|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Hardy: My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) will be back in the Chamber shortly, but to do him justice I should point out that he said that gas masks were given free to people at the beginning of the second world war. He felt that should similar circumstances arise under the present Administration, they would want to charge for them.
Mr. Walker: I should have thought that, in times of national emergency, one forgets all about differences of political opinion. That is why Clement Attlee served as deputy Prime Minister during the second world war. The gas masks were available to everyone. I begin by expressing my deep anxiety at the short time allowed for the consideration of defence costs studies and the taking of decisions. Decisions had to be taken too quickly, and we may live to regret that. I, for one, never opposed the idea of a defence costs study operation, because I believe that every organisation must, from time to time, carefully examine the way in which it operates.I therefore realised that the results of the defence costs studies might be of great value. I repeat that I was worried only about the short timeframe. Consequently, some of
Column 491the matters that I wish to mention may have been judged differently if we had taken longer to decide and considered them more deeply. First, I draw special attention to third line servicing.I am worried that insufficient uniformed personnel will be available for deployment in emergencies overseas--as when they were deployed in the Gulf- -and to incorporate the necessary modifications that occur in circumstances such as those that arose in the Gulf, or circumstances that occurred when we had to send aircraft a long way to the southern hemisphere, to the Falkland Islands. No one can forget the way in which the in-flight refuelling modification was carried out in a remarkably short time.
Secondly, we must accept that, when we are required to participate in such operations, there is a need to increase the rate of servicing to meet increased demands imposed by the more intensive use of aircraft and equipment. I am worried that that could present problems without adequate uniformed personnel.
Thirdly, I am worried about how we sustain a capability for a long time. Operations in the Gulf lasted a relatively short time. We were fortunate that the ground war did not continue for any length of time; otherwise we may have exposed certain deficiencies in our capability. Some of those were offset by the fact that we had British Aerospace and other things available, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East said. Those things may not always be available. The three problems that I have listed may be especially difficult for air transport, whether it be in the form of fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters.
I agree with the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) that, in addition, the Royal Air Force must continue to be an intelligent customer. The intelligent customer is intelligent because of the learning curve that goes with experience; the intelligent customer cannot be hoodwinked into believing that things must be done in a given way at a given cost.
I shall now comment on one or two matters that I thought that the Government did get right. I want to ensure that people do not think that I am being critical--I am not. It is inevitable that different opinions will be held about certain activities of the Ministry of Defence and the RAF.
The Government were right to buy the C130J. It was the right aircraft to carry out the job at the time that we needed it. They were also right to keep the options open for the FLA when it becomes available. I have been around long enough to know that, simply because an aeroplane is what I call a paper aeroplane, it does not necessarily fly, but I think that the FLA will fly and that it will become available.
At the time, I had strong reservations--I still have some--about the ability of the EH101 to meet the air transport demands that may be placed on the RAF. I considered that the Chinook was a better buy and had a better capability. However, the RAF must now make a decision and I have no doubt that, as it always has, it will make the mixed fleet work. Nevertheless, it could be especially vulnerable to a possible uniformed shortage in future because it will have to--as it would with the introduction of any aircraft- -put the necessary infrastructure in place.
Column 492The defence costs study answer for the RAF training system can best be described as extremely high risk. It may save money now, but the cost later may be massive. Central flying school and RAF flying training units have always been centres of excellence. That has been recognised worldwide. That is why every country in the world, almost without exception, wants at some time to send people to attend Central Flying school or to be associated with our flying training operations.
The quality and ethos of that training will be at great risk as a result of the civilian programme that is envisaged. The civilian content is too great. I do not oppose the use of civilians, but I believe that quality and ethos and the gold standard that the RAF is recognised as providing worldwide may be at risk. I simply cannot envisage how the proposed structure will be capable of expansion in times of emergency.
I am deeply worried that future RAF officers who are undergoing pilot training will not see an uniformed airman for the first two years of their flying training. Fast jet pilots are much more than people who have the physical and other attributes necessary. They must also have the right attitude, and part of the attitude comes from the ethos that is developed during their flying training. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip- Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who has considerable experience of RAF flying training, knows what I am talking about. My hon. Friend and I both know something about RAF flying training and civil flying training. One does not develop that attitude in civilian flying training.
The Government's reply to the seventh report from the Defence Select Committee deals with combat readiness: It says
"The RAF will continue to review its levels of combat readiness. These are determined by both national and NATO considerations which require the RAF to be capable of meeting, at short notice, a variety of operational commitments and contingencies."
