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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) : When my right hon. Friend considers the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and others for a debate on early-day motion 459 on Liberal Democrat literature, will he bear in mind the concerns and fears that many British people have about the activities and influence of extreme and racist political forces in Europe and their wish not to see those forces imported in this country in any way whatever?

Mr. Newton : I am increasingly tempted to think that one of the innovations that should be introduced into our proceedings is an opportunity for Liberal Democrat Members to answer questions.

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Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : May we have a debate next week about the underhand, coercive pressures imposed on teachers? That would enable us to draw attention to the threats issued by Liberal and Labour-controlled Kent county council to primary and other school head teachers who are considering applying for grant-maintained status. They are being told that if they support such action, they cannot expect ever to be considered for vacancies in any of the council's schools.

Mr. Newton : It would clearly be very disturbing if that were demonstrated to be the case. No doubt Opposition Members who may have influence over those to whom my hon. Friend refers will consider what he has said.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh) : Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate next week on early-day motion 461?

[That this House condemns unreservedly the remarks of the honourable Member of Glasgow, Hillhead in praising the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad ; regrets that these remarks have provided a propaganda coup for the Iraqi dictator ; notes his statement made personally to Saddam Hussein ; Sir, allow me to salute your courage, power and indefatigability. I would like you to know that we are with you until the nasir (victory)' ; and regrets the distress which these remarks will have caused to the families of British service men and women who were killed or injured in the Gulf War and families of those British civilians imprisoned by Saddam Hussein.]

The motion relates to the conduct of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). On a recent visit to Baghdad, he paid tribute to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those remarks will have caused deep distress to the courageous British service men and women who fought in the Gulf war, and to their families? The debate would also give us an opportunity to express our dismay at the inadequacy of the discipline imposed on the hon. Gentleman by his party.

Mr. Newton : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to feel that those remarks caused deep offence in every quarter of the country.

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Points of Order

4.5 pm

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will be aware that the Committee of Selection has appointed five hon. Members representing English constituencies to the Standing Committee considering the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill. Standing Order No. 86(2) imposes on the Committee of Selection a duty to

"have regard to the qualifications of Members"

to serve on Committees.

The Committee of Selection receives specific information about hon. Members' participation in debates before the Committee stage of a Bill, which is a major criterion in the selection of Standing Committee members. In this instance, not one of those English Members spoke or actively participated in such debates. They have not an ounce of mandate in the form of a Scottish vote ; yet, in consideration of a purely Scottish Bill, they will constitute the majority that determines the future of Scottish local government. I know, Madam Speaker, that you emphasise the fact that ours is a United Kingdom Parliament, and that hon. Members can speak on any matter. It is, however, very unfair and blatantly undemocratic for the future of Scottish local government to be decided in this way, against the wishes of the Scottish people. Will you examine the matter, and advise us on how the Chairman of the Committee of Selection could explain, on the Floor of the House, the reasoning behind a decision that has scunnered people in Scotland and re-emphasised the current democratic deficit in relation to Scottish matters?

Several hon. Members rose --

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Madam Speaker : Order. I shall take one more point of order from each side.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) said about the democratic deficit. You will know, Madam Speaker, that the Labour party, the Conservative party and, I believe, the Liberal party have selected large numbers of Scots to represent English constituencies ; as far as I am aware, the reverse has not occurred. As we have been generous and decent in this regard, should not reciprocal arrangements exist in Scotland? That would also deal with the hon. Gentleman's point.

Madam Speaker : I think that, after all, I have heard enough points of order on that particular matter.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) rose --

Madam Speaker : No, I have heard enough. We are not going to have a debate about procedure. I can now help the House, and through the House--as the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) suggested--the people of Scotland.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order, which allows me to make two points clear. First, appointments to Standing Committees made by the Committee of Selection are final, and do not require the House's approval. Secondly, as page 618 of "Erskine May" makes clear,

"The interpretation of the order of reference of a select committee is a matter for the committee."

