Column 472Sea King, with its auto-hover, all-weather and night flying capabilities, is superior to the Wessex. However, the advantages of the Sea King over the Wessex have been somewhat exaggerated in the MOD's open government document to disguise the consequences of cutting the fleet size.
The really worrying aspect of the changes is the way in which the aircraft are to be distributed. Moving the flight from Manston to Wattisham will lead to a significant deterioration in
search-and-rescue cover in the east of the English channel, particularly in the Dover straits which are the busiest shipping lanes in the world-- [Interruption.] I am aware that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has a personal interest in the matter so perhaps he will listen even more attentively to my comments. We have been able to highlight the fact that the Dover straits will be outside the one-hour daytime response time designated as a requirement for search and rescue. When we consider that the Dover straits are the busiest shipping lanes in the world with literally millions of ferry passengers crossing the area, and we are expecting search and rescue to cover that area at the extent of its operational limit but certainly of its response time, I believe that serious questions must be asked.
The transfer of Brawdy's flight to Chivenor is a reckless decision which, in the opinion of every search and rescue professional I have spoken to-- including lifeboat men, firemen, off-the-record coastguards and even the men who have flown the aircraft, including the former flight commander of flight 202--will undoubtedly cost lives because of the extra time that it will take to reach incidents off the west coast and in the St. George's channel. Michael Boulding, the former flight commander of the Sea King flight at Brawdy, has publicly described the decision as criminal.
The fact that the decision is a dangerous mistake becomes clear when one looks at the MOD's maps. A working party set up by the MOD in 1986 established a set of criteria for search and rescue services. It stated that a helicopter must be able to reach any point within 40 nautical miles of the coast within one hour by daylight and anywhere within 100 nautical miles of the coast within two hours by night or in bad weather.
When it announced the deployment in October 1992, in the defence open government document called "The Future Provision of Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Helicopters", the Ministry of Defence published maps with circles around each base showing how far helicopters could fly within one hour and within two hours. It is clear from those maps that, following the redeployment, the working group's criteria will not be met in significant areas in the English channel, to which I have referred, and off the Welsh coast. Even when they are met, it will take longer than previously for a helicopter to reach the scene of an incident, so, without doubt, there will be a deterioration in cover. Lives will undoubtedly be lost as a result, despite the unquestionable courage and professionalism of the men who fly the aircraft.
I give a practical example. In October, the coastguard organised a desk-top exercise called Paper Tiger to test the effectiveness of all emergency services in responding to an offshore incident. That exercise compares with an actual incident which took place on the night of 9 April 1990, which involved a Sea King from RAF Brawdy airlifting a team of firefighters to a fire on board the cross-Irish sea
Column 473ferry the Norrona and in which, sadly, a man died and approximately 20 people suffered severely from burns and smoke inhalation. That incident took place 25 miles off the Pembrokeshire coast, in the very area which the Government have accepted will be outside the one -hour response time and yet within British waters. The incident happened at 1 am. The aircraft was on the scene, after picking up a firefighting crew, within 58 minutes, less than half the time allowed under the working group criteria for night missions. The criteria state that they should arrive within two hours.
On 23 October, the desk-top exercise took place. It was carried out in daylight conditions, in which a helicopter, in theory from Chivenor, airlifted firemen to a similar ferry fire in the identical position as the incident in 1990. That flight and organisation, took not the 58 minutes as in 1990 but 70 minutes--12 minutes longer than the helicopter from Brawdy took and 10 minutes longer than the time allowed in the daylight criteria that were set down by the working party.
If the Ministry of Defence had properly thought through the consequences of its plans, it would have seen how dangerous they were. But, I am afraid, all the evidence is that neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Department of Transport, which is ultimtely responsible for civilian search and rescue, have taken into account all the relevant factors.
The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), who was then Minister for the Armed Forces, in reply to a parliamentary question on 2 November 1992, admitted to me that the Ministry of Defence had made no assessment of the need for civilian search and rescue before deciding to end operations at RAF Brawdy. That point is absolutely crucial. As hon. Members will know, the vast majority of search and rescue missions are to help civilians. On average, 90 per cent. of incidents that are responded to by RAF search-and-rescue helicopters are civilian. Only about 10 per cent. are military. The argument of the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Transport throughout has been that the working group criteria will be met despite the redeployment. As I have already demonstrated, that is not entirely true, particularly in relation to the St. George's channel and the Dover straits. Even if it were true, it would conceal a serious decline in search-and-rescue cover.