The flying hours required are then discussed.
I would simply say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I have never been associated with the lobby that opposes low flying in Scotland. I believe that if Scotland is the only place suitable and available, it must be used, and in my constituency aircraft regularly fly low. My wife is convinced that the Walker residence is used as the turning point for all RAF sorties that go through the central highlands.
The presence of the RAF in my constituency has two faces. There is the face of the low fast jet--I am probably the only person in my constituency who will stand up and welcome it--but the other face, which is always welcome, is a yellow helicopter. There is no doubt that one of the best public relations activities with which the RAF is associated is military search and rescue.
The search and rescue capability has been stretched somewhat, and it has certainly been stretched in the past winter as a result of the vast number of people up in the mountains of Scotland. I am not opposed to large numbers of mountaineers; I am only worried that the military should be confronted with all the costs. I have always felt that other ways of absorbing the costs should be considered. That argument was made earlier by the hon. Member for Don Valley.
Column 493I have always regarded search and rescue as part of military training. I have been associated all my adult life with RAF training and with Central flying school and its activities. I cannot register deeply enough my great fears that the future of the RAF gold standard of training may be at risk.
The RAF must be congratulated on the work that it has already done in regard to manpower, before the imposition of the current demands and pressures. In particular, I congratulate Air Vice Marshal Andy Roberts: his work put the RAF well ahead of the game. I do not pretend to have read the Bett report in detail--I have not had time to do so--but, having scanned it, I am confident that the personnel side of the RAF is uniquely equipped to handle whatever the Government decide. Let me register my opposition to the idea of
performance-related pay, however.
When considering manpower and structures, we must consider the impact of overstretch, and the effect of active service absence on service families. That leads me to another issue that affects families: medical services. Here again, I believe that the defence costs study has gone too far. I do not see how the tri-service structure, as envisaged, can provide adequate opportunities for specialist career appointments, training and development. Certainly service wives are very upset, as was demonstrated by the survey conducted throughout the RAF earlier this year. The likely failure of tri- service medical provision means that the 100 per cent. support that families are expected to give RAF service men may not be forthcoming in future.
On 18 October last year, I said--and I have no reason to change my mind tonight--
"Cuts in the medical services are affecting morale. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the viability of secondary medical care to the armed forces can be sustained and will he acknowledge that the sharp decline in the number of service consultant specialists brought about by the loss of career prospects will jeopardise the provision of secondary care? Will he make a statement regarding primary medical care and the need to provide adequate levels of health support to military personnel in order to return them to active service at the earliest opportunity?"
I added--and I do not apologise for repeating it now--
"I am standing here today thanks to massive benefits that I gained from RAF medical care after a serious accident."--[ Official Report , 18 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 203.]
In fact, it was a very serious crash. I shall never forget that those medical practitioners made it possible for me to become a Member of Parliament: I could well have been confined to a wheelchair.
Just how the medical services will cope in a Gulf-type war that may involve substantial ground casualties must be a matter of great concern to military planners. In the absence of adequate specialists, only a substantial number of reserves can meet the shortcomings. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I am a great supporter of reserves. I am not worried about the fact that we may have to call on them; I just want to be sure that we can get them when we want them. Again, I have had time only to scan the Cazalet report, but I believe that it vindicates the way in which armed forces entertainment has been undertaken. If the report had been available earlier, much of the ill-informed comment about senior officers' residences and entertainment--particularly those concerning Haymes Garth--would have been entirely different. As others have pointed out, Air Chief Marshal Sandy Wilson was and is a distinguished RAF officer--a man of great
Column 494integrity, for whom I have a high regard. I only wish that he and his family had not suffered as a result of the actions of the press, which did what no press should ever do and attacked a serving senior officer who could not respond.
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. Will he also condemn the outrageous Labour slurs on senior officers, and the continuous "drip, drip, drip" effect of such criticism? It is wholly unjustified, and deeply damaging to the morale of the services. It does not only affect senior officers; it drips down through the rank structure, and is very harmful.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): I cannot let that pass. I am genuinely bemused by the Minister's allegation that slurs have been cast on senior officers: I can think of no occasion on which that has happened. Our official reaction to the report that was issued in the past couple of days- -it was not shown on any television channel, as it was thought not sensational enough--was to welcome it, and to point out that we had criticised the weaknesses in institutionalised control by the MOD rather than any of the officers involved. On the one occasion when we were involved in criticism, we did not level that criticism but defended General Sir Michael Rose against criticism levelled in the House.