It would therefore be wrong for me to comment on the judgment of the Committee of Selection, its Chairman or any of its members about the qualifications of the Standing Committee members that it selects. The House has entrusted the responsibility to the Committee of Selection, and must leave it with that Committee.

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Royal Air Force

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Michael Brown.]

4.9 pm

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : It was this time last year that the House debated the Royal Air Force in the context of its activities in the Gulf. Despite steps which have been taken towards peace in that region since then, the RAF presence remains necessary ; but that is but one of a number of operations around the world to which the RAF is contributing.

In opening today's debate, I shall focus on how the RAF is continuing to meet its many commitments while at the same time rising to the challenge of substantial reorganisation and change, which will make it a leaner organisation still fully capable of meeting Britain's future defence needs.

Hon. Members will recall the publication of last year's White Paper, "Defending Our Future", which included a new and fundamental analysis of the way in which defence assets are and will need to be employed to meet our various commitments around the world. The framework for the analysis is provided by the three overlapping defence roles to which the RAF makes significant and key contributions.

Our defence strategy continues to be underpinned by our nuclear capabilities, strategic and substrategic. While our longer-term intention is to transfer the substrategic role to the Trident force, this vital link in the chain of nuclear deterrence will continue to be provided by Tornado GR1 aircraft, armed with the WE177 free-fall bomb, well into the first decade of the next century.

Defence role one provides for the protection of the United Kingdom and dependent territories. The integrity of British airspace in peacetime is maintained by the improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment, supplemented by the Sentry airborne early warning force--AEW--and Tornado F3 fighters. We should remember, too, the significant role played by the RAF in Northern Ireland where it provides crucial helicopter support for the Army in extremely testing conditions. The RAF Regiment also provides specialist airfield ground defence. Nor should we forget that the RAF continues to make vital contributions to our forces in Cyprus, Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

The second of the three defence roles provides insurance against a major external threat to the United Kingdom and our allies. This role is discharged through our membership of NATO. NATO has three new force categories : immediate and rapid reaction forces, main defence forces, and augmentation forces. The RAF contributes to all three and, of course, its nuclear capability, which I have already mentioned, is double-hatted here. Tornado F3 air defence aircraft and Rapier fire units are declared to NATO's immediate reaction force and some 80 Harrier, Tornado and Jaguar aircraft are declared to the rapied reaction force in the critical areas of offensive air support, tactical reconnaissance and interdiction.

In addition, a further 190 aircraft are assigned to main defence forces, including tankers, transport aircraft and helicopters. Finally, a composite force of Chinook and Puma helicopters is assigned to the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps. I deal now with the third defence role--the armed forces' contribution to promoting the United Kingdom's

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wider security interests. It is, of course, under this defence role that our armed forces, and the RAF in particular, have in recent years seen most active employment.

The area of current operations in which the RAF is most publicly visible continues to be in the former Yugoslavia. There, the RAF is maintaining its considerable, and key, contribution to United Nations operations. As part of the multinational NATO airborne early warning force, the RAF's Sentry AEW1 aircraft fly daily over Hungary to monitor the airspace of the former Yugoslavia. These aircraft were joined in April of last year by eight Tornado F3s, which deployed to Gioia del Colle in Italy when the emphasis of Operation Deny Flight changed from surveillance to enforcement of the no -fly zone. Since then the Tornado F3s have flown more than 800 operational sorties, and the Sentry AEWs have flown more than 650 since their deployment to the area.

On 16 July, eight Jaguar aircraft also deployed to Gioia del Colle to mount close air support and reconnaissance operations in support of UN forces operating under United Nations Security Council resolution 836, covering the provision of safe areas.

The Jaguars, since December 1993 comprising eight aircraft in the theatre with four ready to reinforce at short notice from the United Kingdom, are drawn from squadrons based at RAF Coltishall and have flown more than 650 operational sorties since their arrival in theatre.

Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft have also flown more than 110 sorties in support of arms embargo and sanctions monitoring operations in the Adriatic, and Canberra photographic reconnaissance aircraft have provided vital intelligence for our forces on the ground.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : My hon. Friend must be aware, in the context of the support of the RAF for the various operations that he describes, that the Secretary of State told the Defence Select Committee on 1 December that there was a need to procure additional large support helicopters for the RAF. My hon. Friend must be aware of the importance to the industry of Somerset and Dorset and the west country of securing an order for the Westland EH101, but many hon. Members are increasingly baffled by the long delay in obtaining a decision on the matter. Will my hon. Friend say whether it will be possible very soon to make a decision under NAPNOC--no agreed price, no contract--arrangements to appraise the contract by the summer?

Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is right to mention the issue and tonight is as good a time as any to do so, although perhaps it is a bit premature for a definitive answer to be given. I am accompanied on the Front Bench, not only by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, but also by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who will answer the procurement question later when he winds up the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that for the time being.

The element of the RAF's contribution that has perhaps the highest public profile is the flights into Sarajevo by Hercules aircraft, which have been carrying on since July 1992. The danger to our aircrew is of paramount concern, and flights are suspended when aircraft have come under ground fire, or when the risk from the warring factions surrounding Sarajevo has been too great. However, the operation is never free of uncertainty and sometimes very great danger.

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The RAF humanitarian airlift into Sarajevo has now totalled more than 1,100 sorties and has delivered nearly 15,000 tonnes of aid. When requested by the United Nations, the RAF will continue, where possible, to assist with the evacuation of medical casualties, as we have seen on television and in the press. There can be no doubt that the RAF's presence in the region has helped, and is helping, to save the lives of thousands of innocent victims. All the members of the defence team here know from their own experience that all the personnel involved continue to demonstrate great skill and courage in successfully carrying out the United Nations mandate.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) : My hon. Friend mentioned a few moments ago the role of the Hercules aircraft. I think that he will know of the significance of Centrax, a company in my Teignbridge constituency, and the role which it has played in joining the industrial support group for Hercules. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that programme offers significant industrial benefits to the country as a whole and that, interestingly enough, it offers them in the short and medium term and not simply in the long term?

Mr. Hanley : Not only are we aware of Centrax and are grateful for its efforts in the past, but I can confirm that the Hercules is extremely important in carrying out successfully our current defence commitments. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) earlier, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will refer to the procurement aspect of matters later, at a more appropriate time, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the subject.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : I wish to ask the Minister about an operational matter, understanding that he will be inhibited from giving an answer which might have the effect of putting information which should be classified into the public domain. He spoke about the dangers inherent in the operations into Sarajevo airport. There was an apprehension that those operations might be at risk from the use of surface-to-air missiles and especially the hand-portable surface-to-air missile, which can be mounted on the shoulder and may be effective up to as much as 5,000m. Without giving away any classified information, is the hon. Gentleman able to tell us whether there have been any incidents when British aircraft have come under attack from such weapon systems?

Mr. Hanley : I am not aware of any instances of our aircraft coming under attack from missiles from the ground, but anyone who flies into Sarajevo in a Hercules sees regularly when ground-based radar is locked on to the aircraft, which shows that there is a possibility of a SAM2 being aimed at the plane. Of course, there are ways of dispelling that threat, should it occur. The fact that that happens regularly, although it might be discouraging to anyone in the House, means that RAF crews regard it as a matter of course. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the danger involved in carrying out the humanitarian task.

This would be a good opportunity for the whole House to join me in praising the efforts of all the RAF personnel who have done their very best in difficult and risky circumstances to bring what relief they can to the area. I am

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aware that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), too, has had the opportunity of seeing that work in action.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme) : I join my hon. Friend's tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force, but is he aware that the slashing of the front-line strength of the Tornado strike squadrons since the Gulf war from 11 to a mere six represents a devastating reduction in the capability of the RAF? Given the extreme instability in the former Soviet Union today, and the fact that more than a dozen non-NATO countries actively have programmes in place for acquiring weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivery of such weapons, is there not an urgent need for the RAF to acquire a stand-off missile with a dual capability, both nuclear and conventional?