The Ministry of Defence failed to carry out a proper assessment of risk, but I was able, by tabling a large number of parliamentary questions, to carry out my own assessment of the likely demand for search-and-rescue services off the Welsh coast by using the risk factors of the Ministry's own working group. It showed conclusively that the risk of incidents is increasing at the very time when the number of helicopters that are available to respond is being reduced.
Brawdy's helicopters flew 98 missions in 1979, of which 89 were civilian. In 1992, flight 202 flew 158 missions, of which 151 were civilian. That represents an increase of 61 per cent. between 1979 and 1992. Over that period, there were also large increases at RAF Valley and RAF Chivenor, both of which will cover the area currently from RAF Brawdy.
Column 474helicopter missions are for civilian use. Bearing in mind that the primary purpose of them is to rescue service personnel, should we keep those helicopters at Brawdy specifically for civilian purposes? Does the hon. Gentleman expect extra money to be made available outside the defence vote for that purpose to be carried out?
Mr. Ainger : I will come to that point, but I am grateful for that intervention. It is irrelevant who pays, whether it is the Department of Transport or the Ministry of Defence. At the end of the day, the taxpayer pays the bill. The figures that I have produced--I have far more if the hon. Gentleman wishes to see them--show that the vast bulk of incidents are civilian. I accept that, like most other countries, we should have a civilian search-and-rescue service, perhaps provided under the aegis of the coastguard and paid for by the Department of Transport, not the Ministry of Defence. After all, that Ministry currently faces the largest cuts in its budget. It is unfair to the civilian population, who pay for that service through their taxes, for it to be significantly cut.
There were similar increases at RAF Valley and RAF Chivenor and throughout all search-and-rescue bases around our coasts, but, following the announcement in 1992, we have fewer helicopters, which are badly distributed in relation to risk.
There is widespread concern about the plans. As I mentioned in an intervention on the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, today is the 51st anniversary of the RAF mountain rescue service. It was very disturbing over the past few days to hear that, as that distinguished service goes into its second half century, members of the Snowdonia mountain rescue team have expressed great fears that aircraft from RAF Valley, which are currently Wessex and which routinely provide vital back-up, might take longer to reach incidents, because, after July 1994, there will be a greater chance that the Wessex aircraft will be required to cover the southern part of the Irish sea and Cardigan bay, which is currently covered by RAF Brawdy.
The other issue is that, from an RAF point of view, down the west coast from Valley, down the Welsh coast and down to the north coast of Devon, there are currently six helicopters which, after July 1994, will be reduced to four.
It is not just numbers that matter : we need to consider distribution-- where those helicopter flights are based. The MOD's own maps, which were reproduced in the October 1992 defence open government document, show that if search and rescue were withdrawn from RAF Chivenor and retained at Brawdy, the working group criteria would still be entirely met--in fact, exceeded--because Chivenor's coverage area is entirely overlapped by those of Brawdy and of the Royal Navy bases at Portland and Culdrose.
The same was true of Leuchars, whose coverage area was entirely overlapped by those of Lossiemouth, Prestwick and Boulmar. The MOD used that as part of its justification for withdrawing the Leuchars flight, but failed to see that the same argument applied in the south-west of England.
A simple glance at the maps tells us that if we are to have only two RAF bases covering Wales and the west of England, plus the two Navy bases at Culdrose and Portland, the logical arrangement is to use Valley and Brawdy rather than Valley and Chivenor.
Over the past two years, the MOD has demonstrated illogicality verging on the bizarre. In the defence open
Column 475government document of October 1992, the Ministry of Defence said that the arguments for using Brawdy of Chivenor were "finely balanced". It claimed that neither base was better than the other from an operational point of view. Paragraph 27 of the document stated :
"A key factor was that military fast jet flying training recently ceased at RAF Brawdy"
that was in August 1992
"and is now concentrated at RAF Chivenor and RAF Valley" that was certainly true in October 1992.
"RAF Chivenor therefore has a more assured long-term future than Brawdy, as well as the infrastructure needed to support search and rescue operations."
One year later--on 11 November 1993--the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who is unfortunately not with us at the moment, announced that the Royal Welch Fusiliers would be stationed at Brawdy. So use will be made of RAF Brawdy and it will have all the basic support services.
