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Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Leave is granted merely to "bring in" a Bill.

Mr. Dykes: Indeed; the hon. Gentleman reminds me of the correct wording. Prima facie, it might seem a breach of parliamentary privilege that a Bill is given to the press before hon. Members have had the opportunity to see the text. That might be especially awkward in this instance, as those who support the eccentric ideas expressed in the Bill are most anxious to preserve the sacred sovereignty of the House.

Madam Speaker: The Government are frequently encouraged to print Bills in advance so that their contents may be widely known and circulated. Also, many hon. Members apply to introduce a ten-minute Bill and give details to the press. I can see no objection to that. Such Bills are simply in draft form at that stage, and I take no exception to the practice in this instance.

I must tell the hon. Member for Harrow, East(Mr. Dykes) that he should have taken all necessary steps to inform his colleague that he was going to raise this matter this afternoon.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It was announced in the Queen's Speech that there was to be a state visit by President Mandela, which I understand is to take place next month. I also understand that it has been announced that he is to address us in a session of both Houses, as is now the convention when a Head of State visits. So far, the venue has not been announced. I appreciate that the responsibility is shared between you and the Lord Chancellor. Is it still possible to make representations about the venue, as many people believe that, given the importance of the visit and the recognition that we want to give President Mandela, it should be Westminster Hall rather than the Royal Gallery?

Madam Speaker: I do not think that any lobbying is necessary, as the House is sensitive to the importance of

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the occasion. However, I see that the Leader of the House wishes to say something further to that point of order, which I shall allow him to do.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): I was not quite sure of the protocol--I did not know whether it was for you, me, the Lord Chancellor or, indeed, for the Lord Privy Seal to reply. However, if it helps the hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that it is intended--rightly, in my view--that the venue should be Westminster Hall.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(4) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation)


Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 94H(1) (Scottish Grand Committee (Sittings))

Question agreed to.

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Royal Air Force

[Relevant document: Minutes of Evidence on the Royal Air Force taken before the Defence Committee on 1st May 1996, House of Commons Paper No. 215-ii.]

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

4.4 pm

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): I greatly welcome this opportunity to open our debate on the Royal Air Force on what is a very appropriate day to review its activities and achievements over the past 12 months.

As you, Madam Speaker, will remember, 52 years ago today--6 June 1944--the Royal Air Force was in action over Normandy helping to ensure the extraordinary success of the D-day landings and the ultimate liberation of the occupied countries of western Europe. On D-day itself, the RAF flew more than 5,500 sorties in an allied total of nearly 15,000. The contribution of the allied air forces ensured air supremacy, to such an exceptional effect that the Luftwaffe succeeded in flying fewer than 100 sorties in opposing the landings that day.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): They were great days.

Mr. Soames: They were indeed great days.

The task did not, of course, end with D-day. Throughout the summer of 1944, the RAF continued to make a major contribution to the battle to free Europe. That effort was not made without great sacrifice. Bomber Command alone lost nearly 300 aircraft in June--the vast majority in operations in support of the invasion. Such heroism and determination has inspired, and will continue to inspire, successive generations of young men and women to serve their country with distinction.

Air power today is as important a component of military operations. It exercises an often decisive influence over the broadest spread of operations. In the increasingly unpredictable strategic setting we face, we need forces capable of reacting quickly, boldly and effectively to a broad range of contingencies. The RAF is just such a force. Its speed of deployment, reach and inherent flexibility, and the very punch of air power, ensure that it is ideally positioned to make a formidable contribution to deterrence, or, in the event of conflict, military success.

The House will need no reminder of the key role of air power in the Gulf campaign in ensuring unquestioned mastery and command of the skies, and in greatly degrading the fighting ability of the Iraqi forces. The relatively light casualties--thank God--sustained by coalition ground forces was in no small measure due to that air campaign and its effect. That is, perhaps, the traditional perception of air power and its application. It remains as valid as ever, and we continue to shape our forces to meet the critical demands of high-intensity operations.

