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Column 207with our much smaller armed forces, as they now are, we will find the money to provide them with the training, the spare parts and even the basic necessities, such as bringing the married quarters up to a standard fit to live in.
On the subject of the morale of our armed forces, I believe that we are fortunate to have somebody of Michael Bett's calibre to chair the commission. I see from his entry in "Who's Who" that--along with all his other distinguished posts--he is an honorary colonel of a TA unit. But it is no criticism of him or his team to say that the commission is sitting at an unfortunate time. It has been asked to do this work at that point which every management consultant--I used to work as one--dreads, when so many other teams have been working on so many different issues in the organisation under review, some of which inevitably impinge on the same ground.
We should not be surprised, therefore, if, at the end of the day, the commission comes to relatively conservative conclusions, simply on the basis that there is a limit to how much further change the forces can take without serious damage to their morale. Having said that, I hope that I may be allowed to make a written submission to the commission as I have a number of points of detail that I would like to make in the way of suggestions.
I should like to say something about our reserve forces. During the past four or five years, I have been privileged to visit the reserve forces of the other three major English-speaking countries--America, Canada and Australia. We have a number of world-class units in our Territorial Army-- we see them winning competitions which prove it--but there is a great deal that we can learn from abroad. One thing that we can say with certainty is that in the last war all three of those countries had an expansion from a much smaller regular base, in some respects managing it more successfully than we did.
The British professional Regular forces are second to none, but some of the ways in which we organise and structure our reserve forces could be improved on and I want to mention three. First, our officer training, so good in the Regular Army, is woefully inadequate for our volunteer reserves. The trend in all three of the countries that I have mentioned is towards trying to bring the training of reserve officers as close as possible to that of their regular counterparts.
For example, in Canada the majority of officers go through two 10-week continuous training periods to become reservist officers. They are carefully tailored to fit in with university long vacations. In Australia, after a weekend-based build-up similar to that for British reserve officers, there is a nine-week training course. In America, some reservist officers train for as much as six months. Our little two-week course at Sandhurst does not begin to compare with those arrangements. I am sure that we all recognise the value of the new roles that are being found for our volunteer reserves, but it is essential that they are given much-enhanced officer and senior NCO training if they are to perform as well as I believe they can. The second major difference is the lack of adequate call-out legislation. It is interesting comparing the experience of the Canadians, who do not have it, with that of the Americans next door. The Canadians, with their use of reserve forces in a variety of places including Bosnia, feel that it is essential that they, too, should have reserve forces legislation. I add my voice to those of two other
Column 208hon. Members who have already mentioned that it is vital that we bring forward the reserve forces Bill on which a number of MOD officials are working hard at the moment.
The third comparison that I want to draw is a sensitive one. It is no criticism of the present incumbent of the post, who I know to be an excellent officer, to say that it is wrong that the British general who directs the reserve forces is a Regular officer. He does not even have a tri-service hat. In all the other three major English-speaking countries there is a head of reserves, with a different name in each case, which is a "purple" post, based firmly in each country's Ministry of Defence, who is a reservist and, as such, has the double-career structure behind him--a successful civilian career as well as a military one. That brings the special expertise to the reserve forces issue that can be brought only by a reservist. I know that I speak for large numbers of people, particularly in the officer corps in the Territorial Army, when I say that, with the current reorganisation, it is hoped that the next head of the reserves will be a reservist.
I want to end where I started--by saying that this is a dangerous world. This is a time at which a great deal could go wrong. The most important single message that will be given by the Government to the armed forces in the next few weeks will not be anything that is said in this debate: it will be the message that is given as a result of the outcome of the next public spending round--particularly of the new third year--because that will show where our priority for defence is going.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I join in the general welcome to the new Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I thank him for his courtesy in inviting me to meet him to talk about midnight bombing in Rosehearty. I am only sorry that he will not visit Rosehearty himself; it seems to be about the only military establishment in western Europe that he has not managed to visit in the past six weeks. None the less, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy, and hope that it will extend to an instruction to the Royal Air Force to have a meeting with the villagers of Rosehearty who are most concerned about the prospect of Tornados operating bombing runs over their village at midnight in the summer months.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) is not in his place, although he has been here for a substantial part of the debate and made a 20-minute contribution yesterday. It was interesting to note that the word "Rosyth" did not pass the right hon. Gentleman's lips once. Yet in 1992, when he was Secretary of State for Defence, on a foray into Scotland in February that year, he could hardly speak about anything else. I recall debating with him on the "Today" programme the future prospects of the Rosyth naval base in the context of an independent Scotland. Directly, in The Daily Telegraph , the right hon. Gentleman was moved to say:
"Vote SNP, and you ultimately say goodbye to the Rosyth base." Unfortunately, people did not vote SNP. They voted for the Union in 1992, and here we are, two years later, saying goodbye to the Rosyth naval base-- not ultimately, but right now under the Government's proposals.