People in Pembrokeshire--indeed, throughout Wales--were shocked when, on 7 December, the Minister announced that flight training would end at RAF Chivenor from 1 October this year. At the same time, he wrote to me saying that the transfer of Brawdy's Sea Kings would still go ahead in July this year. This time, however, he claimed that Chivenor had particular operational advantages. The House will remember that in October 1992 the Government had told us that the arguments were finely balanced and the key factor identified by the MOD was that RAF Chivenor had a future, but RAF Brawdy did not. We then learnt that RAF Brawdy had a future after all, because the Royal Welch Fusiliers were to be based there--and alternative uses are also being considered--while Chivenor has lost its future and is to be mothballed. The arguments advanced in October 1992 suddenly do not matter, and it is now argued that Chivenor has operational advantages.
Having studied the matter in great depth, I must say that that is clearly nonsensical, even from a military point of view. Training aircraft from RAF Valley will now fly across north Wales to mid-Wales to refuel at St. Athan before crossing south Wales to the Pembrey range in west Wales to train. So military flying will now be concentrated in Wales, as much of it is already --especially low flying--and there will be far less activity near Chivenor, which is presumably the justification that the MOD now seeks to advance for its decision.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces told me in a letter dated 6 December that there is no cost advantage in preferring Chivenor to Brawdy. I still await answers to questions about detailed costings, but it seems to me likely, now that Brawdy is to be used by the Army, that it would be more cost-effective to station search and rescue there. After all, it will have support services, whereas Chivenor will have been mothballed. I have been told that once RAF Chivenor has been mothballed, the cost of providing support services could total £937,000.
There is a basic incoherence in the MOD's actions. It said in the open government document that search and rescue flights
"are stationed around the coast of Great Britain to provide a rapid response in the busiest areas of military activity, but the deployments also take account of agreed criteria for civil coverage."
It is clear that that principle has not been adhered to in any meaningful sense in this case.
Column 476The relationship between civil and military search and rescue needs to be rethought anyway, because of the huge preponderance of civil incidents. Search and rescue is, in effect, a civil service and not a military one. The Department of Transport has nominal responsibility for ensuring an adequate level of civil coverage, but, in this case, it seems to have meekly accepted everything that the MOD has told it.
The MOD said that search and rescue should transfer to Chivenor because it had a more assured long-term future. Just 18 months later, it announced the closure of Chivenor. It has admitted that there is no financial advantage in preferring Chivenor to Brawdy but is pressing ahead with the transfer at a time when it is struggling to find cash for the front line.
What kind of policy making is that? It is irrational, inconsistent and deeply flawed. The result is that neither the military nor the civilian population will have the search-and-rescue cover that it needs, which could be provided at no extra cost simply by reversing this life-threatening decision. I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to reconsider the distribution of search-and-rescue bases, not to transfer search and rescue from Brawdy to Chivenor in July 1994 and to wait to make a final decision until at least 1996 when Valley is supposed to receive Sea Kings--it currently operates with Wessex.
I do not believe that I am scaremongering. I have talked to ferry companies, to lifeboat men, to the chief fire officer of Dyfed county council and off the record to coastguards. All of them said, with the former flight commander, that the decision will cost lives unnecessarily. I urge the Minister to think again.
Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester) : I should like to talk about support services, which, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said in his opening remarks, are subject to rationalisation proposals. I do so because of the proposal to run down and close RAF Quedgeley in my constituency--to close the repair function there by the end of March 1994, which is 10 weeks away, and to run down the stores and accommodation function by 1998 at the latest.
I was glad to hear my hon. Friend emphasise, in his opening remarks and in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), that these are only proposals. I hope that they will remain no more than proposals until they have been given full and proper consideration, with full access given to everyone concerned to all the information on the basis of which the proposals have been made. I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish his eventual decision to command some respect. I do not think that he can expect it to command respect if he has not shown the workings of his arithmetic--the data that have led him to his decision. I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Carlisle on this, and urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give full access to all the reports and all the other information. It is vital that everyone should be able to see clearly how the decision is arrived at--the basis on which it is made.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces knows very well that the proposal for Quedgeley comes as a further serious blow to the economy of Gloucester. It comes on top of the decision to amalgamate the Glorious Gloucesters, which in itself was something of
Column 477an affront to a very fine regiment and certainly an affront to the city of Gloucester. The proposal also comes against the background of a large number of job losses in Gloucestershire resulting from the general wind-down in defence. One accepts that those factors apply across the country and, indeed, across Europe. None the less, they carry with them, on account of the job losses, serious human consequences which need to be taken into account.
