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Column 1082never forget that, when I was in the Cabinet, one year we were given the balance of forces in the draft defence White Paper by Fred Mulley. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) pointed out that the French were not included, as if we did not know which side, in the event of a war, the French would be on. The defence Department did not want us to include the French and said they were not part of the military wing of NATO. The balance-of-force argument was used to maintain the fear of attacks and thus justify the large defence budget.
The cold war presupposes the presence of permanent American forces in Britain. Mr. Attlee invited the Americans to this country saying that they were on a training mission. He did not inform the House that they were coming on a permanent basis. They live here, for example, at RAF Greenham common, which is not described as an American base but is covered by the RAF.
Has the House ever discussed or considered whether it wants a foreign nation--however friendly--to have permanent bases here? I do not. I am not hostile to the United States--I have many links with it and much admiration for it. However, I do not believe that America should have troops here which are commanded by a President whom we do not elect and cannot remove.
I watched the funny exchanges between Dukakis and Bush during the presidential elections because I knew that one of them would command the biggest assembly of United States nuclear weapons outside the United States --there may be a comparable arsenal maintained in Japan. Do we want that? Would we not rather look forward to the day when Russian troops will move out of eastern Europe, the American troops will move out of Britain, and the British troops will move out of West Germany?
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said that we must retain the deterrent, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants to keep nuclear weapons and does not envisage a time when they will be given up. That is particularly relevant and important to the Labour party at present, because we are engaged in a policy review. What attitude should we adopt? I have no inside knowledge and cannot say what will be the outcome, although I read The Guardian to find out what is going on. All that I would say to those who yearn for nuclear weapons is this. It used to be said that they bought a place at the top table, but they do not. That has never been the case at Soviet-American disarmament negotiations. It has been said that nuclear weapons will buy a place on the hot line, but it is not necessary to have a bomb to make a telephone call to the White House or to Red square.
My old permanent secretary--now dead ; a kindly man--once said that we might need them if the French had them, as if a nuclear threat might come from some new Napoleon in Paris. But Chernobyl changed everything. Everyone is very slow to take account of what has happened. Chernobyl showed that if we dropped a nuclear weapon on the Soviet Union the radioactive clouds would drift back and damage us. Likewise, if the Soviets dropped nuclear weapons here the cloud would drift back to them.
Nuclear weapons are unusable. If the Labour party said that it wanted to keep them, the next question would be "Are you going to use them?" Saying that we will keep nuclear weapons opens up far more questions than adopting the line of consistent policy on which all Labour Members were elected in the last general election. One of the reasons why there has been such a good response to Gorbachev is that he has said that the Soviets want to get
Column 1083rid of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Like it or not, people believe him. I believe him, because it cannot be in anyone's interest to have weapons that would destroy us.
A pro-nuclear defence policy also presupposes the permanent division of Europe. As I said in a recent debate on the Common Market, I have lived through many different types of Europe. I did not live through the period before the first world war, when all the heads of state were related to Queen Victoria, but I remember the inter-war Europe, the wartime Europe and the post-war Europe. Now Europe is changing again, and people want a peaceful Europe. The question that is then posed is what would be the role of the defence forces in such circumstances.
The time has come to open up for public examination a different defence and foreign policy for Britain, I hope without personal animosity or the normal vulgarity of exchange between political parties. I say that because I believe that many people are feeling their way towards such a move. They do not particularly like the argument based on whether, if we have the bomb, we will use it, because they know that we have not really got an independent bomb. No one honestly believes that if the Prime Minister pressed a button the bomb would go anywhere, because they know that it would go nowhere without being guided to its target by the American satellite intelligence system. We have had about nine general elections about whether we should retain what we have never had.
In any serious defence debate that does not consist simply of point- scoring, one of the options on the agenda--which I should like to be an option from our Front Bench when the policy review is over--is a non- nuclear defence policy : a policy wholly committed to the idea that nuclear weapons are unusable, that we cannot afford them, that we do not need them, that others are giving them up and that we should do the same.
Another option is that we should move away from a bloc system towards a more non-aligned policy. I remember raising that at the Labour party national executive some time ago, and I can tell the House that it was not very popular. Then I went to Moscow a year ago and discovered that the Vatican goes to the non-aligned conference. If the Pope can go, I see no reason why we should not at least send an observer. Papandreou, a member of NATO, goes to those conferences as well. I believe that non-alignment is the way forward--a move away from the military blocs in Europe and with all foreign troops removed, including the Russian troops in eastern Europe. I am sure that the eastern countries would like that, and that the Russians will have to do it because they cannot afford to keep their troops there. We must move towards a European security pact, which would be a better guarantee of peace in Europe than our aircraft doing their low-flying exercises, losing pilots and preparing to fight a war that is inconceivable. We must divert the resources from military to civil use. The Prime Minister has said that she is a Green, and I am not one of those who have laughed at that, because what interests me is not what she says she is but why she feels that she has to say it. She feels that she has to say it because she knows that the majority of opinion in Britain is now taking environmental questions seriously. The pollsters, Bernard Ingham, and everyone who is in touch with real life tell her that she must be a Green, and I consider it central to the
Column 1084Green argument that we should not have nuclear weapons and should not build on the idea that one day we might use them.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to the debate. I hope that, without a vote or the normal exchanges between the Front Benches and others, we may at least be able to explore the option that I have described. It is no more absurd than any other argument that has been put forward. They laughed at Churchill for saying that Hitler would attack. People have always laughed at those who are that little bit ahead of the argument. The world has changed completely since the days of the formation of NATO and the Warsaw pact, the Berlin airlift, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet troops going into Hungary. This is a new world, and if we are seriously to justify taxing our constituents such an enormous sum we must explain our assessment of the threat. I do not believe that a military threat exists. I think that the real threat is different, and is posed by the neglect of our environment, the pressing dangers to the planet and people dying of starvation in the Third world for the lack of simple things that we could easily provide with five minutes' worth of our military budget. That is what we should be discussing in defence debates. The RAF, which flies so many aircraft and carries so many people, is just as capable of conducting relief missions as of carrying nuclear weapons that would lead to the destruction of humanity.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. It will not surprise the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to hear that I do not agree with much of what he said. Perhaps my experience as a young airman in the years immediately after the war, when squadrons were instructed by the then Labour Government to fly in combat zones unarmed, taught me lessons that I shall never forget. I did not think that I would live to hear people suggest again that our military should be put into a position in which it could not defend itself.
