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Column 1114stood looking fit and well, as do new Members after they have fought an election. However, the House will soon put paid to that. I congratulate him on arriving here with the streets of Pontypridd still ingrained on his feet.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). It is the role of Back Benchers to hold Ministers accountable for the money which they obtain from the House, and in doing so the hon. Gentleman is worth a Benchful of Labour Members. Defence debates such as this are full of acronyms, and I had to go and look up "MLRS". I found that it stood for multiple-launch rocket system. I think that in future I shall apply that acronym to the hon. Member for Workington, who launched plenty of rockets at Government spokesmen this evening.
An aspect of the Royal Air Force that has not been mentioned today is the role of helicopters in battlefield and support work. We have heard a good deal today about search and rescue, and I feel that the battlefield and support role also needs our attention. I am glad that both Ministers and senior officers are now beginning to realise the importance of helicopter- borne operations. They are also realising that not only is the number of both RAF and Army Air Corps helicopters inadequate for the job in hand, but there is a lack of balance in resources vis-a-vis the other teeth arms of armour, infantry and artillery.
At present, in what is largely peacetime, the RAF support helicopters are mainly programmed to meet Northern Ireland commitments and to perform a host of other operational and training tasks. I would argue that that leaves a shortage in the event of general hostilities. It is unrealistic to claim that the United Kingdom has an adequate helicopter force to cope with all the necessary tasks at one time, and I fear that support helicopters would be swamped with requests and would be unable to meet them all. It has been suggested that the RAF, for its own logistic requirements alone, could probably mop up all the support Wessex and Puma helicopters. Why are those battlefield and support helicopters so important? In battle there is an increasing need for mobility and for better speed of reaction within NATO. Lateral movement of ground forces is difficult when enemy penetration is accepted in the design for battle. Only battleworthy helicopters can provide an adequate solution to the need for increased mobility, which is as important for out-of-area operations as in the central front. Flexibility is an important principle of war, and the helicopter in battle gives troops that flexibility.
In spite of what the Soviet Union has been saying about reducing its conventional forces, I think that that is highly unlikely to apply to its helicopters. All the evidence suggests that the Soviets are continuing to build up their rotary-winged force at least to reach a par with the United States. The USSR is believed to have at least 4,600 helicopters available to its armies--some reports have suggested as many as 7,000. Whatever the number, there is no doubt that it will continue to grow rapidly.
What can we put into battle in the NATO theatre in Europe against such a threat? I know that, with perestroika and glasnost prevailing, peace seems to be breaking out all over the world, but we must still keep our guard up and be able to respond to this most obvious threat, bearing in mind where it is most likely to come from. The United States has some 8,600 battlefield
Column 1115helicopters available to its armies. West Germany has 800, France 700 and Italy 330. In addition, Italy has a good many small light-fixed-winged aircraft.
In terms of battlefield helicopters, the United Kingdom has 320 allocated to the Army Air Corps, largely used for reconnaissance and anti-tank work. There are a further 63 in the Royal Air Force--32 Wessex and 31 Pumas--and 38 Chinooks are available for battlefield and support work. Of that total of 421 helicopters, 101 are under RAF command. I argue that, because of the multiplicity of roles that those helicopters have to undertake, that is not enough.
For example, in addition to their battlefield role, helicopters have to support our Northern Ireland operations and move men and materials all around central Europe and the United Kingdom. They also have to support the Harrier force in central Europe and perform all the RAF's logistic tasks. Those helicopters support our air mobile brigade, which is currently stationed in the United Kingdom but is allocated to the northern army group. Those helicopters also have many overseas commitments, particularly in the Falklands and in Belize. If hostilities broke out, there is no doubt that much of that work could not be done. Alternatively, the helicopters could not meet their battlefront commitments.