I do not know why the right hon. Member for Bridgwater did not mention Rosyth in his speech. I do not know whether it was the result of guilty conscience or
Column 209whether it is now a case of one broken promise more or less from one Secretary of State more or less not really mattering given a Government who have shredded so many promises since the general election campaign. None the less, it would have been instructive for people in Scotland to have had his insight into the consultative document which shows that the base is about to be effectively closed.
That consultation document tries to pretend that it is not a closure--that having a naval base with no ships stationed at it is not, effectively, a closure of a naval base. Everyone in Fife and in Scotland is well aware that whatever attendant services remain at Rosyth for the time being, they are on a very shoogly nail indeed, since the base has no ships--a very limited time scale.
Equally offensive in the consultation document is the attempt to conceal the real extent of the job losses that are threatened by the closure. I had correspondence with the Secretary of State for Scotland during the summer and eventually it was revealed to me that the Government had not included naval personnel transferring from the east coast of Scotland to the south coast of England in the job loss estimate. That was because the Secretary of State for Scotland believed that some of those people might not live in Fife in the first place and therefore did not think it appropriate to include them in the job loss total.
Whether or not all the naval personnel live in Fife or are stationed at Rosyth at present, we can be reasonably sure that when they are stationed on the south coast of England they certainly will not live in Rosyth, Fife or Scotland and, therefore, will be a substantial economic loss to the Scottish economy.
Fife regional council, in its excellent response to the consultation document, details another three direct attempts by the Government to conceal the true extent of the job losses that are threatened for Fife and for Scotland's economy as a result of the Rosyth closure. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will direct his attention to those points on page 12 of the regional council's response and say whether he agrees with each one. They show that--presumably deliberately--the Government have underestimated the economic impact of the closure of Rosyth to the extent of 500 jobs or more.
As that document tells us, and as the Fraser of Allander Institute study which backs it up states, from 1991 to 1997, the total civilian and service personnel job losses from the plans for Rosyth under the Government's proposals amount to 7,000, with a loss of expenditure to the Fife economy of no less than £71.8 million. It is interesting to compare the rigour of the analysis presented by the regional council with the slipshod and sleekit document that the Government produced in the first place.
The consultation document also shows the most obvious bias. Nowhere in the consultation document is there serious consideration of the alternatives-- the closure, perhaps, of Portsmouth or Devonport. The closure of Portsmouth was dismissed as prohibitively costly, without any examination. It is said that it is impractical to close Devonport naval base, with no attendant analysis to back up that statement. The document does not even consider the option of scaling down all three conventional naval bases and compare that in terms of cost savings. The only option which is fully examined is that of effectively closing Rosyth as a naval
Column 210base. How on earth can it be sensible to concentrate conventional naval base capability along a small stretch of the south coast of England?
The regional council's document, unlike the Government's consultation document, looks in detail at the strategic arguments for keeping Rosyth as an operational effective naval base--at oil and fishing interests and at the shipping lanes that need to be policed from a North sea naval base. It is interesting to compare the Government's suggested savings of as little as £160 million over 10 years with the fact that North sea oil generates overall income of £30 million each and every day and that defence experts say that the decision to concentrate on the south coast of England might put this vital strategic resource at some risk.
David Greenwood, who will be well known to those who are interested in defence and who is director of defence studies at Aberdeen university has written:
"At the moment, any terrorist threat would be dealt with by commandos from Arbroath and the Navy at Rosyth. The Navy's ability to fulfil this role would be seriously impaired if all its ships were based in Portsmouth and Plymouth.
The Navy is responsible for protecting and policing a 200-mile wide strip of water that goes right round the country. It is difficult to see how it could do that with its whole capacity in one corner."