Having listened to what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said, I should declare an interest. I have been a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve for many years, and I am also secretary of the Royal Air Force parliamentary group. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Chesterfield wearing his RAF parliamentary group tie.
Let me say for the benefit of the hon. Member for Rhondda that after the squeeze of the Labour Budgets in 1974 and early 1975 I have never taken a penny in pay from the RAF Volunteer Reserve budget. The only remittance that I receive--because I have been unable to stop it--is the cheque sent to me annually for the upkeep of my uniform. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that that compromises me. It is less than £10.
Mr. Rogers : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his military experience. I am sorry that he does not have a pension that extends to buying him a pair of trousers. As another ex-service man, I am extremely concerned about defence, and the hon. Gentleman and I have many interests in common.
Mr. Walker : Let me make it clear at the outset that I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's integrity. I may disagree with him on matters of policy and detail, but I have never doubted the integrity and loyalty of the British working class. Contrary to what is often said by Opposition Members, the working classes are well represented on the Government Benches. We are not all part of the public school, old boy network. One of the great advantages of being in the Royal Air Force is that it recruits from all socio-economic groups. The only requirement is the ability to do the job. That has always been the RAF's great strength.
The kilt I am wearing is not my normal one, but it has a history. RAF Edzell asked a kilt manufacturer in my constituency to design and manufacture a tartan for the Royal Air Force. I am wearing the result. Anyone who has studied the history of the RAF, and particularly of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, knows that just before the 1939 war the then monarch gave the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in Scotland the right to wear the Douglas tartan kilt with their mess kits and as part of the uniform of their pipe bands.
As you, Mr. Speaker, witness the way in which the Scots behave in this House, you will have realised that we are rather sectional, with our clans. Because of the history of the Douglas and other clans, few Scots who are not members of the Douglas clan are willing to wear its tartan. It is to do not with the Douglas clan being one thing or another but with our being tribal in our allegiances. It goes back a long way. If we did not have common hates--and I shall not say what those are--our clans would probably go on hating each other even today. The people of my constituency, for example, think that they have little in common with those living in the west central industrial belt of Scotland.
The idea of a tartan that would not contravene Scotland's historical tartans is a good one. It is interesting to note that the Scotsman who designed the tartan and had it manufactured is himself an ex-wartime RAF pilot--so the tartan has all the right connections. That is why I wear it. I hope that the Royal Air Force will at some future date encourage, if not authorise, those who wish to wear the Air Force tartan to do so.
Much has been said in the debate about low-flying aircraft, and I recall what was said during defence questions on one occasion by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), when he reminded the House that if Reichmarschall Goering, who was in charge of the Luftwaffe, had known about radar and of the advantages of flying low and fast, his Lufftwaffe would never have operated in the way that it did in the Battle of Britain. Its planes assembled in great numbers at high altitudes, where our radar was able to identify them and to position our fighter aircraft at critical points, at critical times. If Goering had known about radar and about the advantages of flying low and fast, the probability is that the Battle of Britain would have ended very differently.
It is also worth remembering the experience of 1940, when the Royal Air Force's bomber squadrons were required to go into battle, having been brought up on the kind of doctrine about which we heard earlier--that the world is peaceful, nobody wants to attack, and that it does not matter if one is not prepared for war. We were most unprepared for war, and our bomber crews went into battle flying Fairey-Battle and Bristol Blenheim aircraft. I remind the House that those gallant young men attacked
Column 1086heavily defended targets. I emphasise also that the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross is no substitute for the ability to attack and destroy heavily defended targets, survive, and return to one's base. That is why today's air crews, whose responsibility is to strike and attack, are required to fly low and fast.
My constituents are well aware of my views. As long as there is a perceived threat--and I believe that there is--it is essential that our pilots are capable of flying low and fast, so that they will survive in the hostile environment of heavily defended targets. They must reach those targets, take them out, and then return to base. As I have mentioned during Question Time, on seven occasions the West German Government have asked the Royal Air Force to reduce the number of its low-flying sorties--so much so, I believe, that any further reduction would jeopardise our crews' ability to undertake their allotted tasks. The West Germans may be prepared to accept the reduction in morale and the problems that West Germany's air force currently faces, but I hope that our Government will never accept a similar situation. If the West Germans cannot be reminded of the reasons why the RAF operates in their country, serious consideration should be given to moving those forces elsewhere.