Mr. Hanley : I agree with my hon. Friend that under both "Options for Change" and Prospect there has indeed been a restructuring and reduction of our front-line forces. I accept that as a result of "Options for Change" 15 front-line squadrons will have been withdrawn from service by 1995, when the programme comes to an end. That has been calculated by reference to our need for front-line offensive forces, to the reduced threat from the former Soviet Union, and to the fact that the cold war is over. It has been carefully calculated according to our defence needs--

Mr. Churchill : Treasury threats.

Mr. Hanley : I hear my hon. Friend murmuring that the reductions were demanded by the Treasury. I can assure him that that is not so. I am proud to be able to say that we have calculated our needs according to our defence requirements.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : As well as the Tornado squadrons being reduced, is it not clear that the phasing out of the Buccaneer will mean that Tornado squadrons, in smaller numbers, will have to accept an additional role? Does the Minister not feel that if Tornado squadrons are to take on the role of the Buccaneer the reductions should be reconsidered?

Mr. Hanley : The withdrawal of the Buccaneer has been decided upon for perfectly sensible strategic reasons. There is no reason on earth to believe that at this moment we, in conjunction with our allies--any operation within the area of our NATO responsibilities is of course likely to be undertaken in conjunction with our allies--cannot make a sizeable contribution to an international force. There is no reason to believe that we cannot carry out our wider defence roles, including the most important role--the defence of our shores--with the aircraft that we have, and the men and women who serve in the RAF. Therefore, I have no hesitation in making that claim for what we have now. There may be many in the House who wish that we had more, but there are also some who wish that we had less-- that was the posture of Labour and Liberal Democrat policy in their overall party conference statements. Perhaps we shall hear more about those as the debate goes on.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : Bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Minister has just said, is he saying that what we have at the moment is the minimum that we require, in terms of front-line forces, to meet our commitments?

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Mr. Hanley : At this moment, we have a carefully calculated number of aircraft. The White Paper, "Defending our Future", produced last year by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence explains our commitments and how we meet them with our existing forces.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : As it sounds as though the 40 Tornados already in store are to be joined by a rather larger number, does it not behove the Minister to look, in relation to the defence procurement industry, at future needs bearing in mind the reduced demand for fighter aircraft from our armed forces and the need for our highly technically capable industry to develop alternative products and means of employment? Should not the Government be doing something about that because market forces clearly will not make any provision?

Mr. Hanley : If Labour party policy, approved by almost an 80 per cent. majority at last year's Labour party conference as it was approved in the five years before that, were to be introduced, it would slash our defence industry. The amount of money which would have to be taken out of the defence budget would be equal to the whole budget for the Army, the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy or the whole of the defence industry. Some 500,000 people could lose their jobs if Labour's plans were introduced.

Mr. Cryer : Answer the question.

Mr. Hanley : As a direct answer to the hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that our policy would not do that to the defence industry. Certainly some defence companies are reducing in size as the need for our defence forces reduces. However, very substantial contracts are keeping the defence industry going and ensuring that our research and development is of the highest quality. I remind the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that defence industry exports last year amounted to £5 billion. That was 20 per cent. of world sales and was a record amount for the United Kingdom. Instead of the doom and gloom referred to by the hon. Member for Bradford, South, I believe that the story is one of success and expansion.

As well as a continuing presence in the Adriatic theatre, the United Kingdom remains committed to providing aircraft to enforce both the northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq. Tornado GR1s drawn from bases in the United Kingdom and Germany have now flown nearly 1,500 operational sorties in the surveillance role over southern Iraq. In the north, Harrier GR7s, which replaced the Jaguars originally assigned to the task, have flown more than 1,000 reconnaissance missions in support of the United Nations operation over northern Iraq.