The proposals for Quedgeley are as follows : the stores are to be centralised at Stafford and the repair work is to be taken over by eight regional contractors. Those regional contractors are already in place. It is on that specific point that I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that he is being less than fair to the work force at Quedgeley. I should like to explain why.
On the whole, the introduction of private sector disciplines into many areas of public life is desirable. In general, I am a strong supporter of privatisation. I see great merit in market testing and other ways in which private sector competition and competitive influences can be brought to bear on the public sector. However, a change from the public sector to the private sector often--indeed, in most cases--proceeds from a position of weakness. It proceeds because there is some defect in the service or product provided. The service or product may be poor, wrongly priced or badly delivered and the impact of competition is necessary to improve it. That principle simply does not apply in the case of RAF Quedgeley. Everyone knows--I think that it is beyond dispute--that the service and the products that have been provided by Quedgeley over the years have been first class. I am not aware that my hon. Friend the Minister disagrees with that point.
Often, an alternative reason for introducing some private sector disciplines is price. The services or products are not being offered at a competitive level and can be bettered elsewhere. Once again, price comparisons have almost always been to the advantage of RAF Quedgeley. They have shown that it is capable of producing what it has to deliver at an extremely competitive price compared with that of virtually any other source.
Another possibility--this applies particularly to market testing--is that the change from public to private sector is necessary to verify that the existing source of supply is satisfactory and cannot be bettered. That is the principle behind market testing. Yet there is not much point in engaging in market testing unless one intends to take notice of the results that the market tests produce. All the characteristics that I have described have been conspicuously absent in the case of RAF Quedgeley. That is what makes my hon. Friend the Minister's decision and the way in which he appears to be arriving at it look extremely unfair. If RAF Quedgeley's activities are to be brought to an end, it would be possible to do it fairly and so that everyone could see precisely why the decision had been reached. Instead, it seems that the decision will be coming very soon and we have not heard the rationale behind it. We are not being given the full explanation on why it has been reached.
No proper comparisons have been made between bids from the private sector for repair work and those which could have been made by RAF Quedgeley. RAF Quedgeley has not been given an opportunity to be
Column 478considered as a regional centre. When the eight regional centres were set up, RAF Quedgeley was not even invited to say what it could do. The preconception seemed to be directly in favour of the private sector. If, as I understand it, the aim is to use competition in the private sector to achieve the best possible value for the taxpayer, it is hard to see why RAF Quedgeley should be excluded from the procedures.
Where is the common sense in introducing competitive bidding if the Government deliberately exclude one possible bidder which, on the basis of long experience, could be expected to put in a good bid? Where is the common sense if one decides, for what appear to be doctrinal reasons, that a potential bidder should be excluded from the entire process?
I have had several meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I am grateful to him for the time that he has given me, for answering the many letters that I have written, answering the many questions that I have asked and seeing a delegation from RAF Quedgeley only this week. I am also grateful to him for the undertaking that he gave that representatives from the Ministry of Defence will visit RAF Quedgeley during February to give some further explanation of the rationale behind their proposals. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister of the history of RAF Quedgeley in winning bids against competition when it has been invited to bid, in delivering its services on time and in providing quality service and reliability, and doing it all against a background of loyalty to the RAF and the rest of our forces that it is there to support. On that basis, I find it extremely difficult to see the good sense, or any sense, in excluding RAF Quedgeley as a potential supplier and placing faith in untried and untested sources to deliver what will need to be a continuous and reliable service. I place emphasis on the word "continuous". When bids have been invited, it has so often been seen that a private sector source comes in with a competitively priced bid and promises a great deal, but in the event the delivery is not up to the promise or expectation. When one is dealing with the supply of resources and services to the Army, Air Force and Navy, it is essential that there is continuity and reliability of supply. It must be sustained.
I cannot help being driven to the conclusion that it is the intention of the Ministry of Defence to withdraw from such activities completely. It proposes to end the repair function, then end the stores function at Quedgeley, end the stores function at Carlisle and centralise at Stafford. I cannot help feeling that if the principle of bringing in the private sector is adhered to and carried to its logical conclusion, in time the service at Stafford will be terminated as well. That cannot be in the best interests of our armed forces. The Ministry of Defence appears to believe that it is possible to turn its supply of services and products on and off just as it wants to. That is perfectly reasonable so long as it appreciates that, while the Ministry of Defence can turn its requests for supply off and on just when it wants to, so the private sector can also turn on and off its willingness and capacity to supply just when it wishes to do so.