Naval experts, unlike the Government, realise the idiocy of concentrating conventional naval bases on the south coast of England. When we consider the strategic requirements of defence, we find a good argument for keeping Rosyth as a naval base. But if we consider only the Conservative party's political strategic requirements in the south of England, the logic of closing Rosyth and keeping the south coast bases becomes very evident indeed. Although Rosyth was used as a key card in the unionist campaign in the previous general election, now and for ever more in Scottish politics it will be a key example of why the economic fate of communities in Fife and in Scotland generally should not be left to decision-making in this Parliament. The Scottish National party will vote for the amendment, not because we think that it is a perfect amendment--on the contrary, it does not even mention the word "Rosyth"; we would have liked to have seen the case for Rosyth detailed in the amendment. There are weaknesses in the amendment. It does not confront the incredible lack of logic in the maintenance of missile systems. The Opposition spokesperson said that, warhead per warhead, the Labour party's policy is now to maintain the same number of warheads with Trident as previously were held by Polaris. I should have thought that the international climate dictated a reduction in warheads, not the maintenance of warheads.
The lunacy of the Trident missile system and the expenditure of £20,000 million or more on one aspect of strategic defence which in the modern world has been overtaken by events compares with the loss of key Scottish regiments for the lack of a few million pounds, when an obvious defence need has been identified by Conservative Members for their use in peacekeeping roles in Europe and elsewhere.
I remember the Defence Select Committee once saying that redundant nuclear submarines could be used as tourist attractions. That was actually in a Select Committee report. I am a great admirer of Select Committees, but I do not think that that was the most profound statement ever made by one. Let my last suggestion to the House
Column 211be this, however: if redundant nuclear submarines and nuclear hulks are worthy of being considered as tourist attractions, let them be tourist attractions on the River Thames, because they will not be acceptable in Rosyth naval base, which wants to be a working naval base, not an elephants' graveyard for nuclear hulks.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The 10-minute restriction will end in a few moments. The winding-up speeches are to commence at 9.10 pm, and many hon. Members still wish to speak. I therefore make a plea for concise speeches.
Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his speech and I associate myself with the glowing tribute that he properly paid to the men and women of our armed forces. The British sailor is one of our greatest ambassadors. I hope that there will be every opportunity for the Royal Navy to visit ports abroad and show the flag. It would do a very good job for Britain if given that opportunity.
This debate occurs at a time of great change, and I should like to consider the role of NATO. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the role of NATO became confused. For instance, who is to be in the sights of our armed forces as part of NATO? It is a great achievement that we do not have an enemy at whom to aim our weapons. One of the great aspects of NATO has been the cohesive force that it has held over many years and brought the United States into the defence of Europe and the free world. Nobody should dismiss that lightly. Many people previously felt that NATO's main purpose should be peacekeeping. A better sense of realism has been adopted by those who have taken an interest in its future role.
Peacekeeping is a long process. It is worth recalling that about 72,292 troops from various nations participate in United Nations peacekeeping roles in 14 places throughout the world. One of the earliest deployments of United Nations forces was in Kashmir in 1949, and forces are still there. Forces were placed in Cyprus in 1964. For NATO to take a lead role in peacekeeping operations would undermine the role of the United Nations in a far wider umbrella able to draw on forces from many other countries, and our own troops would be tied indefinitely to policing areas such as Western Sahara, El Salvador and elsewhere. I do not believe that NATO forces must be confined to the NATO area.
That leads me to the construction of NATO to take account of its role with the rapid deployment force. That is its main function--that is, to show that it has the ability to react quickly and with great force. To do that effectively, we must change the orientation of NATO from a central and northern European-oriented force to one which moves further south and takes account of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the consequent possible effects.
A member of NATO which has a pivotal position in the present structure of NATO--Turkey--should be used for stationing our forces in rapid deployment mode for deployment to areas outside NATO boundaries. If NATO
Column 212is to be effective it must look beyond its existing bounds and embrace north Africa, the middle east and further afield. It is in stamping out such trouble spots, as was well demonstrated in Kuwait, that we can prevent serious international conflict.
If a really effective rapid deployment force is to be established, it is important to have the right equipment and the men and women who are trained to perform the task well. I am particularly pleased that we have ordered Challenger 2 tanks: that will be a great help to Vickers in Leeds, and is hugely appreciated in Yorkshire. It will also be immensely important to the work that a rapid deployment force will have to undertake.