It is also important to emphasise that modern attack aircraft must be capable of attacking targets that are a long distance ahead of them--a stand-off capability. It is important to uprate that capability so that Tornado aircraft, which will be at the forefront of our attack aircraft well into the next century, have the ability to destroy targets yet not have to overfly them. Again, that is important for their survival.
I turn to another area of activity that is linked in an odd way to low flying in my constituency. It is also directly linked to activities in the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). It will not surprise Ministers if I talk about search and rescue helicopters. When my constituents complain about noisy or fast jets interrupting their lives, I remind them that the yellow helicopters we welcome to my constituency in most weekends come from the same Air Force, and that they are there to support fast jet operations and other RAF activities. More than 80 per cent. of rescues are of civilians.
We have every reason to be thankful for the presence of those yellow helicopters. I was very pleased to help the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East in battling to retain the Leuchars search and rescue helicopter flight. The courage, professionalism and splendid example shown by the crews of those helicopters does more for RAF public relations than any other activity, and substantially offsets the constituency problems I encounter because of low-flying aircraft. I look forward to the day, in the not-too-distant future, when Wessex helicopters stationed throughout the United Kingdom, which have done a splendid job and are marvellous aircraft, are replaced by Sea Kings, with their greater capability.
Can Ministers tell us about the current position of the Tucano and when we can expect to see it in service at the flying training units? Although the Jet Provost is doing a splendid job, it is getting rather long in the tooth and we need the Tucano as soon as possible. I have no doubt that when it comes into service the Tucano will be welcomed by the pilots and the instructors who have to fly it as well as by the students. It is a fine aeroplane and I have always believed that it was good to train pilots ab initio on propellor-driven aircraft. Hon. Members who are pilots
Column 1087will understand why I said that. The co- ordination required and the torque one has with propellors means that, at a very early stage, one can sort out those who will become pilots from those who will not make it.
There have been comments about the radar on the Tornado F3, but I do not associate myself with the view that our Tornados, even with their present radar, cannot do their job. Anyone who has had anything to do with service aircraft knows that it is remarkable if one can ever get everything working 100 per cent. I hope that Ministers will be able to tell me that the F3 radar is capable of carrying out the bulk of its duties and activities.
What progress has been made in getting another airborne warning and communications system aircraft? Although we have ordered the minimum number, there is a need for an additional one, if not two, and I should like to think that there has been some budgeting to achieve that. I am pleased that the Harrier GR5 Royal Air Force close ground support aircraft in western Europe is now moving into operational effectiveness, because there is no doubt that that aircraft will improve substantially the capabilities of the squadrons operating Harriers.
I do not take the gloomy view that we have heard from the Opposition about the European fighter aircraft. I am often astonished that we can get agreement among nation states on joint projects because there is no doubt that there is much arm twisting among those with various interests. As we are leading on two of the major components for EFA, I would have been surprised if others had not made an issue of the fact that we also want to lead on radar. That does not mean that I support radar that is not made in the United Kingdom. With Ferranti being in Scotland, it would be astonishing if I were not supporting it. However, I believe that what is more important is that EFA must have the equipment that does the job. That aircraft was designed to fly in a hostile environment where it must be an air superiority aircraft and the last RAF air superiority aircraft was the Hunter. That was a long time ago. We need an air superiority aircraft that can survive in a hostile environment on the western front, if hostilities ever take place there.
I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who is an honorary air commodore of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and a former Spitfire pilot in that force, that I would mention his absence and give his apologies. He does not like to miss Royal Air Force debates and, because of his interest, he would like to have been here to defend his Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The air defence units of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force are a credit to the individuals who serve in them and have shown clearly and positively what Conservative Members have always believed, which is that given, the opportunities, there are young men and women who are delighted to offer their services to the nation especially in activities involving the Royal Air Force. I suggest that the comments made about having Volunteer Reserve pilots and aircrew in a much wider range of activities will be welcomed. The Royal Air Force has other activities in the Volunteer Reserve including a public relations flight. I congratulate that flight on the way in which it operates and on the professionalism of the individuals who form the flight. Many are involved in careers in the media, often at a high level, and they do a good job.
It will not surprise Ministers that I want to make some comments about the air cadets. I have been asked by those involved in the air cadets to thank Ministers for their
Column 1088support. They want me to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) for his interest and support when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, and I have also been asked to thank my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for his support over many years. Defence Ministers know that the air cadets are an important investment for the nation. Being a member of the air cadets helps young people to take an active interest in demanding and rewarding activities and, more important, it turns them into good citizens and prevents them from becoming involved in activities that we would normally read about in the lurid Sunday papers. The air cadets not only supply the Royal Air Force with recruits, but assist the nation in developing good citizens.
I thank Ministers for the splendid conventional glider fleet that we have. It is the pride of the air cadets and the envy of the world. We look forward to the delivery of the new winches that will make it possible for the conventional glider fleet to operate more effectively and efficiently. We also welcome the introduction of control caravans because it means that we shall have vehicles that can be used effectively on gliding sites.