When the MOD examines the principal functions of Quedgeley, it may think that there is overcapacity in the furniture repair and stores sector. The Ministry of Defence may think that there are many opportunities to obtain competitive bids from the private sector for that function.
Column 479It should not overlook the fact that the prevailing economic circumstances in that sector will not necessarily last for ever. It may find that the private sector is not as reliable a supplier as, in the short term, it appears to be. No doubt it will say that a private sector supplier is bound by a contract. The purpose of a contract is to preserve a purchaser's rights if something goes wrong. Of course, it provides safeguards for the supplier too, but it is the purchaser's rights about which the Ministry of Defence is concerned. The existence of such a contract presupposes that, without it, supply might be interrupted at some stage. The truth is that, even with a contract, supply can be interrupted. Indeed, it is almost impossible to expect every private sector supplier invited to provide goods or services to the forces to perform without mishap. It seems to me that the Ministry seeks to exchange a proven, reliable, competitive and loyal source of supply for one that may well be unproven, will not necessarily be reliable and will certainly be capable of becoming uncompetitive. When one is dealing with the vital function of providing supplies to our services, that risk should not be taken.
At one of our meetings, my hon. Friend the Minister advised me that immediate savings could be derived by running down RAF Quedgeley. He has yet to furnish me with the financial facts, although I am grateful for his undertaking that he will do so to the greatest possible extent without divulging secret information. I hope that information will be provided in such a way that everyone can see how he has arrived at his decisions.
I am grateful for the confirmation by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces that his arithmetic is based on an examination of the trading position, that he sees as a case for taking this action on grounds other than the results of an assessment of potential asset realisation at Quedgeley. Locally, there is a very strong feeling that the question of selling the land occupied by RAF Quedgeley has entered into the calculations. My hon. Friend has assured me that that is not correct--that, on the basis of trading criteria alone, the figures are compelling. I accept what he has said, but I should be very surprised if, at some stage of the calculations, an eye were not focused on what is perceived to be asset realisation potential.
I have asked my hon. Friend previously, and I now ask him again, to recognise that there are insuperable difficulties in the way of any development of the land at Quedgeley. He has only to get his professional advisers to consult Gloucester city council and Stroud district council to realise what great obstacles lie in the way of further development in that area. Indeed, he does not have to go that far--he could simply visit Quedgeley himself and speak to some of the residents. I hope, therefore, that that factor does not in any way enter into his calculations.
My hon. Friend has said that all these developments are the result of a general running down in defence capability. He points to "Options for Change" and to the draw-down from Germany. It is very clear that, for reasons my hon. Friend explained in a recent letter to me, the Ministry of Defence wants to get out of such activities as furniture repairing. My hon. Friend's letter says that furniture repair is
"demonstrably a task which need not be carried out on MOD premises."
Column 480I do not dispute that that activity might have to be run down if all the information available to my hon. Friend points inexorably in that direction. However, in respect of the storage and accommodation functions fulfilled by Quedgeley, there is still time between 1994 and 1998. The Ministry must, at all costs, avoid a situation in which Quedgeley loses the role that it is supposed to play and becomes totally unviable long before 1998. That, in itself, could be used as a reason for not reconsidering the decision. Nobody wants Quedgeley to become a sort of ghost station.
It seems to me that if work has to be phased out, it would be reasonable for a certain amount--enough to keep the base viable--to be sustained for the next four years. That would enable Quedgeley not only to supply the RAF but to build up an alternative customer base--if necessary, outside the armed forces. If it were to demonstrate that it was viable, and I believe that it would, there would be an opportunity to pursue one of the other possibilities, which, at the moment, is regarded as being only theoretical. I refer to privatisation. If that route were followed, RAF Quedgeley could become a going concern with a multiplicity of customers.
It seems to me that another alternative to closing the station is to explore the possibility of a management buy-out. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, in one of his letters, does not rule out that possibility. He is prepared to be amenable to suggestions. I see no reason why RAF Quedgeley, even if one were to go for privatisation or for a management buy-out, and working on the assumption that it will be there for four years--I hope that it will be longer--should not, in the interim, be permitted to bid for current and future private sector work. I cannot understand any objection to that course. Such an approach would certainly cushion the immediate impact of job losses. It would also make a good deal of financial sense and would reward loyalty.