Mr. Walker: I know how the hon. Gentleman feels, but I understood my hon. Friend the Minister to be referring to what happened before the publication of the Cazalet report. Everyone will recognise that the hon. Gentleman is an honourable man, and his views on military matters are frequently not very different from mine; I do not suggest that he was responsible for the slurs. We all know, however, that substantial slurs were cast on senior serving military personnel in the newspapers and other media--assisted, sadly, by some Members of Parliament. I find that desperately sad, because senior military people can never respond to such public chastisement: they have no means of doing so.
Paragraph 12 of the Cazalet report states:
"Within the Armed Forces, official entertainment is undertaken for a variety of purposes . . . and takes two main forms. Firstly, there is the representational aspect of the provision of official hospitality for individuals from outside the Services. Certain senior commanders and other senior personnel have particular
responsibilities for entertainment of this kind and occupy specially enhanced married quarters for this reason."
That is why such people have married quarters; it is not because they like to live in grand circumstances.
"Secondly, there is provision for commanders at all levels to undertake some limited entertainment of their subordinates." Anyone who have ever run a large organisation knows the importance of entertaining key subordinates on a fairly regular basis, in circumstances in which relaxation is possible.
Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend is making an important point. Given his experience, he will agree that we are not discussing only the essential domestic entertaining that goes with service life--although that is fundamental--but the fact that, owing to the prestige of the British armed forces, the entertainment that they provide for, in particular, the many foreigners who come to learn from our armed
Column 495forces is part of the glue that binds the British services with so many nations across the world and helps to render them such a golden asset to the United Kingdom.
Mr. Walker: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more, and this debate provides an excellent opportunity to put on record our feelings about the recent ghastly treatment of the services. Paragraph 95 of the Cazalet report states:
"My study has led me to conclude that, despite the presentation of the lifestyles of senior Service officers in some parts of the media, the level of entertainment carried out is probably about right . . . In some ways, it has been unfortunate that the spotlight has been directed in this area over the last year or so, as there is no doubt that, in certain areas relating to this subject, the Services are already addressing the existing shortcomings."
I feel very strongly about that matter, but I shall move on in order to address other issues.
By the end of the decade, the RAF will have closed 30 bases at home and abroad. I am concerned that there will be too few airfields in the United Kingdom and no scope for expansion in the event of a national emergency. When the defence costs study is completed, the RAF will have fewer operational airfields in the United Kingdom than at any time since 1934. In such circumstances, it would be prudent to require that airfields be retained in an operational state and not turned into housing or industrial estates.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who complained earlier about university air squadrons, will probably not agree with me, but I sincerely believe that we should retain those airfields. If we use university squadrons or other flying squadrons to keep them open, so much the better.
I welcome the assurances given by the Government in their commitment to the Eurofighter 2000. I believe that, when it is delivered, the programme will justify the investment in time, effort and money. I also welcome the proposals to invite bids for replacing the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. I am glad that the Tornado GR1 has been upgraded and that laser-guided weapons will be purchased. I also welcome the introduction of the anti- armour stand-off missile and the fact that the conventionally armed stand- off missile programme will proceed on schedule. Those decisions are essential if we are to maintain the capability of the Royal Air Force into the future. I welcome the fact that the Harrier GR7 is in operational service and I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that all that aircraft's service requirements have been met. The GR7 is being used by the Royal Navy on its aircraft carriers and it is not the first time that the RAF have operated from Navy carriers. Will my hon. Friend the Minister refer to the reorganisation of the Royal Air Force auxiliary units in his speech? I would like him to explain what is happening to the volunteer reserve units--particularly the public relations flight officers and the intelligence officers, who did such sterling work during the Gulf war and who currently serve in units in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
I believe that a small professional Royal Air Force--that is what we will have when the defence costs study is complete--should have a substantial reserve capability. I hope that the Government's thoughts are now turning to enlarging and widening the size and scope of the reserve
Column 496forces, including the flying reserves. It will not surprise my colleagues to learn that I shall conclude my comments by referring to the air cadets.
Last Sunday Air Commodore Peter Stean, the commandant of air cadets, and Air Vice Marshal Peter Squire, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, and I attended the east midlands wing air cadets field day and review. There were 950 youngsters on parade and more than 300 adults. I wish that our media would concentrate on the good youngsters in this country; I wish that they had been there to see those youngsters and the adult uniformed staff on parade and on duty. I remind the House that those adult staff receive pay only for attending courses and camps. That means that for every day that they are paid the nation gets their services free for eight days.