If there is to be a helicopter battlefield support force capable of fulfilling all those roles--and, in particular, of supporting the Air Mobile Brigade, which requires at least 50 support helicopters to move it around--the field army needs a further 150 helicopters as a bare necessity. I know that it is a case of priorities. When it comes to defence expenditure, it is always a question of deciding what one wants most. If I were Secretary of State for Defence, I would put my faith in more helicopters rather than in more tanks, because the helicopter offers more flexibility. If the Ministry of Defence does not get its house fully in order in respect of helicopters, in the event of war, the Army could become totally immobile.
We were pleased by the statement of my right hon. Frind the Secretary of State for Defence on 9 April 1987 about orders for support helicopters. On that occasion, my right hon. Friend announced that he was placing orders for 25 of the Anglo-Italian EH101. That good news was welcomed by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. However, I am sorry to report that that aircraft is still flight testing at Yeovil for its future development. I would like to know how soon the preliminary development contract for that aircraft will be placed. I understand that there are delays because the armed forces persist in increasing their specifications. That is typical of so many orders for the British armed forces.
The point about a support helicopter is that it is a truck that flies. We want airborne facilities that will move large quantities of troops and materials from one place to another. I cannot believe that it is necessary to go to such lengths at the development stage, which merely delays the aircraft's introduction into service.
We are extremely fortunate in the United Kingdom to have the Westland Group to manufacture our helicopters. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has been present during the debate because, although as a Whip he is muted in debate, I know how much he supports that company and lobbies for it. The manufactures at Yeovil are normally carried out in co-operation with the aerospace companies of our NATO allies. Under this Government, Westland can look forward to a good future, but it would be much better if the Ministry of Defence took my advice--not only my advice, because it comes from outside the House as well--and added more helicopters to battlefield and support inventories so that, if hostilities were to commence, they would be able to give our Army in the field the backup it required, without which our troops would be at a great tactical disadvantage.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Having sat through all but about 15 minutes of the debate, I am pleased to have a few minutes at the end of it. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours) took so long, because that has curtailed the time for other hon. Members. I am sure that he had much to say, but he might have said it more briefly.
Labour Members support the policy of an adequate defence force, of which the Royal Air Force is but one branch. We support a publicly owned and controlled defence system because we believe that that is the most effective. The Government believe that as well, because they have not yet brought forward proposals for privatising the Royal Air Force into British Airways, British Midland or any other private body, and they have not proposed selling off the armed forces to Securicor. If that is true for our armed forces--and defence is all important according to the Government--it is also true for major services such as water, gas and electricity. If things are important--and water is important and essential to life--public ownership and control is an important concept for Labour Members. Labour Members support unilateral nuclear disarmament and it is Labour party policy. It is currently under review, which is not tactically clever because it prevents us, for a couple of years, from arguing the overwhelming case for getting rid of nuclear weapons. The Government make little jokes about it, but as I keep saying--and the Government have no answer to this--nuclear weapons are potential mass murderers. As the Government know well, 133 non-nuclear nations have said that they will not manufacture or deploy nuclear weapons. By our "modernisation" of the Royal Air Force and our deployment of Trident, which I dealt with in the Navy debate, we are metaphorically kicking in the teeth those 133 nations which look to the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, the nuclear signatories of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to carry out article 6 and effectively negotiate the removal of nuclear weapons.
The United States and the Soviet Union have at least embarked on that programme. Only the United Kingdom retains nuclear weapons without any suggestion that it is prepared to negotiate with anybody to remove them. That
Column 1117is a scandal and a disgrace. The modernisation proposal is a betrayal and a calculated deceit towards the INF treaty, into which the United States and the USSR have entered. I have a letter from the Bradford Telegraph and Argus which encapsulates the plea to the Government not to cheat on the INF treaty. Headed : "Don't turn treaty into a mockery", it says :
"We were delighted to learn recently of the withdrawal of American forces from Molesworth RAF base and to hear that the public can now view the empty insides of the silos which had been built to house Cruise nuclear missiles. Let us hope that the INF Treaty is just the beginning of total world nuclear disarmament. It is disturbing to read, however, that ideas are being floated in the United States and within NATO on how best to compensate' for the loss of Cruise and Pershing by introducing either a new range of nuclear weapons or placing Cruise-type missiles on cruisers and destroyers operating out of British ports. We feel that the British public needs to be reassured that the INF treaty is not a mockery."