I should like, in conclusion, to turn to a matter that is primarily the concern of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who will reply to the debate. I refer to Dowty Aerospace, where many of my constituents work. Dowty has a major interest in the new C130J Hercules programme. That aircraft is being offered by Dowty and 17 other British companies to meet the RAF's requirement for a replacement for half its existing fleet of C130K Hercules transporters. Dowty will provide the six- bladed propeller system for the C130J Hercules, and, in doing so, will displace the American manufacturer Hamilton Standard, which has been supplying propellers for Hercules aircraft for 40 years.
The C130J programme, if selected in preference to the refurbishment option for the first tranche of the Hercules rolling replacement programme, will create many new high-technology jobs in Gloucestershire and will bring a significant boost to the area's economy within a very short time.
An early decision to replace the first half of the RAF's present C130K Hercules fleet would allow Dowty to capitalise on the 25 years' research and development that went into the development of the C130J all-composite propeller. It would also mean that Dowty would become the world's leading manufacturer of composite propellers within the next five years.
I agree with the MOD officials who gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence in December that the RAF's
Column 481transport fleet needs urgent attention to ensure that it can continue to carry out its current humanitarian and operational tasks. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to take a decision on the Hercules replacement as soon as he reasonably can.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : I hope that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) will not think me discourteous, but as I listened to the first part of his speech I was tempted to intervene to say that many Conservative Members always seem to express enthusiastic support, in principle, for market testing until it reaches their constituencies. The hon. Gentleman, however, then went on to make a powerful argument, and he was perfectly right to serve his constituency interests with regard to RAF Quedgeley and the purchase of propellers for the replacement Hercules.
I should have liked to have followed the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). I have known him a long time, but I did not realise that he was about to surrender his reserve commission for a pensioner's bus pass. I did not realise that he had reached that age, but I hope that he has received great gratitude for the long service that he has given. I endorse his call for some consideration to be given to the air cadets.
Over the past two years, we have become somewhat reassured about the future of the European fighter aircraft. It now also seems possible that a new type of Hercules and new helicopters will be purchased, so, today, there may be more cause to concentrate on personnel matters rather than procurement.
I would be discourteous to the House if I spoke at length, because I have informed my hon. Friends and the Minister that I must leave before the debate is concluded to attend the cremation, early tomorrow morning, of our former colleague, Jimmy Boyce, in south Yorkshire. I felt that I should keep to my wish to speak in the debate, but I will not trespass unduly on the time available. Manufacturers are keen on the RAF purchasing the C130J, not because it would purchase such a large number, but because they recognise that the RAF commands enormous international prestige. If they can show that the RAF is buying that aircraft, they are likely to receive many other orders. Those potential orders are important, because, as the hon. Member for Gloucester said, a substantial number of British manufacturers would get orders. One sixth of the value of several hundred aircraft is rather more valuable than finding the cost to buy only 30.
The need for the Hercules replacement is essential and acute. I was not being entirely frivolous when I suggested earlier that, if the Government do not place such an order, Ministers should experience the dramatic landings at Sarajevo, because sometimes they are rather frightening to those in the aircraft.
The Minister has heard me talk on many occasions about the ageing Wessex helicopter, which entered squadron service in 1964. I trust that its replacement will not be too long delayed and I hope that it will have heavy -lift capacity. The development of the Air Mobile Brigade at former RAF station Wattisham suggests that heavier lift capacity should be more readily available.
Column 482In an intervention, I referred to the number of former RAF stations that had been taken over by the Army. The Air Force is skilled at operating a dual-use station, but the Army never seems to think about carrying out two functions at one station. The RAF has learnt prudence, economy, thrift and management more thoroughly than the Army, but unfortunately it may bear extra burdens because it has demonstrated those skills.
I listened intently when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that he had visited south Yorkshire today. I like Ministers to visit only if they come to assist us to deal with our economic problems. I look forward to learning why the Minister visited the region this morning.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be aware that RAF Finningley is in south Yorkshire. It is an important base and a number of my constituents and people within the Rotherham area work there, although it is near Doncaster. Navigators and other non-pilot aircrew are trained at Finningley. I learned the other day that the new Hercules C130J, with its splendid cockpit, will have a reduced aircrew of just two pilots. Since Finningley does not train pilots, that announcement made me a little anxious. I made a number of inquiries, and one or two hon. Members who are present now were also present when I made them.