As president of Volunteer Gliding Schools, I express my concern that, with fewer service airfields available, the deployment of volunteer gliding schools is an ever- increasing challenge. We are nearing the point when we may run out of airfields. That problem must be addressed if volunteer gliding schools are to be situated close to air cadet catchment areas.
Early-day motion 533, which has been signed by a substantial number of hon. Members, congratulates the Government on their support for the cadet forces, particularly the air cadets.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon drew attention to concerns about the university air squadrons and their Bulldog aircraft. He probably does not know that the air cadet air experience flights and the university air squadrons have merged and that the air cadets will fly some of the Bulldogs. That will apply in Colerne as well as everywhere else and I hope that those aircraft continue to generate noise around Colerne. I believe that when people complain about the noise of light aircraft--particularly the Bulldogs or power gliders--we should deploy a squadron of Harriers for a week to show them what life on a military base is like.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall conclude my remarks. The Duke of Edinburgh got it right when he said:
"There are many ways of giving useful service to the nation, but none can be more valuable than helping young people to grow up into responsible citizens. Adolescence is a particularly difficult and challenging period in their lives, but it can be eased by offering them opportunities to experience adventure, discipline and responsibility."
That is what the cadet forces do and they are a national asset. The air cadets perform a particularly important function and I am delighted by the strong support that they receive from Ministers. On behalf of the air cadets, I thank the Government for their support. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has recently visited some air cadet units. They appreciate his interest and I hope that he will make many more such visits in the future.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): I shall respond to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) in a moment. The Secretary of State for Defence said earlier that he had written the Defence White Paper. We all know that the Secretary of State's signature will appear at the bottom of it, but I believe that Defence White Papers are written by accountants with a particularly creative bent--not least because of the distinct inaccuracies which have appeared in almost all of them.
Column 497The Minister of State for Defence Procurement is well aware of that and he said that there would be wider involvement in international activity. That occurs frequently and, when additional commitments are made, I am sure that the Secretary of State will offer that to the House as a further excuse for the Defence White Paper being blown off course. I shall return to that subject in a moment.
As hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have said, the Royal Air Force has contracted severely in the past few years. As many hon. Members are well aware, the contraction has gone far enough. Many of us consider that it has gone too far. We have nine operational stations in Britain, and two in Germany, for strike, offensive support, air defence, reconnaissance, and airborne warning and communication system--AWACS--aircraft.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who made a substantial speech, may be right to say that there may be a removal from Germany. That would leave us with nine operational stations in Britain and that would make the condition of the RAF far less satisfactory than it was in 1934--a point made by the hon. Member for Tayside, North. There would be only nine operational stations for the highest quality air force in western Europe.
We are concerned about not only the number of stations, but the number of personnel. The contraction continues, but the commitments may continue to expand. Perhaps the Minister will remind us of the number and names of the countries in which RAF personnel have served or are serving this year. Conservative Members may not like being reminded, but it would be useful to have that on record.
I am extremely anxious about the Government's management of the air force and their policies in respect of the involvement of the private sector. I have always believed in the mixed economy and there is certainly a place for private sector involvement in the RAF. There are benefits for the private sector and the air force, but the Government, in their slavish regard for dogma, are so eager to get rid of blue uniforms and pass business and profit to the private sector that they put the service in difficulty.
Reducing the number of blue uniforms on an RAF station weakens the service and reduces the capacity of that service to guard its own bases, or even reduces the service so that it cannot fulfil one of its obligations--to provide a full life for the people committed to that service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sooner or later, a Royal Air Force station will not be able to raise an unit football team so few will be the blue uniforms in it. That position is likely to arise unless the Government temper their attitude.
I was grateful for the Minister's reference to the fact that the position at St. Athan and Sealand may not be as fearful as some of us dreaded. The Government have gone too far and are reducing the capacity of the service to be the intelligent customer to whom reference was made.
May I begin the main part of my speech with another criticism that has not yet been offered? So far in the debate, there have been frequent references to the second world war. However, the Government have not yet perceived that their political role is not merely to administer the service, but to protect its image.