I cannot, of course, mention gliders without dwelling on the problems of airfields. As the Royal Air Force has shrunk, there have been fewer and fewer airfields from which glider units can operate the volunteer glider schools. This has meant that conventional gliders have fewer airfields out of which they can operate effectively. However, as Ministers know, we also have motor gliders that can operate off hard runways and alongside pilot aircraft, and that has given a flexibility that was missing in the past. The present fleet of motor gliders is over 20 years old and we look forward to the replacements that I have been assured are coming this year. As I have air-tested the preferred option, I can say that we can look forward to many happy years of flying those machines. The Royal Air Force presentation team does a good job, going round the country telling the general public about the Royal Air Force. We had the good fortune to have it in the House on 15 February and those of us who attended the talk found it instructive and worthwhile. I am planning to bring the team back at a later date so that hon. Members who did not attend the first time will have another opportunity. One hears much in the media about crowded skies. That is interesting because I have calculated--and this has been confirmed from other sources--that the number of aircraft available to move around United Kingdom skies today is roughly one eighth of the number 30 years ago, so if our skies are crowded today, what were they like 30 years ago? What has happened is that civil aviation has grown because the size of aircraft has grown and they can carry many more passengers. It requires only one accident for many people to be badly hurt or killed. That is why the media talk about crowded skies. Their answer is to control more and more of the airspace. Controlled airspace may be part of the answer, but it is not the whole answer. The more one controls airspace, the more likely one is to increase the hazards for the aircraft in that controlled airspace. Part of the problem lies in the way in which we run our National Air Traffic Services--as a joint civil and RAF operation. Nothing that I have to say is a criticism of those who operate the service, but effectively it is controlled by
Column 1089the Civil Aviation Authority which is a regulatory body. That is an odd arrangement, because the regulatory body in effect controls itself.
I should like responsibility for the National Air Traffic Services to be removed from the Civil Aviation Authority. That would leave the CAA free to do its job as a regulatory body well and properly. What I have to say may not be popular with some of my friends in the Royal Air Force, but I think that National Air Traffic Services should be managed and run by the RAF, which is well equipped to do the job. The civil employees could easily be transferred to the Ministery of Defence, and would lose nothing of their present position. We should then have a better managed and better run National Air Traffic Services, which would be to the benefit of all the users. One of the greatest innovations in the RAF recently has been the way in which financial controls and budgets have been dealt with at station level. We hear much from the Opposition about the misuse of funds, but in recent years massive savings have been achieved because so many of the stations have been given responsibility for their budgets.
The RAF is very dear to my heart. I have worn a light blue uniform for about 43 years. I am proud of the privilege that I have enjoyed. I shall remain as long as the Royal Air Force is prepared to have me, and, as long as I am a Member of the House, I shall certainly defend the interests of the RAF against wholly unfounded attacks. 7.13 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : I hope that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) will forgive me for saying that my feelings are always ambivalent when I see him wearing his kilt in the House. I admire his enthusaism for the tartan of the Royal Air Force, but I was brought up in the belief that no gentleman should ever wear a kilt south of Perth. I am also a little concerned to know how far he would seek to promote the wearing of the garment. If it were universally worn, it would give rise to operational difficulties--not least for flying crew called upon to make a rapid response in an emergency.
This is an occasion on which it is customary to acknowledge the dedication of those who serve in the Royal Air Force, to recognise their professionalism and to pay proper and generous tribute to their courage. But general expressions of goodwill are not enough for the dependants of those who die while serving in the Royal Air Force. I have given the Minister advance notice of the case that I mention, which I raise with the permission of my constituent Mrs. Jan Nelson. I do not expect a detailed response this evening, because I propose to write to the Minister in due course, but Mrs. Nelson's case raises a number of issues of general significance and it is proper that the House should consider them on an occasion such as this.
Mrs. Nelson's husband, Squadron Leader David Nelson, died on 9 January this year over the North sea, while piloting a Phantom aircraft from RAF Leuchars. So integrated into the community of north-east Fife are the families of airmen such as Squadron Leader Nelson that such tragedies are felt throughout the whole community. Squadron Leader Nelson was performing a difficult and
Column 1090demanding task involving split-second judgments and the highest degree of skill. The cause of the accident has not yet been established, but what is certain is that Squadron Leader Nelson worked for long hours, that he was frequently away from home, that he and his family were required to move frequently in response to his postings within the RAF and that he gave 20 years of dedicated, loyal and expert service to the RAF.
I shall not cite specific figures because as far as possible I wish to preserve Mrs. Nelson's privacy. The amount of the gratuity and pension that she and her family will receive depends on a decision as to whether Squadron Leader Nelson's death was attributable to--that is to say arising out of--his service. If his death is deemed attributable, the amounts will be greater. I understand that the question whether a death is attributable can raise difficult issues, and that it is sometimes difficult to reach a firm and valid conclusion. I think that the House will accept that it makes no difference to the requirements of the dependants whether a death is attributable or non-attributable.
I hope that the House and the Minister will respond sympathetically to the proposition that whether a death is attributable or non-attributable the consequences, in terms of the benefits paid to the dependants of the deceased, should be precisely the same. The pension received by the dependants of Squadron Leader Nelson is based not upon his flying pay--that is to say his total
remuneration--but upon his basic pay. Why should that be? If his income included flying pay in recognition of the difficult and demanding tasks that he had to perform, why should not his pension similarly reflect that?
Mrs. Nelson's concern is not for herself but for others. She drew my attention in particular to the position of non-commissioned airmen flying search and rescue operations. If the benefits for Mrs. Nelson and her family are modest, how much less advantageous will be the benefits for the dependants of non-commissioned airmen who may perish?