The helicopter lift will be an important element. I know that a difficult decision is involved. I listened carefully to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson); he has a constituency interest in the manufacture of the EH101, which is a combined operation by Westland and Agusta, but the Chinook--to which he referred--is already in service and gives us the opportunity for standardisation, which I have long preached, and interoperability, while giving us the same use of spares currently in stock in the RAF. I understand that the lift capability of the Chinook is rather greater than that of the EH101, which is important in terms of cost-effectiveness.
We must also consider the offset arrangements. We should push hard to ensure that we have the maximum offset for any purchases. Such purchases must be made on the principle of securing good value for money and the best machine for the job.
Many points have arisen during the debate, which has to an extent latched on to the "Front Line First" White Paper. That document draws attention to the need for more cost-consciousness and financial management procedures. My own RAF support management group in Harrogate has existed since 1946 and has done a magnificent job. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the civilians who have worked, and are working, in our military forces, particularly in the field of support; they do magnificent work with great dedication. The group that I have mentioned is to be moved to RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire, which has involved considerable heart-searching and many difficulties for its staff. I sympathise enormously with those employees and their families, who have been faced with a choice between uprooting themselves and trying to find alternative jobs where they are now.
I appreciate the reasons for the action that is being taken, however. We must shape our support for the tasks that our military forces will undertake in future; we must slim them down and use all the technology to make them as cost-effective as possible. Our buildings in Harrogate were not particularly suitable; they were out of date, which is one of the reasons for the move to RAF Wyton, which I deeply regret.
We must do everything possible to secure jobs for those who will be displaced. We must also consider the disposal of redundant buildings and those that are vacated--as will happen with the Army apprentices college. We need to establish a central computerised clearing house, so that a Department looking for buildings can see what types of building are available. The Home Office, for instance, is always looking for buildings to house offenders; buildings are also needed for health service courses. The various Departments must liaise closely to ensure that uses are
Column 213found for redundant buildings and jobs are secured for those who are displaced by big changes in our military structure.
I am grateful for the opportunity to present my views. I hope that, in the next year or so, we shall continue in the vein of peace that we have been able to secure by maintaining forces that are adequate to deal with any circumstances.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen): I wish to speak about an establishment in my constituency, Pendine, whose closure was announced by the Secretary of State in a statement on 14 July. That statement came as a severe blow to the establishment's 340 employees; it is in a relatively remote rural location, where comparable alternative jobs would be impossible to find. The closure decision was made despite an 18-month campaign by the work force, supported by the local authorities: they presented the case for Pendine in as forceful and detailed a way as they could.
We were pleased to see that the consultative document published by the MOD on 14 July contained some explanation of why Pendine had been singled out for closure, but we felt that it was deeply flawed. There were three main errors. One related to the assessment of the option to close Shoeburyness. I should point out that attacking another site, or saying that it should be closed, is no part of our alternative plan; we propose a "slimdown" at Pendine, Shoeburyness and Eskmeals, which are all comparable sites.
The consultative document estimated that the closure of Shoeburyness would increase costs by £5 million. We could not understand that. Apparently, the explanation is that much of the work being done there, involving over-water recovery, would have to be done in Australia. I understand that that is not so; about 80 per cent. of the work could be done at Pendine.
The document states:
"Pendine's range is relatively restricted to seawards and is constrained in its ability to absorb further work. For instance, any southward extension of the danger area at Pendine would infringe the main Swansea-Pembroke Dock shipping lane."
There are three incorrect statements in those two sentences. First, there is no Swansea-Pembroke dock shipping lane; there is light use of that sea area, but it poses no problem to MOD exercises. Secondly, the document says that Pendine's range is "relatively restricted to seawards". The area towards the sea overlaps into the Manorbier and Castlemartin areas: quite a large area is available for test firing--up to 60 km. The last error lies in the words
"constrained in its ability to absorb further work".
The site at Pendine is composed of 5 square miles of land and 5 square miles of foreshore; within that 10 square miles is a considerable area to absorb further work.
Pendine has a unique test track measuring 1,500 m, built to high specifications. If it closed, that would have to be rebuilt at substantial expense. The document
Column 214estimates a cost of between £7 million and £15 million, but according to our best information the cost would be nearer £20 million to £50 million. That would negate the savings from closure. As a steering group, we prepared an alternative document of about 30 pages outlining a future for Pendine, based on a slimdown of its present operations. We proposed that all the work now undertaken should be continued, but that many unnecessary assets be disposed of. Llanmiloe house is a posh mansion used for administration. A lot of land could be disposed of. Major cuts in staffing would be possible. Civilianisation of the MOD staff would reduce the cost. If the Blelloch review was implemented, cuts of about 50 per cent. would be possible in the MOD police.