That letter is signed by Jane Nuttall of Wyke women's peace group in my constituency. She and millions of others like her seek that assurance. They want to be sure that Tornado--the most expensive procurement programme in our history--will not be modernised to include nuclear missiles, and that nuclear bombs will be removed from those planes as part of our programme of honouring the INF treaty. We may not be signatories, but we should honour the treaty in spirit. Labour's policy also involves the removal of the United States nuclear bases, which were allowed in this country under an agreement reached in October 1951. Why was the agreement reached then? A general election was taking place, so the Prime Minister of the day was not subject to the scrutiny of the House. The Conservative Government accepted the agreement when they were elected to replace the Labour Government.
That slip of paper says that there shall be joint decision-making on the use or RAF bases by the United States
"in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time." That means that a unilateral decision can be made to engage in nuclear war--despite the removal of cruise missiles--by using F111s at Lakenheath with nuclear weapons on board. It is the sane policy, and in the interests of our future safety, to get rid of American nuclear bases and to close down the American facility at Lakenheath, just as Molesworth and Greenham Common were closed as a result of negotiations to which our Government were not a party.
There is to be massive investment in the Tornado programme--£13 billion--while the European fighter aircraft project is to cost £7 billion. That £20 billion-worth of investment has warped our civilian aircraft programme. This country once led in the production of jet aircraft but now the nearest thing to a large-bodied jet that we produce is the modest BA 146, which is powered not by a Rolls-Royce engine but by an Avco Lycoming engine imported from the United States.
We are prepared to spend £20 billion on fighter aircraft that we cannot use in a conflict. People talk about flying aircraft low towards a target. The poor wretches who fly them to their targets in a nuclear war will find when they return that their base is no longer there. The whole notion of a conflict is out of date ; it is antique.
Column 1118We should invest in our civilian aircraft programme. British Airways now relies completely on Boeing ; indeed, the replacement for Shackleton is to be provided not by the British aircraft industry but by Boeing, whose quality, as we know, is somewhat variable. We could be supplying British Airways ourselves if we had directed investment towards the civilian programme. Japan, which spends less than 1 per cent. of its gross national product in military expenditure, has managed to flood the world with services and goods because it has concentrated on things that people need and want rather than pouring money into military research and expenditure.
An enormous sum--£19,636 million--is being spent on defence in 1988- 89. In the same year--on April 11--we are to cut pensions and a whole range of benefits on which the neediest and poorest people in our country depend. In that same year, we embarked on expenditure of £20 billion for military purposes. The Minister stated proudly that that was a real terms increase of 3 per cent.
I do not want to reiterate the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington--indeed, I could not, because my voice is not that strong--but I want to point out that in the current defence estimates, for the year 1 January 1987 to 31 December 1987, the cost of replacing aircraft that have crashed on low-flying exercises, which, in my view, are entirely unnecessary, was a total of £200 million. That expenditure was due to the mistaken policies on low flying. If the Government disagree with the policies of a local authority and regard them as mistaken, they surcharge and dismiss from office the Labour councillors involved. Because of the Government's policy of support for nuclear weapons, because of their careless use of aircraft and because of their low-flying policies, the Government should be dismissed from office also.
Mr. Rogers : The Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces referred to AWACS and said that when his colleague replies he will mention it further. I should like to know how many such systems are available to the Royal Air Force. The Minister also referred to the flying displays and the changes that will be brought in to enhance safety, especially for spectators. We welcome that. The RAF's thrilling displays at various events are looked forward to with a great deal of pleasure by many people. Obviously, the more restrictions that can be introduced to increase safety the better so that people can enjoy the displays without the fearful accidents that sometimes occur.