It is all very well for the Minister today to talk about the contribution of the Royal Air Force in the second world war, but when such comments are needed, and have
Column 498been needed in the past few years, they were not made. In a debate in the House just after the row about the Harris memorial--one or two Conservative Members may recall that debate--I pointed out that no one put it on record that Bomber Command flew not simply to kill German citizens or destroy German morale. If Bomber Command had not flown in the war, the Germans, with the capacity for aircraft manufacture that has been referred to, would not have produced the fighters that were used to attack the bomber squadrons over German skies; they would have produced bomber aircraft that would have dropped bombs on Britain. One wonders what would have been said 50 years later about the destruction of British cities.
The bomber squadrons flying over German skies occupied more than 1 million German soldiers and scores of thousands of German guns. If they had not been kept back to defend German towns, cities and industries, they could have been deployed in Normandy, and we now know that the invasion was a closer run thing than the propaganda machine liked to admit.
Mr. Hardy: I am aware of the successful raid on the Peenemunde establishment by Bomber Command. In February, after we had the failure of communication or protection in respect of the Harris memorial and we were listening to the laudable and commendable attempts to create reconciliation, on the anniversary of the dreadful raid on Dresden, there was another outburst of criticism of the Royal Air Force. The raid on Dresden was a terrible thing and a lot of people died. Nearly as many people died as a result of the RAF raid on Dresden as died in the concentration camps on the same day. The echoes of the V1 and V2 missiles, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, were still noticeable in south-east England. The battle of the bulge had only just taken place and there was vicious hand-to-hand fighting because Germany had not surrendered. If the air raid had taken place over Dresden after the Germans had offered to surrender, it would have been a heinous and terrible act, but war is war.
It is regrettable that Ministers with a political responsibility to guard the heritage and tradition of the service did not defend it in the terms that should have been offered. It is not simply a matter of protecting the economic condition of the RAF. When game is under threat, gamekeepers are required and the role of the RAF as gamekeeper in the national interest has eroded and withered away. A few moments ago, the Minister of State intervened in regard to the house occupied by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson. He made a robust criticism of the role of the press in that matter. I agree that the press behaved very badly. As I said earlier, there was a great deal of attention on the Friday, when the Secretary of State appeared on television, but, a few days later, there was none when the Minister of State intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on the role of senior officers.
I do not believe that Sir Sandy Wilson received a fair deal from the press or from Ministers. Ministers did not make it clear that the house had been empty for 14 months or what its value was. Indeed, the press seems to be under the impression that the house was worth less than half the
Column 499value that the Minister might like to tell us later in the debate. I do not believe that the press was adequately informed of the principal suggestion that Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson made. Because the house had previously been occupied by a two-star officer and he was a four-star officer who, because of reorganisation, was to occupy the house as one of the most senior officers in the RAF, it would be appropriate to have an internal wall knocked out, to make a large room. It would have been appropriate for the Minister to have said--the press has not been told--who was the budget holder for that property. Altogether, there was a nasty taste and a suggestion was made that Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson was a scapegoat. I understand why the Government, with their propensity to appoint people who agree with them at all costs, took that course. I am reminded of a long time ago when I was a schoolmaster. In those days it was fashionable for my education authority to appoint as headmasters people who were willing to please the director of education at all times, sometimes from a supine position. I was responsible for quite a few things, including the school timetable. I found that I was unable to give the headmaster anything other than a first-year form. The naughty children in the first-year form were sent to me. I would much rather we had had headmasters who would stand up to directors of education--someone prepared to put his feet down firmly and speak out when necessary. If it is important for a headmaster to have that sort of character, so it should be for a senior officer in Her Majesty's forces. Unfortunately, the present Administration is looking for supine senior officers. As that is the sort of officer that the Government want, they will try to ensure that that is the officer that in future they will get. There will not be room for outspoken fighter pilots who have intelligence and a certain amount of nerve. There will not be room for those who are not prepared to subscribe to every fashion that the Government wish to adopt.
Conservative Members who have criticised the Government's policy are entitled to do so. It is in the interests of our country that we maintain a high-quality RAF. I see that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is in his place. He has played a distinguished part in the Western European Union for a long time. He will be aware that the last sitting of the WEU in 1994 saw it considering a report that I presented on the capability of the air forces of western Europe. I began to prepare the report with some anxiety about what I should find, and what I found was somewhat surprising. When it came to all-weather strike capability, air-to- air refuelling, adequate reconnaissance, up-to-date strike capacity, adequate flying training and sufficient numbers of flying hours, most of western Europe was sadly lacking.