Of course we should not forget that crucial to the success of all those operations are the perhaps less glamorous tasks performed by the air transport and air-to-air refuelling forces. I need hardly remind the House of the extent to which the RAF's ability to react effectively to the full range of potential tasks depends on the skill and professionalism of those personnel. In all those operations

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke) : Will the Minister give way?

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Mr. Hanley : I have answered a number of interventions. I will take a few more interventions, but I would like to make progress.

Mr. Ainger : On the Minister's point about trying to match resources with perceived need and demand, will he explain why, in respect of search and rescue where the perceived need is increasing, the Government plan to reduce resources from 16 RAF aircraft devoted to search and rescue in 1992 to 12 aircraft in 1996?

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that our capability is increasing. If we have better helicopters carrying out the task, perhaps we do not need as many bases. Operationally, we believe that we will be covering the existing area as efficiently and even better. The hon. Gentleman may be referring particularly to RAF Brawdy. The proposal to move the search and rescue facility from RAF Brawdy to RAF Chivenor has been taken for operational and other reasons. In all those operations, it continues to be the speed of response, flexibility and relative ease with which aircraft can be deployed that so often enables the RAF to be in the forefront in its ability to respond to international crises or to requests for help. Indeed, in the past few months, it has helped in Somalia, Guatemala and the Lebanon.

So that we are able to meet the challenges of the future, we remain committed to a Royal Air Force which is well equipped. I have said that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will wish to say more about the future equipment programme. He will show how that reflects the changes in the strategic environment which have taken place in the past few years. Although the direct threat to the United Kingdom has decreased, uncertainties still remain, and, as events in the former Yugoslavia have demonstrated, we must stay sufficiently flexible to react to any new threats to our security and to more general threats.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : The hon. Gentleman is a Minister of State. I understand that the hon. Gentleman to his left is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. [Hon. Members :-- "No."] Forgive me, I got that wrong. However, from what the Minister was saying, I understand that, as Minister of State, he has some responsibility for defence sales. [Hon. Members :-- "No. Wrong again."] He does not have that responsibility then. We now know that he has no responsibility for procurement or defence sales. Having clearly been made aware of what is going on at the Scott inquiry, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could tell us whether, in view of the ethos of secrecy which pervaded his Department in the late 1980s, outside the two aspects to which I referred, and in the light of what has come out of the inquiry, changes are being made in the way in which Ministers go about revealing to the wider public what is happening.

Mr. Hanley : Clearly the hon. Gentleman is not aware--the information is not secret--that I am the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) is the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. We both serve loyally our right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is seated further to my left. My hon. Friend is responsible for defence procurement, which includes defence sales. My area of operation is responsibility for the worldwide operations of the armed forces. They are the

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best possible advertisement--both them and their equipment--for defence sales worldwide. Therefore, their capability is vital. As for the rest of the hon. Gentleman's question, that matter is secret--but I will tell him later on, if he wants.

At this stage--I do not want to pre-empt anything that my hon. Friend may say later--the scale and nature of the forward equipment programme clearly demonstrates the Government's intention to retain all the capabilities that the RAF needs if it is to continue to play the full role that will be necessary to meet the challenges that this uncertain world presents. At a time of public expenditure stringency, it is essential that we achieve the greatest possible defence output from available resources.

As you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has established a major study entitled "Front Line First", under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Minister of State. That study is a radical and searching scrutiny of defence support functions. The prime aim of the study is to find savings so that we can best preserve our front-line capabilities. That must be the most important aim. The study is progressing well, and we have received more than 3,000 efficiency suggestions from all aspects and levels of the Ministry and the services. We have received a substantial number from the Royal Air Force as well as from the other services.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) seems surprised by that figure--surprised that people are being so constructive in the initiative. Some suggestions are, of course, being very seriously considered, some might not be relevant to the current studies, but the vast majority show not only the quality of the staff, both military and civilian, but that they are thinking hard about their responsibility for providing the United Kingdom's defence for the future. That certainly demonstrates their commitment to ensuring that the organisation in which they work and to which they dedicate their lives needs to adapt to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I admit that I was somewhat bemused. Can the Minister tell the House when it was not the Government's policy to put the front line first?