The Minister also mentioned low flying--an issue to which some of my hon. Friends have also referred. I was pleased by the Minister's answer because it was much more positive and not as arrogant as some of the answers that we have received from his colleagues. The Minister seems to be applying himself to the issue instead of adopting--if I may use the expression--the knee-jerk reaction of saying, "The RAF says that it is good and necessary so we must carry on." Although it is obvious that the Minister is looking at the problems, the restrictions on low flying are still gravely deficient. The problems are not fully appreciated. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces seems to find the matter humorous, but perhaps he will pay attention because if low flying were carried out over his constituency or even over constituencies in Kent, we should see a greater response from the Government. It seems that
Column 1119environmental problems must affect Kent before the Government will do anything. I should like to say to those on the Government Benches, "Come on, lads. Realise that there are other places outside the Tory-held south-east of England and realise that this is a serious problem."
The Minister recognised the problem, referring to the "sudden noise alarming people". That is putting it mildly. Anyone who has experienced a Tornado flying overhead at only 100 ft and at 500 mph knows that it is not just alarming ; it is shudderingly frightful. People have no warning that exercises are going to take place. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that point. The Government's answer to a request that people be allowed to be told that the exercises are to take place was, "It is a matter of national security." I cannot see how it can be a matter of national security. Why cannot people be told that low flying will take place within certain hours?
Mr. Bill Walker rose --
I detected in the Minister's opening speech a slight thawing in the Government's neanderthal attitude towards low flying. I ask him please to bend a little more and think of the people, especially in central Wales and the two areas of Scotland, who are subjected to this 500 mph bombardment from 100 ft. It is a very important issue for them. The quality of their life is important.
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : On that very point, which is of great interest to the House, can my hon. Friend recall my question to the Minister on Tuesday regarding the £1 billion of Government funds that is wasted every year on the maintenance of fast jets? A report has come out saying that fast jets spend half their time being maintained. Will my hon. Friend bear that fact in mind? Are the fast jets going about the airways of Wales fully maintained? Can we have a reliable statement from the Minister that there will not be any air crashes like those in the public sector?
Mr. Rogers : My hon. Friend is right to draw the House's attention to the enormous sums of money being spent on repairing aircraft involved in accidents. As he is well aware, very close to his constituency at RAF St. Athan, there are 32 Tornado F2 and F3 aircraft in store, worth more than £500 million. In a Defence Committee report they were picturesquely described by witnesses from the Ministry of Defence as
"a small buffer stock of aircraft".
The nation can do without a small buffer stock of aircraft worth well over £500 million.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made a very thoughtful speech. Perhaps we might not agree with his conclusions, but it is important to look constantly at the arguments. We are in a dynamic situation. I am sorry to use the word "neanderthal" again--perhaps it is a problem of a geologist--but because of the neanderthal attitude of Conservative Members, they do not recognise that we are in a dynamic situation. The way forward is to consider new situations that will arise from time to time. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) declared his well-known interest in the RAF. I am pleased that he still gets enormous pleasure from it, as I am sure he will to the end of his days. He remarked that the RAF needs the very best radar. I wish that he would take a little
Column 1120step further and have the courage to turn to his Front Bench and say to Minister that they are not doing a good job. The RAF should have the very best radar, but it is not up to the job. It has been in service for four years. It was introduced on an interim standard. It is still not up to the required standards and specifications of the RAF. The management of defence procurement by the Government is appalling.