Last year, we had parliamentarians from eastern Europe rushing to Paris understandably to express considerable anxiety about their security. If any of us represented a constituency relatively close to the newly appointed Colonel Zhirinovsky--he has just been made an honorary colonel in the Russian army--we would understand their anxiety. He has been demanding that Russia recovers its former provinces, which are now independent and sovereign states. It is not surprising that parliamentarians from eastern and central Europe rushed to Paris to ask for security guarantees.
Column 500It is surprising, however, that most western European countries listened to their neighbours from eastern and central Europe and almost fell over themselves to promise them the security guarantees for which they asked when they had no capacity to deliver anything. Some of the countries that gave eastern and central Europe the security guarantees for which their parliamentarians pleaded have little capacity to defend themselves, let alone anyone else. I do not like it that Britain has had to bear a much heavier burden than many of its fellow NATO members. It is about time that the Government began to tell them rather more firmly and clearly that the United Kingdom should not have to bear burdens that they themselves should bear. They have done well out of ducking responsibility over the past 30 or 40 years. We, of course, have accepted the obligation to defend ourselves.
For as long as we have a seat on the General Council of the United Nations, we must accept the bill that so ensues. If we are part of the international community--I hope that my party will remain internationalist--we must accept the obligations that that brings. The obligations that the RAF has fulfilled on behalf of Britain over the past 30 years--indeed, over the past 30 months--have been fulfilled extremely impressive and a source of pride for the nation. The obligations have been costly, but they have been carried out responsibly.
How can we expect the service to maintain such commitments and roles when we have just eight squadrons of strike Tornados, six squadrons of air- defence Tornados, two squadrons of Jaguars, three squadrons of Harriers and only two major bases, at Brize Norton and Lyneham, for major transport services? The line has become extremely thin under a Conservative Government, who for 16 years in office--the same can be said of the Conservative party for the 15 years that preceded the present Administration--prattled about the need to maintain the nation's defence.
Obviously, the ending of the cold war brought about different economic demands, but the Minister will be aware that far more people in Europe have died, been maimed, driven mad or ethnically cleansed since the cold war ended than when it prevailed. Yet there is no real prospect of absolute security in Europe. There is certainly no real prospect of absolute security in other parts of the world. It should be understood that we need to see the development of international authority. We must recognise the absurdities in the command structures of the United Nations and ensure that they are removed. If we are to get rid of them and if there is to be a proper response to crises, it is certain that Britain will have a major role to play. If Britain is to play that role, the RAF will have much to do, but I see the RAF having little capacity to expand at any speed. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) my parliamentary neighbour, has already spoken about RAF Finningley. I have known Finningley since I was a boy. I was in the air training corps when I flew in an Airspeed Oxford at Finningley. I doubt whether anyone in the air force has flown one in recent years. Probably many RAF personnel would not recognise it. Finningley was an important station during the war, and remained so after the war. It was probably one of the largest aircrew training bases in NATO. It represented a substantial capital investment by the United Kingdom and it has had considerable meaning for the economy of south Yorkshire.
Column 501The Minister will be aware that I wrote to him about RAF Finningley. I think that I sent a copy of the letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. I referred to the history of the station and to its economic importance in terms of jobs in south Yorkshire. I was told, "We cannot take those factors into account." A narrow assumption has had to be made, but if needs develop, where shall we train the loadmasters, the air engineers, the aircrew electronic operators and the navigators? Will there be privatisation and greater costs? South Yorkshire jobs will be lost, the base will go, and we might find ourselves short of runways.
It is not only those consequences that cause me to be angry. The Government have not paid proper attention to the need to maintain the image of the service. When the air day took place at Finningley--the last one was held in September 1994--more people attended it to express, directly or indirectly, their appreciation of the service as it is today and as it was, than attended the St Leger horse race a week earlier. It was an enormous attraction. It was probably the most important attraction in the social calendar of south Yorkshire. Yet it is to be taken away for the narrowest of considerations. We know that the Government can throw enormous sums away without batting an eyelid. Against that background, one wonders about the closure of Finningley. Will the Minister therefore explain a story that I read in The Daily Telegraph a little while ago? It said that £5 million had been lost on a failed project to transfer married quarters to a housing trust and mentioned three-year contracts for the chairman and financial directors of that trust, who were in place for only a very short time. They received getting on for £500,000. The article said that the failure of the trust, which has virtually been wound up, meant that the Ministry of Defence was left with a budgetary shortfall of £500 million. I am not an expert in creative accountancy, but when a budgetary shortfall of £500 million can simply be ignored, I can think only that the attitude towards RAF Finningley is quite dreadful.