I hope that the Minister will undertake to reconsider the question of payments in the case of fatalities--the basis on which such payments are made, the amounts that are paid, and particularly the circumstances in which a death may be regarded as attributable or non-attributable.
The hon. Member for Tayside, North mentioned search and rescue operations. As he said, he and I were both engaged, over a fairly lengthy period, in seeking to persuade the Ministry of Defence that the existing search and rescue facilities available at RAF Leuchars should be retained. It should be put on record once again that the success of that campaign owed much to the fact that the community in and around RAF Leuchars--I do not simply mean within the immediate local government boundaries--was completely behind the campaign to retain search and rescue at RAF Leuchars. All the local authorities whose boundaries are adjacent to RAF Leuchars were extremely supportive. The extent of the support within the community had much to do with the decision that was ultimately made.
As we now know the review of search and rescue resulted in the retention at RAF Leuchars--but, from the autumn of this year, only during daylight hours. We know, because the Minister has told us, however, that operations begun in daylight will continue into darkness. It follows therefore that operational training will be required in the
Column 1091hours of darkness. I ask the Government yet again--I have already asked this in correspondence--if it is necessary to train for operations in darkness when the operations commence in daylight, should not the facility that is available at RAF Leuchars be a 24-hour facility and not be restricted to the daylight hours as is currently proposed?
The unfortunate and unhappy tragedy at Lockerbie has already been referred to. It is a fact that a search and rescue helicopter from RAF Leuchars was summoned in the hours of darkness to fly to Edinburgh to pick up and transport a medical team to Lockerbie to give such assistance as might be appropriate. It is also a fact that the accident involving Squadron Leader Nelson occurred at or about ten past four in the afternoon of 9 January and that the helicopter was scrambled at or about that time. It may or may not have been in darkness, but darkness must have been close at that time on 9 January. When that operation commenced, it must have been clear that it could not be completed in daylight. It was a fortunate operation in that, while Squadron Leader Nelson could not be recovered alive, the navigator of the aircraft was.
Some of us are left with the distinct impression that the redeployment of the search and rescue facilities has more to do with financial considerations than with effective and continuing cover. The Minister still has an opportunity to recant. Confessed sinners are always welcome to return to the bosom of the family. As the hon. Member for Tayside, North pointed out, the contribution made in public relations terms by the operations conducted at RAF Leuchars is absolutely enormous--indeed, it is incalculable. I am referring not only to Fife, North-East but to the whole area in which the aircraft operate. I hope that not only will there be a commitment to maintain the search and rescue facility and that after this autumn it will not be restricted to daylight hours only, but that the nature of the equipment with which the facility is provided will be kept constantly under review so that the brave pilots, navigators and winchmen who operate it will have the best possible and most up-to-date equipment available.
I should like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, who is not in his place at present--doubtless for entirely understandable reasons--for his decision to allow a further noise survey in my constituency this spring to meet the concerns of a number of residents of the St. Michaels area. He has done so without prejudice to a further survey that will be carried out after the arrival of the Phantom squadrons next year. I hope that he will ensure that the testing sites will be selected not only in consultation with the environmental health department of the North-East Fife district council, but with some of the residents. The issues on which I have concentrated thus far are more than parochial--they have a degree of general application, as well as constituency interest. However, I turn now to a matter of possibly broader interest--nuclear modernisation. We know that within the NATO Alliance there is a considerable debate about the modernisation of short-range nuclear weapons, and especially about the replacement of Lance. Such modernisation has significance for the Royal Air Force because the replacement of the free- fall nuclear bomb, which is currently carried by the Tornado and Buccaneer aircraft, is under consideration.
There has been some suggestion that the Government have already reached a decision to purchase the SRAM 2 air launch missile to be armed with a new British-designed
Column 1092warhead and to be carried by Tornado and ultimately by the European fighter aircraft. It is incumbent on all of us-- of whatever party--to ask ourselves whether it is justifiable at the moment to proceed with the course upon which the Government appear to have decided to embark.
I ask that question because the seventh report of the Select Committee on Defence, which was ordered to be printed on 28 June 1988, concluded in paragraph 3.28 :
"We think it likely, however, that decisions on a stand-off missile will be taken in conjunction with decisions on the other elements of the NATO modernisation package".
Although that conclusion is somewhat Delphic, I associate myself with it because, as I interpret it, if decisions are being taken in relation to other elements of the NATO modernisation package to the effect that it is not necessary to proceed apace with modernisation, decisions of a like nature should be taken on the stand-off missile. We know that the West German position is increasingly being recognised in NATO and understood both on this side of the Atlantic and the other. We also know--because the Minister of State for the Armed Forces told the House on 10 January 1989 at column 677 of Hansard --that our present free-fall bomb will be effective until the end of the century.
We also know that events are moving with great speed in relation to disarmament. The opening discussions in Vienna this week have been interpreted by The Daily Telegraph today in a leader as demonstrating that :
"Although much hard bargaining clearly lies ahead, it is hard not to agree that a quantum leap has taken place in Soviet Strategic thinking."