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) told us of his experiences in the RAF under a new scheme that has been introduced by the Secretary of State during the past year. Some service experience is indeed useful in understanding the problems. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on taking up that opportunity. I hope that other hon. Members will follow his example.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) paid tribute to Bristow. I began to wonder whether he, too, would take that little extra step and highlight some of the deficiencies in the air search and rescue service. The Opposition have drawn attention to those deficiencies in previous debates. There is a sore lack of equipment in that service. It ought to have more money and more resources. In answer to a question by me on Tuesday, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that more than enough money is available to meet all the commitments of the services. Perhaps he should devote some of that money to the search and air rescue service so that it can update its equipment for the tremendous job that it does. The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) referred to the loss of skilled personnel. He is absolutely right to draw our attention to that issue. As the effects of the fall in the birth rate become ever more apparent, it will become increasingly important to retain the right personnel. Each time the topic has been raised the Government have sought to assure us that there is nothing to worry about. The Minister at last acknowledged that there were severe shortfalls in the number of aircrew and engineers, but he said that such shortages are containable and exist only in the short term. At long last what we have been saying over the past few years has now been acknowledged by the Government. The Government's attitude to any criticism is, "No, no, there is nothing wrong." If Opposition Members dare to put forward constructive criticism, Conservative Back Benchers say that we are attacking our armed forces. That is not true. We are attacking the Government and the management of the Ministry of Defence, not the members of the armed forces, who are doing a good job for us in the difficult conditions that obtain under this Government.
RAF personnel are voting with their feet. The statistics are alarming. The number of fast jet pilots who have taken premature voluntary release has increased from 20 in 1979 to 31 in 1988. The number of trained engineers leaving the service is also a cause for concern. In 1980, the number of electronic engineers joining and leaving the RAF brought about an overall gain of 554. In the same year, there was a net increase of over 1,000 in the number of mechanical engineers. In 1988, the situation worsened. The RAF had an overall loss of 427 electronic engineers and 433 mechanical engineers. That loss of hundreds of highly skilled engineers is of great concern to the Opposition.
Opposition Members recognise the great importance of those people. Although the Minister mentioned some measures that the Government are taking to stop that flow
Column 1121of personnel, I wish that such steps had been taken before, when we referred to the loss of maintenance staff. We hope that the Minister's proposals will stem the flow.
I re-emphasise the Opposition's commitment to the defence of this country. If hon. Members would accept that there is a strong commitment to the defence of this country, and if our criticisms were accepted in the constructive way in which we attempt to put them, we would get a lot further in defence debates. The country is not served by yah-boo political debates. People do not have the peculiar views that the Government sometimes put forward. I hope that the Opposition's constructive suggestions will be taken on board by the Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : We have had a very varied debate, varied in a number of ways, in general attitudes to defence and foreign policy, a nice variation among those on the Opposition Benches, and a variation between them and the Government Benches. There was a variation in the relevance of the speeches to the subject of the debate, which I thought on some occasions the House needed to be reminded was the Royal Air Force. There was quite a variation in the length of contributions. I am only sorry that the contribution of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) resulted in such a disturbance afterwards on his side of the House that we nearly had to call time-out while it was sorted out.
There was even a variety in the frequency of contributions. I realise now why on this occasion the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) needed to be dual-capable, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Armed Forces so nicely put it. He wanted to make one speech on a variety of what, if one stretched a point, could be called defence-related issues, and another to cover the RAF. Some of us were not so lucky to have the opportunity to make two speeches. I thank him and congratulate him on his second speech, however, and I recognise his personal and family commitment to the RAF and to the defence of the country.
On one issue, at least, I hope we were united--in recognising the dedication and commitment of the men and women of the RAF. That is something that we all know we can rely on. Reliability has been much in the news and it is relevant to the comments of several hon. Members in the debate. The interest in reliability has been brought to the fore by the report of the National Audit Office on the reliability and maintainability- -R and M for short--of defence equipment.
I want to stress that I am in general sympathy with the report and grateful for the succinct way in which it sets out ideas, proposals and objectives. I particularly welcome its recognition of the marked interest and concern on the part of my Department and British contractors to make further progress. Nevertheless, good reliability is only one facet of the services' needs. Performance and availability on time are obviously important, and so are cost considerations, since there is obviously a trade-off between increased costs and improved reliability. These criteria frequently conflict and a judgment must be made on the correct compromises. The exercise is to ensure that reliability receives sufficient emphasis and is taken into account early enough.