Mr. Hanley : As the hon. Gentleman said, "front line first" has always been our policy : successive Governments have concentrated on the front line. The new initiative will involve our examining every single area of our defence estate to ensure that the funds available for the years ahead are fully committed in the most important area, which is our front line capability, and that we do not waste a single penny on anything else. That surely must be sensible.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : The Minister talked about the co- operation of the staff, many of whom are civilians. Would he not see more co-operation from the staff if he made the reports public so that they could debate the conclusions?

Mr. Hanley : The reports are management reports. From the suggestions in them will come policies and from those policies will come changes in the way in which we provide support. I should emphasise that we already take

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our staff with us and keep them informed--as a matter of good management ethics and because we believe that the Ministry of Defence is an excellent employer.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) will not be aware of the situation at RAF Carlisle. Within two days of making an announcement, I invited representatives of the trade union side to come to see me, which they did, accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Maclean), the Minister of State, Home Office. Following our discussions, I extended the consultation period by more than a month. I have offered two meetings, at which the trade unions will receive full information about the decisions that have led to our proposal.

So we are, indeed, keeping our staff fully informed. Some information is bound to be commercially confidential and it is important that only the information relevant to a particular matter is dealt with, but I believe that we are doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman requires of us.

We should not let the new initiative overshadow much of the hard work that has already been done to make the services and the Ministry of Defence leaner and more efficient--all of which is fully consistent with the aims of "Front Line First". The RAF has played a leading role in that work. Let me take the opportunity to outline some of the respects in which the RAF has made and continues to make considerable progress, showing an imagination and initiative that I do not find at all surprising.

As explained in last year's "Statement on the Defence Estimates", from 1 April a new RAF logistics command will take over the functions of the current organisation of the Air Member for Supply and Organisation, and part of RAF Support Command, and will be located at Brampton/Wyton. A new RAF Personnel and Training Command, to be located at RAF Innsworth, will absorb the functions of the organisation of the Air Member for Personnel and parts of RAF Support Command, bringing together recruitment, training and personnel management functions. We are confident that the creation of those two separate commands will make for a more effective RAF support organisation and make the best use of the defence budget. The existing policy of rationalising the RAF estate in order to concentrate assets was given added impetus by "Options for Change" and has continued to be a major consideration in the years since the initial post-cold war appraisal. The original "Options for Change" announcements, made in July 1990, identified five RAF stations in the United Kingdom and two in Germany that were to be closed. Studies since then have identified further locations that can be made available for disposal or reduced to minor enclaves. Since 1991, 15 stations have been closed. Estate rationalisation initiatives have made and will continue to make a significant contribution to the drive to provide a slimmer service to meet the changed international situation.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : When the Minister examines the future of Royal Air Force bases, will he pay due regard to the importance of maintaining a sufficient number of usable airfields, which could be required in time of expansion, emergency or war? It is essential for the successful conduct of air operations that our air assets should be satisfactorily dispersed. If the Minister proposes to close stations, will he please close

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those where there is no runway or airfield and transfer facilities that need to be transferred as a consequence of closures to stations with airfields, in order to keep them open?

Mr. Hanley : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. Of course, we are aware of the need to keep spare runways in good condition for use in an emergency. A care and maintenance regime is in force on several bases. It is clearly important to meet not only our own requirements but those of NATO. I shall certainly examine what my hon. Friend has suggested.