It is also clear that air power has great potential in the new scale and scope of the nature of the operations we face. Good examples of that, of course, are low-intensity operations, such as peacekeeping, which require a precise and measured application of force to achieve very specific and clear objectives. There is also a heavy demand for air

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transport--for deployment to the theatre of operations and mobility in the theatre. Helicopters are crucial in the latter respect. Peacekeeping activities often also require sustained operation from deployed and sometimes ill-found positions, imposing strains on people and equipment alike.

In the former Yugoslavia, the RAF has been engaged from the start of the international community's efforts to bring about peace and stability. An RAF Hercules flew the first relief flight into beleaguered Sarajevo, and, appropriately, an RAF Hercules flew in the last relief flight before the siege was finally lifted. Over that airlift's life, the RAF delivered 26,500 tonnes of vital food, medicines and other supplies to the population in nearly 2,000 sorties--some of them extraordinarily hazardous.

In August, when NATO aircraft were ordered into action to deter the Bosnian Serbs from further attacks on UN safe areas, Harrier and Jaguar ground attack aircraft from No. 4 squadron and No. 6 squadron, together with the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers and supported by E3D early warning aircraft, tankers and Tornado F3 air defence aircraft, flew some 270 highly successful bombing missions against Bosnian Serb targets. Of the 19 targets allocated to the Royal Air Force, 16 were destroyed and the remaining three gravely damaged. In addition, the Royal Air Force's information-gathering capability has been vital to the success of allied operations in the former Yugoslavia.

That demonstration of the potency of air power was enough to convince the Bosnian Serb leadership of our capabilities and our intent. It was decisive in bringing peace within the grasp of the international community. When the Dayton accords led to the creation of the NATO peace implementation force--IFOR--the Royal Air Force was again heavily involved in action, transporting about 7,000 troops and 1,750 tonnes of freight, including 500 vehicles from Germany and the United Kingdom.

The Royal Air Force is also doing exceptional work daily over northern and southern Iraq, monitoring compliance with United Nations Security Council resolution 688. To date, Royal Air Force combat aircraft and their supporting tankers have flown about 14,500 sorties, amounting to more than 36,000 hours of operations. I was delighted to see something of that effort in October, when I accompanied the Commander- in-Chief, Strike Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten, and visited Incirlik in Southern Turkey and Dhahran in the Gulf, from where operations are mounted. The House should be under no illusion; those are extremely demanding missions, and I was greatly impressed by what I saw and heard.

The quality of support for such deployed operations is extremely important, and I would like to pay a tribute to the Tactical Supply Wing, which provides supply and specialised aircraft refuelling services to national, NATO and UN forces, and to the Tactical Communications Wing, which provides support communications in the Gulf, Turkey and former Yugoslavia. Personnel from those two very specialist units spend much time away from home, carrying out those vital, but obviously often unseen, tasks. They do not get enough credit for the hard work they do, and I am especially pleased to mark them out for special recognition today.

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Even more than in the past, we now perceive United Kingdom forces as required to operate on a joint basis, with land, sea and air elements integrated within a single command structure. The House will recall that we have introduced new structures to improve our ability to respond rapidly and cohesively, with force elements drawn from all three services, notably the permanent joint headquarters--PJHQ--at Northwood, and the joint rapid deployment force.

Responsibility for joint exercises, for existing operations such as those in Bosnia and the middle east, and for new operations overseas, will be transferred to permanent joint headquarters over the coming months. Air power will provide a key component within the joint forces, which we can expect permanent joint headquarters to command.

In addition to the heavy involvement in operations that I have already highlighted, the Royal Air Force has over the past year been actively involved in training and collaboration with our allies, both old and new. Air and ground crews have only recently returned from the United States where they took part in Exercise Purple Star, the first exercise involving the permanent joint headquarters.

The exercise was the largest combined United Kingdom/United States deployment since the Gulf war. It involved 12,000 personnel from the United Kingdom, including elements of the joint rapid deployment force, and 45,000 from the United States. A total--[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) like to intervene?

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