Column 1122I should not like it to be thought that we have been inactive in the area of reliability and maintainability. As the recent NAO report said,
"The need for good R and M has long been recognised by the Department."
We have identified what is needed, in itself a task of some complexity. As a result, we have not only set in hand further work by consultants, such as the contracting for reliability study, but have also looked at our organisation and procedures.
For example, nearly five years ago we gave further momentum to the collection of quality assurance experts with the project management teams, and more recently we have been incorporating them into the project teams. We have also been putting more and more R and M and life-cycle information into the equipment policy committee. The project management teams, too, have been active in exploring new approaches so that, as we gain experience, we shall be well placed to identify those ideas which generally contribute to improved reliability. The most recent decision has been to appoint a director of reliability, charged with the central co-ordination of current and future R and M initiatives.
I should like the House to be aware of the influence of the long, in some cases incredibly long, time scales of procurement on the effectiveness of our policies. Everyone is agreed that the proper time to start to get R and M right is when a project is in its earliest design and specification stage ; improvements can be made to R and M thereafter, but it becomes progressively more difficult and expensive. It follows, therefore, that much of the equipment now criticised for poor reliability or high maintenance costs started to be designed and developed at least 10 years ago, long before we began to give greater attention to R and M. Equally, a considerable time will pass before we get the full fruits of our better applied effort. Meanwhile, I can assure the House that as new projects are initiated the policy is that the full R and M doctrine should be applied. I was glad to hear how much my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) had gained from his time with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was also pleased to hear his tribute to the service men he was with : they enjoyed his company as he enjoyed theirs. We look forward to the scheme not only continuing but expanding. I am glad to be able to confirm to him and to the House that no civilian has been killed on the ground during the 1980s as a result of an RAF flying accident.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces covered low flying fully in his opening remarks. It was referred to by many hon. Members, some with perhaps more understanding of the need for low flying training than others. The hon. Member for Workington worried about the cost to the Exchequer of aircraft lost in accidents. If we had no training, we would not have accidents during training, but we would not have the capable Air Force that the country needs and deserves.
In his extraordinary efforts to show that low flying was not worthwhile because of the highly capable missiles which the Russians have, the hon. Member for Workington ignored the far greater risks of trying to reach targets at high levels and the defensive capabilities of our aircraft. Most of all, he ignored the well known and well set-out advantages of terrain- following, low-level attack. I assure him that we are aware of the threat posed by Soviet missiles and by other Soviet equipment. That is why we equip the RAF to meet that threat.
Column 1123It was no surprise to the House to hear again that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), supported by the hon. Members for Workington and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), still believes in a non-aligned foreign and defence policy. The right hon. Gentleman is not only a supporter of one-sided nuclear disarmament but, as I understood his speech, he also advocated unilateral conventional disarmament. I think that we should leave him to carry on his argument within his own party. I am sure that he will do it with the same eloquence within the party as he has used in the House.
Mr. Benn : Can the Minister give any indication to the House how, 10 years after the Government have been in force, with a Soviet Government who are more friendly, most people would think, than Mr. Brezhnev's Government, we should find it necessary to spend 20 per cent. more in real terms on weapons than at the time when we were dealing not with Mr. Gorbachev but with Mr. Brezhnev?
Mr. Sainsbury : It was an interesting slip for the right hon. Gentleman to say that the present Government had been in force rather than in power. I take it that he was referring to our majority. When the right hon. Gentleman makes his suggestions about unilateral conventional as well as nuclear disarmament, he appears to ignore that until now the Soviet Union has continued to produce new modernised military equipment for nuclear forces, conventional forces and every type of force. The one thing that so much of the equipment has in common is its attacking capability. We hope that we can look to a time when the Russians will no longer produce a submarine every six weeks, for example. That has not happened yet. Indeed, the hon. Member for Workington drew to our attention what seemed to him the almost magical attributes of a new Russian missile. If the Soviets are producing new weapons, I would have thought that it was only right that we continued to do so ourselves.