The new Hercules will have significant defence systems. When it is being flown in a war zone, however, in an area of great danger, the two pilots may be hard pressed flying it. There would be a need for a back-seat weapons systems navigator. I hope that the Government are not looking at the new Hercules as a way of getting rid of back-seat non-pilot aircrew, because they could be usefully employed in a war zone flight. RAF Finningley would feel no sense of embarrassment in training those people because there must be a role for non-pilot aircrew for a long time to come. I hope that the Minister will not suggest that we do not need such aircrew, because a long time ago someone suggested that it would soon be possible to manage without pilots. That was a terrible mistake as well.
Finningley is important to us. I hope that the station commander, Group Captain Wilby, will not mind if I suggest that the Minister should acquaint himself with the station. He would find out that it holds wonderful air displays every September--they are the best attended air displays in the country. People visit the station and it does enormous good for the charitable cause that it supports. The RAF does not exist, however, to serve charitable causes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker) said, it exists to defend the realm. I note that the hon. Member for Tayside, North is in his place again. I hope that I was not uncomplimentary to him in his absence. I agree with him that we need to maintain the capacity to defend the realm in an uncertain world. In addition to all the other dangers in the world caused by rapidly changing circumstances, an appalling conflict is being waged in Europe. We must also deal with the emergence of a raving lunatic in the Moscow Parliament. I therefore hope that the Government will exercise prudence and that those cuts which impinge more severely on the Air Force than on other services will be considered carefully. I have seen some dreadful newspaper reports, which are not responded to as quickly as they should be. One suggested that the Red Arrows team was being disbanded. That team gives delight to many people at air displays. Surely the Minister recognises that one of the most
Column 483successful commercial ventures in British aviation history is the Hawk. It has been sold in large numbers and I certainly believe that, whenever there is a chance of an order and the Red Arrows fly, they help to get it. The Hawk has provided thousands of jobs to the aerospace industry.
The Red Arrows team is an extremely economic formation. It employs no more than 80 people in its unit based at Scampton. That tiny team of people gives us an important commercial advantage. As it helps to create thousands of aerospace jobs, it is an economic exercise, and the pilots and ground staff have to be employed anyway. In addition, the team maintains Britain's reputation of having the highest quality, if not necessarily the largest, air force in western Europe. The Red Arrows is the world's premier display team, and it would be an appalling false economy if it were scrapped with the imprudence that some of us suspect sometimes applies.
Some changes are inevitable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central spoke about the jet engine. Whittle, who invented the jet engine, was an ex-Halton apprentice and was trained in the division established by Lord Trenchard to train bright boys in the advanced technology of the time. The boys who became Trenchard's Halton brats would today go to university. It is a different and changing world and we cannot ignore such change.
I fear that there will be unwelcome changes in technical training. I repeat that if the service contracts out some of its technological roles in the maintenance of aircraft and avionics, and the contractor comes to depend on those who have left the service and does not invest in training, there will be a problem. If the RAF bows out of technical training, the country will suffer because over the years the Air Force has trained technicians not only for itself but for high-tech industries. That is because when such people leave the service they work for those industries and help them to survive. It would be dangerous to depend upon short-sighted contracts and careless provision.
Mr. Ainger : Is my hon. Friend aware that civil aviation, and especially its repair and maintenance element, totally depends upon RAF- trained personnel? A relative of mine has transferred from the RAF to work for British Airways on maintaining its 747s. If technical maintenance in the RAF were to be reduced, it would have a significant knock-on effect for civil aviation.
In the national interest, the Minister must look searchingly at any proposed cuts in the training of high-tech RAF personnel. I am not referring to functions such as catering or to many of the jobs that are carried out by civilians in places such as Finningley. The Royal Air Force must have adequate capacity to train the people that it needs to carry out its roles, and it would be most unwise to depend upon contractors who may not train people.
I said that I would deal merely with personnel because much time has already been spent on procurement. Many of those who watch old films seem to imagine that RAF aircrew are all about 20 years old, as they were in the second world war when people were not allowed to fly combat aircraft at ages that would make them relatively junior in today's squadrons. The people who fly the Tornado, the Jaguar and the Hercules aircraft are often in their 30s or 40s and are family men.
Column 484The Minister has said that there is a period of 19 months between overseas postings. I know RAF people who have had two or three such postings in the past 19 months, and such frequency creates problems. The men will not complain, at least not directly or loudly because they enjoy their job and its challenge and recognise its necessity. But their wives complain, and their children wonder where their father is. A wife has no idea where her husband will be in three, six or 12 months, but she knows that in three months he will not be where he is now. She also knows that he will be somewhere else three months after that, and that such change will continue. That should make us appreciate the strain that is imposed as the Air Force contracts and Government commitments and obligations continue.