In the light of those favourably changing circum-stances, we must ask ourselves why we should embark on the modernisation of a particular element of our nuclear capability in that atmosphere. We must also ask ourselves whether the United Kingdom needs to possess a full range of all nuclear options itself. Is it not the case that the range of the stand-off missile, plus the range of the aircraft that will carry it, is similar to the range of weapons eliminated by the INF treaty? Are we not circumventing the terms of that treaty? Mention of the European fighter aircraft brings me to the issue of the radar contract for that aircraft, which has already been referred to. Page 24 of the fifth report of the Select Committee on Defence noted that the radar was one of the most important elements of the European fighter aircraft project and one upon which the whole success of the project could depend.
It is clear from some of the speeches that have been made this evening that the delay in placing the contract is causing apprehension to hon. Members of all parties, not least because the development of a radar system necessarily requires a long lead-in time. It appears--I use that phrase because those who are not directly involved can never know the full story-- that the United Kingdom's share of the development work will be the same whether the ECR90 or the MSD 2000 is chosen. I confess to a national if not a nationalist bias in favour of the ECR90 because of its location in Edinburgh and because Ferranti is apparently taking the leading part in the project.
The Secretary of State had recently been reported as being in favour of the ECR90. If he is satisfied that it meets the necessary technical criteria, I urge him to press hard for it. It is easy to argue that to have it is the only way of ensuring a continuing European radar technology.
Finally, I turn to the issue of low flying. As a Member of Parliament for a constituency that contains an RAF
Column 1093base, I accept that low flying is necessary. I do not believe that in the prevailing climate of concern about low flying the Royal Air Force is likely to institute a deliberate or provocative programme of low flying, not least because of the keen interest that the public is taking in the topic and because of the political repercussions. At the presentation by the Royal Air Force team to which the hon. Member for Tayside, North referred, those of us who attended were given some literature. In a booklet, which curiously does not have an obvious title, there is an article entitled "Low Flying--Case for the Defence." There is no doubt that it makes a persuasive case, but notwithstanding that case great public concern remains. Hon. Members still receive many complaints from members of the public. They cannot all be unfounded and regarded as unreasonable.
The civilian air accident at Lockerbie showed in a stark and possibly alarming way the consequences that may occur in an accident involving an aircraft. I hope that Ministers will accept that there is a duty to ensure that public confidence is maintained. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions this evening, or at a later stage. I do not expect detailed answers, but these questions will give us a useful point of focus for our consideration of this topic in the debate.
Can the Minister tell us how often in recent years Royal Air Force police have discovered breaches of low-flying regulations? How many Royal Air Force police are engaged in surveillance and what is the allocation of resources for this purpose? What are the consequences for those found to have breached the regulations?
I welcome the deployment of the Skyguard radar system to monitor low flying. I hope that the Minister will tell us precisely when it will be fully operational.
As almost all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have acknowledged, the Royal Air Force plays a difficult and frequently dangerous role in the defence of the United Kingdom and in the fulfilment of our obligations under NATO. There is little doubt that it deserves the support of us all. The debate may highlight differing views of how that role should be fulfilled, but it should also underline that for the most part the House is grateful to the brave men and women who serve in the Royal Air Force. The House salutes them and wishes them well.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) mentioned search and rescue operations carried out by the RAF. Although I wish to endorse all that he said about them, I shall direct the attention of the Minister to the problem of the aging Wessex helicopters. Before I do so, I put on record the admiration of my constituency for the excellent search and rescue work of the privatised service operated by Bristow. There were many critics of the decision of the Fleet Air Arm to move out of Lee-on-Solent and to redeploy at Portland. Many had misgivings about the efficiency of such a service being operated by free enterprise. In one rescue last summer, the winch man had broken a limb and was in agony but nevertheless carried on to rescue a stricken yachtsman before telling the pilot of the helicopter that he was badly injured. I am sure, from that
Column 1094case, that the House will realise that the service is being conducted in the highest traditions of search and rescue. Indeed, my local inshore rescue services all tell me that because of the improved technical capability of that service they have a more efficient search and rescue service than was possible with the aging Wessex helicopters.
There have been two examples recently of rescues where the Wessex could not have reached ships and where the Sea King has been deployed. On 22 February, the Secil Angola was in distress 350 milies west of Isla. That was well outside the range of the Wessex helicopter. The Sea King was deployed. On 27 February, in heavy seas, 200 miles off Land's End, a Russian factory ship, the Salantay, had an injured crewman. A helicopter was deployed from RAF Brawdy, as on the previous occasion, to take the injured seaman to hospital in Truro. Those sorties could not have been achieved by a Wessex helicopter. Although more than half the search and rescue helicopters are Sikorsky S 61s or Sea Kings, more than 40 per cent. continue to be Wessex helicopters.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : While I understand the hon. Gentleman's preference for an aircraft other than the Wessex in the circumstances that he has outlined, is he aware that Mr. Hamish McInnes of Glencoe, who is probably responsible for more mountain rescues than anyone else in the United Kingdom, is of the view that the Wessex is to be preferred for certain operations in the mountains, because of its greater manoeuvrability?