I shall try to cover the other points that were raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), with his great experience of and his great commitment to the RAF, mentioned the very important Tucano. I am glad to tell him that 11 aircraft have been delivered to the RAF and that reports from those who have flown the aircraft are most encouraging. The power, agility and safe handling of the Tucano endow it with the ideal characteristics for basic training. I think that it will serve the RAF extremely well, The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) raised the question of gratuities and pensions payable to the wives and families of serving personnel. I assure him that the Royal Air Force takes great pride in the care and support which it offers to its bereaved. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will write to the hon. Gentleman about the tragic loss of Squadron Leader Nelson and about the wider question of benefit levels.
AWACS--now to be called the Sentry--has been mentioned. The hon. Member for Rhondda appears to be wondering how many we already have. I hoped that he might have been aware that seven are on order and that the first one is expected to be rolled out of the production line during this summer.
Mr. Sainsbury : I have just said that seven are on order and that the first one is due to be rolled out this summer-- [Interruption.] It would help me to answer the points raised in the debate if the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen could restrain themselves a little. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) asked about the AWACS off-set agreement. I assure him that we are closely monitoring Boeing's performance in fulfilling the off-set commitment. We have every confidence that the company will meet its obligations in full. I can further assure my hon. Friend that we are also confident that the RAF will receive from its American counterpart all the information that it needs to operate the Sentry E3 successfully. Perhaps not surprisingly, radar has featured in a number of contributions--both the radars that we have and, indeed, the ones that we have not yet chosen. Questions were raised about the capability of the radar systems that we have, especially about Foxhunter. Indeed, that gets inextricably mixed up with the Tornadoes. Of course, the hon. Member for Rhondda wheeled out the ones in storage, if I may mix mataphors, at St. Athan.
As the Defence Committee recognised in its report on the Statement on the Defence Estimates for 1988, storage represented the most cost-effective and operationally acceptable course open to the Ministry of Defence when faced with the need to rephase Tornado ADV deployment plans after 1984. All the aircraft involved will be upgraded to a standard comparable to that of the latest production F3s. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said in his second speech, a number of them are, of course, only F2s. I cannot persuade the hon. Gentleman to believe it, but that is what will happen.
My hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North and for Wyre, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), and, as one might always expect, the hon. Member for Rhondda, mentioned the Foxhunter radar, which, even in its present form, is performing much better than on its first introduction to service. We are confident that its capability will continue to improve as the development progresses. We have agreed with the contractor a programme of work to bring the radar up to the required standard.
Mr. Rogers : The Minister has, in fact, acknowledged that the Foxhunter is not up to the standard required. It has been in service now for four years. Can the Minister tell the House when the radar will perform, as it should have performed in 1985?
Mr. Sainsbury : As I have already said to the House, it is already performing much better than the first deliveries. There have been progressive improvements. We have agreed with the contractor a tight contract, which covers the further programme of improvements, with milestones for payment against performance, which is extremely important.
The European fighter aircraft radar seems to feature in practically every Defence Question Time and probably in every defence debate these days.
Mr. Sainsbury : I know that the hon. Gentleman is impatient, but he should know--because he is supposed to be in charge of these matters for the Opposition--that there is a procedure to be followed before a choice is made.
Column 1125We must have a recommendation from the European NATO Fighter Management Agency as to what radar should be chosen. I am sure that all the hon. Members who raised the issue will appreciate that both competing radars involve British companies. It would be wrong for me to prejudge the outcome of the competition. We have been waiting for the recommendation to NEFMA by Euro- fighter, the prime contractor, and we still hope that a recommendation will be made. However, in the meantime the four participating nations are carrying out their own evaluation of the bids from the two competing consortia.
Mr. O'Neill : We have heard repeated undertakings that the decision would be made soon. We were told tht it would be forthcoming last year, in September, in December, at the end of January and we are now into March. How much longer will the delay take? Why is this taking so long? Why will the Minister not be frank with the House?