The trade unions at Pendine have volunteered 30 per cent. cuts in staff across the board as part of our alternative business plan. That 30 per cent. figure was not plucked out of the air. It was proposed by Shorts, the company that we understand would be the contractor in any case if the contract was renewed.
The proposals in our document are all costed and we estimate that if the slimdown proposals were adopted, they would save £2.5 million a year and £25 million over a 10-year period. Those are greater savings than the MOD would achieve by closure. The estimated savings in the MOD consultative document are £7 million to £15 million from closure. Our alternative proposal would save £25 million. We have put the document to the Ministry. It provides for better savings, a much more predictable option and a safer bet in the sense that we do not know what would be the cost of reprovision if Pendine closed. The plan is achievable on a shorter time scale and with less capital cost. It would guarantee quality of work, continuity and customer satisfaction.
I am glad to say that last week we had a useful one-hour meeting with the Minister and his senior civil servants. It was a courteous and constructive meeting. I was pleased to hear today that the Ministry will seriously consider our consultative document. I hope that the Minister will make a few comments about Pendine in his reply to the debate to clarify the position for the work force there. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the chance to make those few observations.
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre): Virtually all the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate during the past two days have commented on the huge changes that have taken place in the armed forces during the past four years.
It is true to say that the "Options for Change" proposals were, to a great extent, accepted by the majority of service men, albeit reluctantly. There may have been a lack of clarity about the direction in which we were going four years ago. There may have been worry about the uncertainty in the world in which we would find ourselves following the demise of the Soviet Union. None the less, there was a realisation among the vast majority of service men that we would probably end up with smaller armed forces.
Although the proposals were called "Options for Change", they were effectively a defence review. The last two defence reviews--if one can call them that--have not been accepted to the same degree as "Options for
Column 215Change". The changes are perceived within the armed forces as essentially Treasury-led and a result of the need for short-term savings in the public expenditure budget, rather than any long- term considerations for the defence of Britain.
I am pleased to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on the Front Bench. I am convinced that were it not for the tenacious way in which he fought some of the more outrageous suggestions made by the Treasury, we would be in a considerably worse position than we are.
The last round of cuts has been handled well by the defence team, most specifically in ensuring that the front line did not suffer so much as previously and in finding ways of meeting at least some of the Treasury targets while ensuring that we maintain our front-line strength. However, some people in the armed forces feel much less reasonably disposed than previously towards putting up with the sort of thing that they have had to put up with over the past two years. They are less prepared to take lying down the sort of things that have happened to them in the past two years.
I congratulate the Ministers of State for the Armed Forces and for Defence Procurement on their appointments. Like my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, I spent a fair amount of the summer months either speaking or operating in my capacity as a pilot in the RAF Reserve with both the Army and the Royal Air Force. From that experience, I learnt that, as many hon. Members have said both yesterday and today, there is worry in the armed services about the uncertainty, instability and disruption that has been caused by the changes.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces rightly pointed out, in introducing the debate today, that service life is about change and unpredictability. People often do not know where they will be in a few months or even a few days. The challenge and excitement that that promotes are part and parcel of service life. I submit that there is a difference between the short-term instability in not knowing where one will be next year or next month and the stability that has always existed in the armed services, in the sense that people knew how long they would have to serve. People knew that they would be looked after and that they were not in just any other job. I distinguish between the uncertainty in the short term and the greater certainty in the long term which, until recently, has been a feature of service life. I sincerely hope that we will now return to the previous position, in which people in the armed services had a clearer idea about what they would be doing in the following year.
The disruptions that have been caused by previous changes in defence policy --"Options for Change" and what followed--are continuing. They have not stopped simply because we appear to have stopped cutting defence. The changes will continue for several years to come. "Front Line First" is fine. I fully approve of the idea of seeking to ensure that the front line is protected, but let us consider that some individuals may do one tour as part of the front line and in the next tour of duty may be posted to something else. Within a month or two of taking up the post, they may find that it is part of the last
Column 216cuts and they are out of a job. We must get our minds round that sort of instability and ensure that it is reduced to a bare minimum. I welcome the commission on pay and allowances. I welcome the assurance that it is not simply another cost-cutting exercise. To me, it is an opportunity to regain the support of some of our armed service men and to show that the exercise is intended to ensure that their pay and allowances packages reflect what they do today in the post-cold war environment and that it will take us forward into the next century. I am not so apprehensive as some of my colleagues and I sincerely hope that that is how the study will end up.
