into western Europe. It lost 20 million people in the war, and at that time we were allies. If hon. Members want to read powerful speeches in support of the Soviet Union, they
Column 1080should read Churchill's speeches during the war. At that time we were pouring weapons into Russia, which lost a large number of people. Until the day I die, I shall never forget that the liberties we enjoy today were in part won by Russian blood shed in defence of their own territory.
The Soviet threat is a central question in all defence debates. Of course, if one believes that there is a Soviet threat, one must retain military hardware. During my election campaign in Chesterfield I met a woman who was possibly the only woman who has totally silenced me. She said "I shall vote for you, Mr. Benn, because of your policy on nuclear weapons." I asked her why she felt as she did. She said, "We had to fight the Russians in the last war and we may have to fight them in the next." My God, there has been some successful propaganda if a woman of my age--in her mid-60s--who has been through it all as I have does not know who were our allies and who our enemies in the last war.
I have never followed the details of disarmament negotiations--one would have to be an armchair military expert to do so, and I have never aspired to that--but I tell the House, and hon. Members may read this in the pages of Hansard, that the reason for Gorbachev's credibility is not that he has come up with a few disarmament proposals but that he has said to the world, "I want to disarm to improve the living standards of Russians." People everywhere in the world said, "He is right. That is what we want to do. We do not want to be bankrupted by this enormous defence burden in America or Britain ; we want to improve standards of living for our people." I do not usually go by polls, but it is undoubtedly true that over the years Gorbachev's policies have been much more popular than those of Reagan or Bush because, in a strange way, he speaks for an overwhelming majority of people in the world who want less spent on weapons. They want that first because weapons are dangerous and secondly because more people will die of AIDS, cancer and heart disease in the next few years than from the Red army landing and taking over the Speaker's job.
Sir Michael McNair-Wilson : I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's eulogy about Mr. Gorbachev, but was it not Mr. Gromyko who said that, although Mr. Gobachev had a kindly face, he had iron teeth? Do not those words mean something?
Mr. Benn : If we are going to look back, we should look at the American eagle which has a bunch of arrows in one claw and an olive branch- -the symbol of peace--in the other. Every super-power has armed forces and diplomatic policies, and so have we. However, does the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) believe that there is a Soviet military threat and that, had we not had nuclear weapons, the Red army would have taken over West Germany and Italy, come to Britain, dealt with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), and taken on the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in Northern Ireland? I do not think that people believe that any more. I do not wish to take too long--although there does not seem to be such a strong sense of military danger that the Benches are crowded with people waiting to speak.
We cannot afford the level of defence expenditure that we are carrying--it is too heavy a burden. For example, Japan's expenditure on defence is 1 or 2 per cent. of its GDP, whereas ours is 5 or 6 per cent. No wonder the
Column 1081world's shops are full of Japanese videos, cameras and motor bikes. Japan spends its money on civil development, whereas we sell missiles to any sheikh who will buy them and to both sides of the Iran-Iraq war.
The majority of our research and development goes into military weapons, which is damaging to the British economy and explains why we have not been able to keep abreast of other countries. As a percentage of GDP, we spend about six times as much as West Germany on military R and D. That military budget diverts resources from civil to military production. It also diverts resources from the Third world.
We are all much moved by Band Aid and Comic Relief but we should remember that 15 million babies die from diarrhoea every year, which could be cured for the cost of just one day's expenditure of our defence budget. That is not justifiable and it is no wonder that the Churches have begun to come out in a political way. On such a simple moral issue they understand the choice involved.
If we want to deal with super-powers, nuclear weapons are unnecessary. The Vietnamese did not have nuclear weapons but they managed to get the Americans out. The Afghans did not have nuclear weapons but they got the Russians out. It is strange that those countries with nuclear weapons are rendered impotent by them. The Americans could not use them in Korea or Vietnam and the Russians could not use them in Afghanistan. Therefore, the old argument that we must have the bomb and then no one will attack, and that there is no other way to get rid of enemies, is no longer true.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) made a powerful speech which explored the military and industrial complex. If I read The Observer correctly, 1,400 civil servants moved from Government Ministries into defence industries during the course of five years. I am not suggesting that there was corruption, but I think it is unhealthy that someone can work in a Department with a contractual relationship with a company and then retire into it. He could be tempted to assist the company in the hope that it will later employ him. That is an unhealthy relationship.
The people who continue to persuade us that there is a Soviet military threat are those making a huge profit out of the arms budget. One of the earliest demands of the Labour movement was to nationalise the arms industry because it made a lot of money out of weapons and therefore had a vested interest in maintaining that the threat existed. Of all the contracts for aerospace, 45 per cent. are for the military and 20 per cent. of all electronics business is for defence. Many people would be absolutely lost if sufficient fear of the Soviet Union was not built up to justify the weapons programme. The same is true of the media. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda referred to Lord Chalfont, who has been appointed to the Independent Broadcasting Authority. He has defence connections.
Mr. Benn : My hon. Friend is more knowledgeable than me. People in the media--not just defence correspondents--should not have one foot in both camps. Some of the figures that we are given are totally fraudulent. I shall