Mr. Sainsbury : The decision, as I have explained to the hon. Gentleman, is awaiting a recommendation from Eurofighter. I am not Eurofighter. We are representatives of the collaborating nations. In a way, the hon. Gentleman is addressing his questions to the wrong people.
I hope that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) will appreciate, in view of all the interest expressed in the subject so far, that the radar is a very important part of the aircraft. The most modern, highly capable radars are not the easiest things to get right and we would all probably agree about that. It would be sensible to ensure that we reach the right conclusions on this important subject.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) made some interesting comments about the importance of helicopters. I assure him that we recognise that and I will study what he has said carefully because, regrettably, I was not able to be in the Chamber for all the time that he was speaking.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside asked about the development of the EH101 utility helicopter. As I told the House last November, the programme has started on the formal project definition stage which will examine in detail the RAF's requirements and establish more clearly the costs and risks involved. I assure my hon. Friend that the RAF's basic requirement has not changed.
My hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Tayside, North were among those who asked about stand-off weapons for the Tornado. They referred to the need to provide an updated stand-off capability for the Tornado and the importance of stand-off weapons for survivability in today's highly challenging environment. They will be pleased to know that we are proceeding steadily with the development of a weapon to meet that requirement.
We sought proposals from industry early in 1987 for a range of possible solutions. A total of eight bids were received in October 1987. Although some have been
Column 1126eliminated as being clearly unacceptable on operational or performance grounds, we are continuing with our assessment of the remainder and expect to make further decisions later in the year. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East referred to the search and rescue provision from RAF Leuchars. The greatly improved service provided by the Royal Navy Sea King helicopters at Prestwick and Culdrose together with other helicopter and coastguard services in the area have made it possible to reduce the search and rescue service from Leuchars. The resources dedicated to search and rescue will not substantially change as a result of the redeployment. The aim of making better use of our existing assets to meet military and civilian needs has been achieved. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for transport in Scotland are satisfied that fully adequate provision is being made for civilian search and rescue needs.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the staff of the Royal Aerospace Establishment, who were not mentioned during the course of the debate. However, those with a knowledge of the RAF would recognise that their research into aircraft and missile systems has helped to keep the United Kingdom at the forefront in those areas. Equally important, the establishment enables the MOD to maintain the intelligent customer capability which is so crucial in our dealings with industry and our procurement effectiveness. The House will be aware that earlier today I announced that we have concluded that a move to Preston farm in Teesside is the most cost-effective solution for the headquarters and laboratories of the Directorate General of Defence Quality Assurance now at Woolwich and Bromley. The move would concentrate the headquarters functions and main laboratories of the directorate on a single site with fully modern facilities, while at the same time releasing the Woolwich and Bromley sites for disposal and redevelopment. We shall be consulting with the trade unions, as is normal practice. There are 1,500 jobs involved, of which about 650 would be good quality scientific and engineering posts and about 250 would be apprentices.
We have, of course, recently heard of the death of that intrepid pioneer aviator and aircraft designer Tommy Sopwith. It would be inappropriate if this evening went by without his career being mentioned and a tribute being paid to the contribution he made over many years to a wide variety of aircraft names--the Hurricane, the Typhoon, the Hunter and, of course, more recently, the Harrier. Today is also, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned, the 40th anniversary of the inaugural flight of the Shackleton aircraft. Every year in this debate we recognise, as many hon. Members have commented, another year of effective and loyal service by the service men and women of the Royal Air Force. They are an enormous credit to the nation through the selfless way in which they continue to carry out their tasks.
It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)
That the draft Unfair Dismissal (Increase of Limits of Basic and Special Awards) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 17th January, be approved.
That the draft Unfair Dismissal (Increase of Compensation Limit) Order 1989 which was laid before this House on 27th January, be approved.
That the draft Employment Protection (Variation of Limits) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 27th January, be approved.
That the draft Social Security (Contributions) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 21st February, be approved.-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
Question agreed to.