The Government may feel that they are well equipped to run the nation's defences, but the experience of the RAF over the past few years does not justify their claim. I hope that the Minister will pay some attention, if not to Opposition Members, to his hon. Friends, who are capable of giving advice which should be heard and to which he should attend. As I said, the line is too thin. The needs are likely to increase and the dangers are enormous. We are right to point out that present policies are not succeeding; they are creating dangers which should be acknowledged. A new approach is necessary if the Royal Air Force is to be able to guard the skies of Britain and to contribute to world stability and peace in the years ahead. 7.40 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): As we have this debate on the eve of our commemoration of victory in Europe, we may appropriately ask ourselves how best can we keep faith with those who died that we might be free? I suspect that those who died would say, "Do not make the same mistakes again in government which made our task so difficult. Look resolutely forward and help to build a Royal Air Force, whose structure, strategies, manpower policy and equipment will stand the test of time."
Column 502In the middle of this decade, as throughout the history of the Royal Air Force, we are experiencing dramatic change. In the air force's earliest days, in the great war, which culminated with the birth of the service on 1 April 1918, air power in four brief years moved from Army co-operation to the deployment of an independent air force; a striking force that could hit the Ruhr and the western part of Germany. Very quickly thereafter, we had the Geddes axe, the dramatic retrenchments and then, all too soon, the hasty build-up that, of course, ended, in the second world war. When that war ended so thankfully in May 50 years ago, the bombers that had dropped bombs were rapidly redeployed to drop food for starving civilians and, in some instances, to repatriate prisoners of war.
We thought then that we could enjoy a period of peace, but all too soon the cold war broke out. We should recall the deterrent role so successfully played by the Royal Air Force throughout that war. To recall such a role is fitting because, only a few days ago, Her Majesty's Government announced that about three years from now the Royal Air Force will relinquish its last nuclear weapons. With a great sense of responsibility, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the V bombers--my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) knows more about them than I because he served on them--were the first custodians of our independent strategic nuclear deterrent. Thereafter, the Royal Air Force maintained a tactical capability which is soon to be phased out. I ask the House to bear with me if I question the wisdom of phasing out that capability.
One of the inherent advantages of air power is its basic flexibility. I doubt whether a sub-strategic Trident system will ever deter as effectively as multi-role combat aircraft--that is to say, dual-capable strike aircraft, which can be deployed to a theatre and, by their deployment, send a signal to an adversary who would otherwise behave aggressively. I have said before that I believe that the threat of bluff being called is greater when we deploy deterrent forces which, by their submarine nature, are invisible and less apparent in the theatre of emergency tension or potential war. So I regret the decision not to press ahead with the tactical air-to-surface nuclear missile--the TASM--and I wonder too whether the studies into the proposed conversion of the strategic submarine nuclear, the Trafalgar class for Tomahawk cruise missiles, will prove costly and can be effectively done. I suspect otherwise.
I take heart, however, from the modernisation of the Royal Air Force's front line. I am delighted with the decision to buy the Hercules C130 J transport, with the new support helicopters, with the procurement of the European fighter aircraft, with the weapons systems that we are buying, such as the conventionally armed stand-off missile, the intelligent anti- armour weapon and much else besides, such as the replacement maritime patrol aeroplane. There has been, in short, an effective re-equipment programme--not yet completed--in which we can take great satisfaction.
Of course, to make that possible, there have been reductions in support, the rationalisation of the headquarters and staff structures and massive redundancies. We have seen proud stations close. How eloquently the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) spoke about Finningley and the loss of multi-engine and rear-crew training from that station. How sad it is as well that RAF Chivenor, where so many fast- jet pilots converted to Vampires and in later years to Hunters, and more recently did their tactical weaponry on the Hawk, is closed yet again. It is hard not to
Column 503be emotional about the closure of RAF Scampton, the war-time home of 617 Dambuster squadron. Everybody who cares for the history of the Royal Air Force will find that closure very emotional, especially as it has been in recent years the home of the central flying school and the Royal Air Force aerobatic team the Red Arrows.
With those changes have come not only improvement in equipment, but certain redeployments in which we can rejoice. I must thank my friend the late Air Chief Marshal Sir John Thomson, who was one of the Royal Air Force's outstanding senior officers in recent years. One of the last things which he did as outgoing air officer commander-in-chief of strike command was to approve the decision to incorporate the Queen's flight into the 32 Communication squadron at RAF Northolt, in my constituency, to become the Royal squadron.