Mr. Field : I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, as I was not aware of that fact. But I am aware of some technical capabilities of the Sea King, to which I shall be alluding. Although I do not tend to be technically proficient with regard to helicopters, I know that some of those arguments were considered when the Bristow contract was in the offing for the replacement of the Lee-on-Solent service, in my constituency. The Solent is the busiest stretch of water, and has more problems with pleasure craft in distress than anywhere in the European Community. There have been no operational difficulties. I know that a much larger helicopter has taken over from the Wessex in mountain rescue. That was probably more manoeuvrable for getting near cliffs and working under them. But that problem has not arisen with the Bristow service in the Solent area. Since the end of the war the responsibility for meeting the United Kingdom's commitment for civil search and rescue has rested variously with the Ministries of Transport, Civil Aviation, Trade, and Trade and Industry, and is now with the Department of Transport. The RAF is responsible for the provision of fixed-wing aircraft, while rotary-winged aircraft are provided by the RAF, the Royal Navy and Her Majesty's Coastguard. These helicopters operate from 12 bases around the United Kingdom. Search and rescue authorities can also rely on support from three helicopters maintained by oil companies on the North sea oilfields, and Norwegian and Belgian Sea Kings, as well as the French navy's Super-Freloms, the Irish army air corps search and rescue helicopters and the United States Air Force's long range HH-55C helicopters, operated from Woodbridge in Suffolk. These helicopters provide support for incidents in the North sea, the strait of Dover and to a lesser extent the south-western approaches to the English channel and the
Column 1095Irish sea. There is no equivalent support in the north-western approaches and waters of north-west Scotland or in the central English channel.
The report of the civil rescue helicopter coverage working group, which was presented to the United Kingdom search and rescue committee on 1 December 1986, highlighted those areas of helicopter shortfall. Those have been largely overcome by redeployment of helicopters. However, other weaknesses include the reduced capability of the Wessex at night or in low visibility. In addition to this shortcoming, the aging Wessex has other deficiencies when compared with the Sea King, in a lack of automatic flying control systems that are capable of providing an automatic let-down, to bring the aircraft to hover at a safe height. This practice could be dangerous because of variable weather. The Sea King has a fully automatic let-down capability that can put the aircraft to hover safely over a known point without any visual reference by the pilot.
The Wessex has no radar and must rely on another aircraft to detect targets, whereas the Sea King can act autonomously. The endurance of the Wessex is less than half that of the Sea King. The Wessex hull is not designed for water landings, whereas the Sea King has a hull-type lower fuselage. The Sea King could take on board twice as many survivors as the Wessex, and the Wessex is more vulnerable than the Sea King to effects of icing. About 12 Wessex helicopters are currently associated with the search and rescue wing. In view of their age and shortcomings, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at their replacement as soon as possible.
In my opening remarks, I mentioned the private search and rescue service operating in my constituency. I hope that nothing that I have said will detract from the bravery and courage of the men who operate our search and rescue service in the RAF. They fly in some of the most arduous and difficult conditions. Both rescues that I mentioned were at the limits of the helicopters' endurance. They took considerable determination and skill, particularly when the men knew that they had just minutes to return before running out of fuel. Having flown to the northernmost part of the Brent Delta oilfield in a helicopter in a full gale, I know just how unpleasant the experience can be.
I conclude my first contribution to an RAF debate by mentioning an organisation which, although perhaps not specifically under ministerial control or in the jurisdiction of my hon. Friend, does sterling work on behalf of those who have served our country well. I refer to the Royal Air Force Association. As a councillor, I had the pleasure and the privilege of representing Sussex down. I was delighted that, every year, the Dutch air force bombed it with Gouda cheese, in commemoration of the Battle of Britain and getting RAF pilots back to this country.
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that we have a most active association branch in the Isle of Wight. We have many historical connections with the RAF, and that is a great pleasure to me. I wrote to the Minister's predecessor, asking whether we could have one of the defunct aircraft, which stand outside RAF establishments in this country and are gradually being withdrawn, for display on the Isle of Wight. I hope that, in due course, he will be able to accede to our request.
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Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) about nuclear weapons deployment. He made the important point that the justification that is traditionally used, certainly by the Prime Minister and other Ministers, that by retaining nuclear weapons we would remain at the international arms negotiation table is hollow. I wholeheartedly accept what he said.
If I am not mistaken, it is now about 26 or 27 years since Britain sat in on international arms negotiations on the deployment of, at that time, atomic weapons. Those negotiations led to the test ban treaty of 1961. Since that time, we have never been involved in negotiations on nuclear weapons. We were not even present at Reykjavik. It was only when former President Reagan decided to take on himself responsibility, in effect, to negotiate away the commitment of western Europe and America to the Trident programme that the Prime Minister hurried to Washington to rectify the position and make her representations. That can never be a justification. I also share my right hon. Friend's view that the Chernobyl incident has transformed western public opinion on the deployment of nuclear weapons. I would go further and I believe that there is much evidence to prove my case. Within the Labour electorate there may be those who feel strongly about the need to retain nuclear weapons and yet still retain their commitment to the Labour party at election times, but there is a strong unilateralist streak within Conservative Britain. Many people--I am sure that it is millions--who vote not Labour but Conservative have severe reservations about Britain being a nuclear weapons power. They may not express that view publicly, but they certainly express it privately. Many people whom I know socially and who are not of my political persuasion often say that to me. My view is that it would be a grave mistake for my party to change its position on nuclear weapons, if only because of my belief that, in Conservative Britain, there is strong support for the position that the Labour party has historically taken.