Mr. Hardy : Will the Minister note that quite a few of the RAF bases that have been closed seem almost immediately to have been taken over by one of the other services? That may help to reduce expenditure on the Air Force budget, but it may not make much difference to the total defence budget.

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman's experience in these matters is well known. Obviously, our first requirement when we remove a particular RAF unit from, say, an RAF base is to find an alternative defence use for it. If a use could not be found, we would negotiate with local councils and planning authorities as to the best use for the site. I assure the hon. Gentleman that where we use an RAF base for which there is no longer a Royal Air Force need, say, to accommodate an Army battalion, we do so merely because otherwise we should have to put that battalion in a place that might be more expensive or build new accommodation. The problem arises particularly with the draw-down of forces from Germany, Belize and Hong Kong. There has been a great need, particularly with the draw-down from Germany, to find alternative accommodation. Therefore, RAF bases, with their excellent accommodation and housing, have been used fairly regularly. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we seek to use the estate efficiently and effectively. Our policy is that, if there is no defence need, we sell the site to the broader community.

In accordance with the change in the front line outlined in the White Paper, the RAF has continued to examine the possibilities for rationalisation, particularly in the support area. That has resulted in recent proposals on the rationalisation of equipment supply depots, avionics and communications and flying training. Those proposals are all currently the subject of consultation with the trade unions and other interested parties.

A study of equipment supply depots recommended that the focus of the technical storage function should be at RAF Stafford. That decision relates to the proposal to close RAF Carlisle by 31 March 1997, to which the hon. Member for Carlisle referred. It also relates to the progressive run-down of RAF Quedgeley and its ultimate closure by 31 March 1998. RAF Stafford is the most cost-effective option for the task because of its greater warehouse capacity and lower upgrade costs. The proposals will save some £85 million over 10 years--a considerable figure. We shall, of course, make every effort to minimise or, if at all possible, avoid redundancies among the civilian staff who have served us so well over the years.

Mr. Martlew : I did not mean to interrupt the Minister again, but he implied that the decision on RAF Carlisle and

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RAF Quedgeley had been taken. Is it not the case that we are in the middle of a consultation period? I wish that the Minister would make it clear that no final decision has yet been taken.

Mr. Hanley : We have made a proposal based on carefully calculated information and data. We have put that proposal out for consultation. That does not mean that the decision is absolutely final. It means that we are showing that we have confidence in our proposals. We are allowing those who wish to comment to do so and to see not only me but officials personally to discuss the matter. As I said, I have extended the consultation period by four weeks so that we can ensure that the meetings occur. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will come to the meeting that I shall have at Carlisle in March.

Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester) : If my hon. Friend has confidence in his Department's proposals, he presumably also wishes that those affected by the decision should have confidence in the basis on which he has made them. Will he, therefore, give the House an undertaking that all the information that he uses to reach his decisions will be made available to those who are affected by them?

Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend has been assiduous in representing the interests of his constituents who are affected by the decision on RAF Quedgeley. I am grateful to him for bringing a delegation to me only this week. However, I must say to him that "management in confidence" and "commercial in confidence" mean just that. We cannot supply every piece of information that my hon. Friend might require, but we can provide sufficient information to allow people to decide whether we have made the right decision. The decisions will be tested by the accounting officer at the Ministry of Defence and I am sure that we shall not be found wanting.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : The Minister has just raised an issue that takes my mind back to a report that the Public Accounts Committee made on the Castle Donington fire. A large amount of unduplicated defence equipment was stored at a single location. Are Ministers saying that there will be one depot for all this RAF equipment, which will be unduplicated? That would mean that if there was a repeat of the incident at Castle Donington, we could wipe out the spare parts which might be needed in an emergency. Is that what is likely to happen?

Mr. Hanley : If the hon. Gentleman was more aware of the pattern of stores holding that prevails in the modern world--everything is not held centrally--perhaps he would have more confidence. It is clearly right that we should collocate on one site and gain economies of scale, for a reduced size of stores holding.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : I accept that.

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