Since the contraction began, the Air Force has been dispersed to more places. There was no conflict in Yugoslavia, no aircraft in Turkey and no combat aircraft in the Gulf when the cuts began. All these burdens have been imposed on the backs of a smaller number of people. They will stay in the service, perhaps because at the moment there are not many alternatives in some trades. I worry about what will happen after the next election when we secure the recovery that we are confident of achieving. A longer view must be taken, and it is not being taken now. It is time that it was. I trust that the Minister will recognise that over the past three years excessive and unaccustomed burdens have been unnecessarily placed on people who deserve a little more consideration than they have had.
One of the pleasures of being called in the latter part of a debate is that one has heard so many good speeches from colleagues that it is possible to make a somewhat shorter contribution than would otherwise be the case.
Labour's Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), understandably defended the constituency interests represented by RAF Carlisle and made two other significant observations. First, he alleged that he had seen a poll which showed that the general public had greater faith in the Labour party for assuring the defence of the realm than they had in the Conservative party. I should not be surprised if the poll is accurate, because, for a long time, many of us have argued that the Conservative party is in danger of losing its traditional constituency, which contains those who have served in the armed forces, are currently serving in them, or who work for the defence industries.
Of course, we believe that this loss of support is a
misapprehension on their part, that they misinterpret the policy we are pursuing and do not fully understand the size and effect of the reductions that could be imposed by a socialist Administration or a Lib-Lab Government. Nevertheless, it is a significant erosion of support and we should take note of it. If we do not, it will have serious electoral consequences.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Carlisle spoke about the speech by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon. It was interesting to note the clear sensitivity in certain quarters about what he was saying. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) said, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) well
Column 485understood--because both were present--Air Chief Marshal Graydon was explaining that it did nobody an good to make facile comparisons between the Israeli air force and the Royal Air Force in view of the worldwide role and varied responsibilities of the RAF compared with the purely regional responsibilities of the Israeli air force. None the less, there is great merit in the Israeli pattern of operation which we should comprehend and act upon at a time of budgetary stringency.
I would urge Her Majesty's Ministers to use the opportunity of a review fundamentally to examine the Air Force which we wish to create for the rest of the decade and into the next century. Of course, the review has already been burdened with a slogan. It is a basic tenet of our political understanding in the Conservative party that slogans have their dangers. I suspect that, "Front line first" will prove yet another dangerous slogan.
If we try to think clearly of the qualities that we are seeking in our Air Force for the next 10 to 15 years, those thoughts may guide us towards the strategic decisions, procurement choices and personnel policies that will be wise and stand the test of time.
Of course, for the United Kingdom, with its geographic position somewhat to the rear of continental Europe, on the flank of the alliance, with security interests in the northern region, the Baltic approaches and the central region of NATO as well as the eastern Atlantic and the territorial seas around the British Isles, air power will aways be a crucial determinant of our security and of our national defence.
As we still have some global responsibilities, and as we take seriously our responsibilities for peacekeeping under the aegis of the United Nations, the qualities of fire power, mobility and flexibility and, I hope, of sustainability and the ability to support operations over a long time, in a well-established, well-trained and well-equipped Air Force will be indispensable for the defence of these islands.
The air defence of the United Kingdom has been run down. From April, when the No. 23 Squadron of F3 Tornados at Leeming is disbanded, we will be down to six air defence squadrons. This is the absolute minimum and probably too few. We have already decided not to replace the medium-range surface-to-air missile, the Bloodhound, which leaves a glaring deficiency in our air defences.
Another potential deficiency looming is the need for an effective theatre ballistic missile defence. Hon. Members will have noticed from the press that the United States Administration is dispatching Patriot missiles for the defence of South Korea.
Given the proliferation of nuclear missiles and nuclear technology and the ease with which dictators such as Saddam Hussein acquired launch vehicles and Scud ballistic missiles, it is surely prudent for the United Kingdom to work towards an anti-ballistic-missile system now.
Furthermore, as a maritime member of the European component of NATO, we need to take seriously the security of the sea lanes across the north Atlantic as a continued national interest. We all know that the Red Fleet is not the power that it was ; nevertheless, the Russians are still building modern submarines and we do not know the direction in which Russian policy will evolve.