I was very much encouraged by the remarks made last week in Bournemouth by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and by those of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his excellent speech last Friday, which pointed out that the defence of this country has now entered a period of stability. The last thing that the armed services want is another defence review, but that is what the Opposition have suggested. It is my view and that of many service men that we have had enough reviews in the past four years. We have had three, and we certainly do not want another.
I found it extraordinary that the Opposition spokesman yesterday suggested at the start of his speech that we needed a review and that we must wait and see, check and then carry it out. A few sentences later, however, he had already pre-empted his review by saying that an incoming Labour Government would reduce the number of warheads on Trident before they assessed the need for the number that we already have. That shows where the Labour party is coming from on defence. Every Opposition defence review has resulted in defence cuts. Since the war, no incoming Labour Government have not included defence budget cuts as a high priority in their first two years in office. So, for review read cuts and that is what the three armed services are most concerned about.
Dr. Reid: If it is a simple equation of review equals cuts and if the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party are against reviews, how does he explain that in the 10 years between 1985 and 1995 there has been a 27 per cent. cut in the armed forces budget in real terms?
Mr. Mans: The hon. Gentleman makes a point. Often, no matter which party carries out a review, it means cuts. That is the point that I was making. The hon. Gentleman talks about a review, but on past experience that means a cut rather than any increase in capability. Let us compare defence expenditure with other public expenditure. Five years ago, expenditure on defence exceeded that on the health service and education and it was a high percentage of the total cost of social security. The health and education budgets are now much higher than the defence budget and--what is even more interesting--the housing benefit budget alone amounts to nearly 60 per cent. of the defence budget. That gives us a clear idea of what has happened to defence expenditure during the past few years. It has reduced in real terms by nearly 25 per cent., or it certainly will have done by 1995. That is why it is even more important to ensure that we do not cut it any further.
Column 217In 1990, the Royal Air Force had a front- line combat strength of just under 400 aeroplanes. By 1995, that strength will have reduced to 278. I should have liked to tell the House the number of RAF stations that have been shut down. Last February, I asked that question and was told that someone would write to me. I understand that the Ministry of Defence has had some difficulty defining an RAF station. I noticed in a newspaper report today that the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) received an answer to his question on RAF stations, which was not dissimilar to mine. Could my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State find a way to answer my question about the number of RAF stations that will exist in 1995, compared to the number in 1985 and 1990, as it is relevant?
Mr. Hardy: The House should be aware of the answer that I received yesterday. Since 1989, 20 stations have been closed and a further 14 will close in the next few years. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will agree, but there is now a serious threat to Britain's capacity to provide runways for the Royal Air Force.
On the procurement of aircraft, I reiterate the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), who mentioned the need to secure the future of Farnborough. It is the shop window of aerospace in this country and it would be nice to see it continue beyond the guaranteed date at the end of this decade. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State recently mentioned the importance of keeping down the cost of Eurofighter 2000, and I entirely agree. As many hon. Members know, I fully support the project, but we must ensure that the costs do not rocket. It is not merely important to keep down the cost of the activities of private industry. We must also ensure that the internal costs of the Ministry of Defence's procurement executive are reined in.
One of the problems is that the Defence Research Agency has new accounting methods now that it has agency status. Previously, there was a system of internal transfers which, I understand, had no cash value attached. There have been considerable increases--if one can call them that--in that area, due to the way in which the money is accounted for.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): On the subject of defence procurement for the RAF, given that so many thousands of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend are engaged in building the finest aircraft for the RAF--such as the Tornado--
Does my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) agree that it is crucial for the future of the RAF that we have the right aircraft? Will he join me in calling on our right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to
Column 218consider carefully the RAF's future large aircraft need, to ensure that the right aircraft is chosen and that the decision is not too precipitate?
Mr. Mans: I entirely agree, and will return to that subject. I also associate myself with remarks made about the EH101. I hope that an early decision will be taken on procuring that aircraft, bearing in mind that the intention to do so was announced about nine years ago in the House.
The procurement of the new RAF transport aircraft has dominated this two- day debate. Perhaps I should declare an interest, or more specifically a non-interest. As far as I know, no aircraft company in my constituency is working on either the FLA or the C130J, nor is any company likely to supply either of those projects. None the less, I have a fair number of opinions on the direction that we should take to ensure the right solution.