We take great pride in that locally, as we do in the fact that RAF Northolt is one of the oldest flying stations in Royal Air Force service. It was opened first as a Royal Flying Corps base in 1915--80 years ago--and it played a proud and important part in the battle of Britain. As we commemorate victory in Europe, it is important to note that it was the home not just of RAF fighter squadrons, but of the gallant Poles who went into action at the height of the battle of Britain, whose memorial stands at the threshold of my constituency and whose gallantry, along with that of the Czechs and others who served alongside British service men in world war two, we must commemorate. We must also commemorate the role of the auxiliaries and volunteer reserves and I am pleased that No. 1 maritime headquarters unit of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force is at RAF Northolt. In the changes that have occurred, there has been a risk of concentrating on managerial imperatives rather than on the prime necessity for our armed forces, which is to be ready to fight at all times. This is the cardinal criterion for the creation of effective armed forces. As we allow ourselves this historic perspective, I wonder whether, in world war two, Bomber Harris at Bomber command, Hugh Dowding at Fighter command or Jack Slessor at Coastal command, could have been effective commanders in chief had they, at the same time, had to be members of the Air Force Board wrestling with policy problems in Whitehall.
It may be all right in peace time for commanders in chief to combine, as must the board of directors of a big company, executive and policy functions. However, I do not believe that it would be possible in war.
Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend is a former serving officer. He knows as well as I that the two tasks must be carried out. It is not an option for management. Good management of resources, as my hon. Friend is well aware, is not an optional extra. In my judgment, the astonishing success of the three services is that they managed to combine in the same officers, the absolutely unbelievable ability to be extremely good managers and very good war fighters.
Mr. Wilkinson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, but that was not really the point I was making. I was trying to suggest that it might be all right in peace time in a period when there is no serious risk of an emergency or war for commanders in chief to have a role on the Air Force Board as well. However, in war, when they have operations to conduct, I do not see how it could be possible for them to
Column 504combine their operational responsibilities at headquarters with policy direction in Whitehall alongside Her Majesty's Government. That was my point and I think that it is valid.
At the beginning of my speech, I said that we should look resolutely forward. I hope that the RAF is paying sufficient attention to the crucial necessity for ballistic missile defence. We are conscious from our television screens of the horrendous sight of Zagreb being attacked with ordinary Katousha-type rockets. However, in the Yemen civil war only a few moths ago, Scud ballistic missiles were launched from North Yemen to South Yemen and vice versa. We must address the problem and set up an effective theatre ballistic missile defence architecture.
I recognise that the Government have initiated studies on a bilateral basis with our French friends and the Americans. I am aware of the NATO studies and of the time scale within which analyses are being carried out by British Aerospace and others. All that is welcome. However, with Islamic fundamentalism on the march, with great uncertainty in the Balkans, the Maghreb countries and in nations which are within ballistic missile reach of these islands, we must address the problem.
As a further lesson from the Gulf war, we should address more seriously the benefits to our defences of a military space programme, particularly with regard to reconnaissance, confidence-building measures, surveillance, early warning and signals intelligence. I hope to hear that we are co-ordinating our efforts with our European and American friends in those areas.
With regard to co-operation with our allies, I must state that I do not believe that it is politically necessary for us to retain two RAF bases in Germany. I would withdraw the Harrier wing and support helicopters from Laarbruch and the Tornado wing from RAF Bruggen. After all, the problems with low flying in Germany have been mentioned. There are no longer any Russian armed forces--thank God--anywhere in central Europe. We should redeploy the RAF units to which I have referred back to the United Kingdom, and thereby keep vital bases in this country open and improve employment prospects here.
The key to the future of the service lies, as ever, with its personnel. At a time when numbers of armed forces personnel and uniformed men and women are decreasing, we must compensate by improving training rather than cutting training. It is a very false economy to cut training, particularly at a time of numerical retrenchment and reduction.
I urge that we create a tri-service cadet college at Greenwich where young men and women can spend a year together in prestigious surroundings, in the public eye, learning the discipline necessary for a service career, the history of the services and military science. That would be a better induction to service life than the 24 weeks of initial officer training at Cranwell. When they have completed cadet training and have proved that they have the necessary qualities, we could then send them to Cranwell for proper professional training, both elementary flying training and basic, because they could both be carried out at Cranwell.
I query the service plans with regard to multi-engine training because they do not appear to be defined. There will be a study in Canada into training by civilian contractors. The experience of the service has always been that it is better to do it in a uniformed and disciplined environment.