I now refer more specifically to matters relating to the RAF procurement and the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) about Marconi. Through my membership of the Public Accounts Committee over the past two and a half or three years, I have been most persistent in pressing for investigations to be made by Ministry of Defence police, and certainly by the National Audit Office, into aspects of Marconi's activities relating to RAF, naval and Army procurement. I have tabled innumerable motions drawing attention to leaks that I have received from former and, surprisingly, present employees of Marconi about irregularities in the way that that company handles defence contracts. Over that time, I have tabled innumerable questions, both written and oral, to the Under- Secretary of State about fraud in that company. I know that I cannot breach our Standing Orders by discussing sub judice matters, but the four persons who were arrested last week were but the tip of the iceberg in that company. There will inevitably be more arrests. Other contracts are under investigation by Ministry of Defence police, and other authorities will inevitably become involved. On several occasions, I have drawn the attention of the National Audit Office to irregularities in other contracts, over and above those
Column 1097which were referred to in the details of prosecution, as set out in the statement made by the authorities last week. Other prosecutions are utterly inevitable.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : The hon. Gentleman may make that statement about those persons who have been charged. It would be only for the courts to decide whether irregularities have taken place in those cases. I am saying what the hon. Gentleman knows to be true, which is that there are irregularities and there have been irregularities in aspects of Marconi's activities. We are not able to say whether those matters have yet resulted in persons being arrested or brought before the courts.
Mr. Rogers : The Minister is absolutely right to say that they are alleged frauds and irregularities. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will remember that, when we both were members of the Public Accounts Committee, it found that frauds and irregularities were going on, and they were specifically referred to. They were not alleged ; they were picked up by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : I cannot quite go down the road that my hon. Friend takes, though he is absolutely right. In the appendices to our most recent report on procurement, we drew the attention of the House of Commons and those who read our reports to 21 cases detailing allegations of fraud and, indeed, of company prosecutions that have taken place, only four of which were identified in our report and which have been the subject of Ministry of Defence police or National Audit Office investigations.
One of those items listed in our Public Accounts Committee report was the Dowty Rotol case. Dowty Rotol committed a fraud. Everyone who knows the detail of that case knows that it happened. Mr. Burgess Cooper, the whistleblower, has never been recompensed. The company paid back £400,000 to the Ministry of Defence. That fact is published in the appendices of our last report on defence procurement. Yet the authorities have chosen not to bring an action against that company. When Ministers finally decided to release that information to me--the Attorney-General informed me in a written reply--I felt so angry about it that I contemplated going outside the House and libelling the company so that it would bring a legal action against me and therefore enable me to test my case in the courts. But I was not given the opportunity to do so as it might have endangered the financial position of whatever medium I chose to publish my remarks. I repeat that Dowty Rotol committed a fraud and should be prosecuted. Everybody who works in the factory in Cheltenham knows it. It is talked about on the shop floor. I will not rest until that company is brought before the courts.
I want to deal in greater depth with Britain's low-flying programme. I have never been against low flying despite my persistent attacks on the Royal Air Force, accusing it of all sorts of irresponsible activities in this regard. I accept the need for a low-flying programme. I have always accepted the need for a greater part of the programme to
Column 1098take place in the United Kingdom. I have always accepted that there would be low-flying training over my constituency, over Keswick and my own home, where it currently takes place. If ever there was a witness to irregularities in low flying, it is I, when I stand in my garden and watch these people breaking the regulations. When I had a witness to it some 12 or 18 months ago--my secretary--and I reported it to the MOD, I had the usual officer who attends. He gives one the bumf and the glossies that one has grown to expect and nothing happens because these matters are all covered over.
The Minister may suggest that these people are disciplined, but when I tabled a question about that some 18 months ago I found that of thousands of cases of alleged irregularity--pilots who had breached RAF flying regulations--only a handful of people had been disciplined. There may have been one prosecution. I cannot quite remember the figure, but I recall that the very few who were disciplined received a slap on the back of the hand, were told not to do it again and that was the end of the matter.
Most RAF pilots act responsibly in the air. They are doing their job and I accept that they have responsibilities placed on them which they invariably carry out properly. What I do not like is when they tell lies, as they did about the incident outside Keswick last year. Three separate persons, approximately a quarter of a mile apart, witnessed the same incident when two RAF Tornados were flying at right angles to each other and took evasive action. Two of those persons rang me within hours at my office in Keswick and I located and interviewed the third. They all submitted statements. They were in no way connected : they did not even know each other. Yet when I put the matter to a Minister in an attempt to secure an inquiry to find out what happened--if those planes had met, there would have been a major disaster over the town of Keswick with the loss of hundreds of lives--and when it was then put to the authorities I was informed that it had not been reported. We cannot go on like that. They told lies--and those pilots know exactly what I am talking about. They know what happened on that day. The problem is that Ministers believe pilots, not witnesses. In those circumstances, we will never get to the truth.
Many incidents have been reported to me. My office has become a clearing house for people who write to me by the hundred from all over the country, objecting to what is happening in their area. I invariably tell them to write to their own Members of Parliament and ask them to make representations to the Ministry and to Ministers. I hope that most of them do, but I know that before I even advise them to do so that they will get the same old glossies back, justifying the programme and paying no attention to the complaints.
The effect of all this shows up in the statistics. When we ask about the number of people who have made complaints, we find that in certain conditions the number will decrease because if people realise that it is futile to complain they will not report incidents. In my constituency, people have concluded that nothing will happen if they report an incident. Visitors come in the tourist season to the Lake District. They ring my home and speak in anger to my wife about incidents that they have witnessed. My wife has to advise them to report the incidents to their own Member of Parliament or to the MOD. Very often they write later and say that it is a waste of time to report incidents because it means only that some