It is worth bearing in mind the background. As recently as 1991, the Ministry of Defence told the Select Committee on Defence that it needed to replace the Hercules just into the next century--in 2001, 2002 or thereabouts. It did not intend to replace it beforehand. Earlier this year, there was no clear sign why maintenance costs for the Hercules had risen. The Ministry of Defence seemed to be unable to specify to the Defence Select Committee where the costs had occurred, which worried me. I find it slightly odd that, during the past three years, there has been a rapid change in attitude. From not wanting to procure a new transport aircraft until after 2000, the MOD is now saying that the maintenance of the aircraft is very expensive and has decided to sell some of them off next year. I do not understand how that fits into the scenario of an aging aeroplane that will not last until the next decade.
I cannot see when the decision was taken to change from the previous position of our procuring the aircraft in the new century to suddenly saying that we need it in 1997 or 1998. I believe that those involved have decided to get together with the Lockheed company, which has a new model which appears to be a reasonable aircraft. At the same time, there will be perhaps a little more flexibility than normal in defence forward costings to allow us to take the opportunity of buying the aircraft "off the shelf".
Mr. Wilkinson: Is not it the case that since the Gulf war the utilisation rate of the Hercules fleet has vastly increased over what was anticipated, owing to its support of operations in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Turkey, the no-fly zone over southern Iraq and Saudi Arabia and in the latest episode in Kuwait? Does not my hon. Friend refer purely to a factor of the fleet's utilisation?
Mr. Mans: My hon. Friend makes a good point. As far as I can ascertain, there have been considerable amounts of extra work throughout the various stages of the life of the Hercules, including what happened in Ethiopia a few years ago. There does not seem to have been as much of a change in the use of the aircraft since 1991 compared with what happened in the early part of its history. I shall quickly move on, as I do not want to waste too much of the House's time.
I feel that the Select Committee's report in March this year was a very good one, and it clearly showed what the position was. Since then, there have been considerable
Column 219developments. It has been decided which engines the future large aircraft will have, whereas in March that had not been fully decided. It has also been decided that the project will form a part of the Airbus consortium, and that had not been decided in March either. As recently as last March, we were looking at a service date of 2005 and that has already been moved forward to 2002.
If there was an omission in that report it was that the Committee did not focus closely enough on the costs of maintaining the C130J in relation to the earlier C130 that the Royal Air Force already had. As the avionics and engines would be different, we would have to train people and give them new skills to service the aircraft. While it is a new aircraft in its own right, it still has effectively an airframe which is getting on for 40 or 50 years old.
We can say that the C130J may have a lower initial cost and it may be available sooner. It will undoubtedly have higher operating costs and carry less than the FLA. If the RAF were to procure the C130J, it would in effect be operating two different types of aircraft for some considerable time. Against that, the FLA will be clearly able to take more loads--such as the Warrior armoured vehicle--and it will go faster. I think that, over its full life, the FLA is likely to be cheaper than the C130J.
Mr. Bill Walker: On the matter of extra capacity, will my hon. Friend turn his mind to the fact that only one vehicle of the type that he mentioned can go in the aircraft? How many aircraft would be required to move a regiment? If he works that out, he will find that it would require every single one of the aircraft to move one regiment. That is neither realistic nor sensible.
Mr. Mans: I obviously disagree with my hon. Friend, but if what he says is true, it makes some of the procurement decisions made by the RAF in the past look slightly amiss. There has always been a desire to produce an aircraft that would at least take a fair amount of the Army's normal equipment, such as the Warrior.
It is also important to look at the industrial case for the aircraft. Jobs would be created in this country in both cases, but in terms of the C130J the best estimate is 3,500 jobs, while the estimate for the FLA is 11,000.
In terms of technology, there is no doubt that we would lose a great deal of our ability in wing design if we were not part of the consortium that was to produce the FLA. If we are not in the consortium at the start, our wing technology could be transferred to Germany for the next generation of Airbuses.
I believe that this is a very important procurement decision, because it is likely to decide the route that British aviation in this area takes during the next 10 or 20 years. I strongly recommend to my Front-Bench colleagues that they delay their decision on the replacement for the existing Hercules fleet until at least the first quarter of next year when a clear assessment of the alternatives, time scale and costs can be made. If we do not do that, we may find that we make the wrong decision.