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Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Does not the incorporation of the prestigious, and hitherto separate, Queen's flight, no less, into an existing RAF squadron--32 Communications Squadron at RAF Northolt in my constituency--demonstrate the high level of flight safety that the service maintains? If RAF Northolt were required to become a civil airport and a satellite of Heathrow, as the Select Committee on Transport proposes, would that not be incompatible with its royal duty, and its communications role in flying Ministers and senior offices--roles which are important, in both peace and war?

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who rightly wishes to raise an important matter. I confirm that no decisions have been taken on the recommendations in the report of the Select Committee on Transport on airport capacity. I reaffirm to my hon. Friend the Ministry of Defence's continuing requirement to fulfil its core tasks through the use of the facilities at RAF Northolt. My Department currently has no plans to change either the status of the station or the nature of its operation.

I was saying that it would be folly to compromise either training or safety, and we would never countenance it. It is arrant nonsense to suggest that we would do anything to jeopardise the safety of aircrew by allowing an unserviceable aircraft to fly. No aircraft is permitted to leave the ground unless it is judged entirely safe to do so. The ground crews that service RAF aircraft are dedicated professionals, and are amongst the best in the world.

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At the same time, the RAF continues to maintain the most rigorous training standards, which every other country in the world wishes to come and learn from. Average fast jet flying hours are well above minimum NATO levels. Operating levels and skills remain at an exceptionally high standard.

There is no reason to believe that there is any fundamental problem in the way in which operations are conducted or supported, or that this is anything other than a truly, deeply and very unfortunate coincidence. It would be premature to infer that the overall accident rate for 1996 will reveal any new or disturbing trend. There have been similar clusters of accidents in the past, but they did not reveal any new trend. Overall, the general accident rate has continued to decline since the early 1980s.

I assure the House, nevertheless, that there really is no complacency. As the House will know, boards of inquiry are set up to examine the circumstances of each crash. Those investigations are extremely thorough and exhaustive, and although the work is still in progress, I can tell the House that there is no definite pattern to link any of these accidents.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside): Those who put about the scaremongering stories should be reminded that one should look at the number of accidents per 10,000 flying hours rather than just the number of accidents, because in the 1950s we had hundreds of accidents--and I mean hundreds--in a year. In one year, 1956, there were 156 aircraft accidents, of which more than 100 were Hunters and Meteors. Again, those accidents had to be measured against 10,000 flying hours. The RAF operates the finest and safest military operation anywhere.

Mr. Soames: Plainly, as I said at the beginning, much of the comment on these accidents has been extremely ill informed, and on one or two occasions comments from the Labour party have been downright irresponsible.

The RAF is and always has been a forward-thinking operation. I have spoken of its achievements and activities over the past year, but the House will also wish to hear of the heart and spirit of the service, and how they are being sustained through a period of profound structural change and reorientation.

In last year's debate on the Royal Air Force, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), who was then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, explained the effects of rationalisation and restructuring following the "Front Line First" and "Competing for Quality" initiatives. The RAF is now well on its way to completing these processes of change, and although clearly it has been an unsettling and worrying time, it is greatly to the credit of all RAF personnel that they have accommodated these changes while continuing to do their jobs in the excellent way we have all come to expect.

One of the most painful aspects of the changes has been that the RAF of the future will undoubtedly require fewer people. In 1990, the RAF's trained uniformed strength was 83,500 people; today, it is 62,500. By April 1999, it is planned to be 52,200. Sadly, 8,300 redundancies have been necessary over the past and current financial years, although fewer than 1,000 have been compulsory.

I can assure the House that the redundancy programme is being very carefully and sympathetically managed to ensure that the RAF retains the best mix of skills and

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abilities to meet its future commitments. The needs of those who are being made redundant are also being given high priority. People chosen for redundancy are given every assistance to prepare themselves for life as civilians, including retraining and careers advice. I am glad to say that we do not expect to need any further redundancies to meet our current manpower targets.

Mrs. Ewing: All hon. Members with RAF bases in our constituencies are concerned about these issues. Will the Minister give further evidence, perhaps in a written answer or information placed in the Library, as to how this will impact on particular bases, because in my area, at RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, people just do not know what will happen to them. That causes a great deal of uncertainty, not just for them but for their families and for the local economy. Will he give us further information beyond that which appears in the 1996 defence estimates?

Mr. Soames: I will see what I can do for the hon. Lady. I thank her for the great support that she has always given the Royal Air Force. I think she will find that, in the bases to which she referred--indeed, in all the bases of the RAF--everyone knows what their future is following the announcements made in early March. I do not know whether I will be able to give her the figures she requires, but I will try to give her a note to that end.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for keeping in close touch with me over recent months about the closure of Stanmore Park and the plans arising from that. I ask him to keep up that excellent record. I thank him for the close consultations that we have maintained. Will he now keep in touch with me about the projected changes, bearing in mind that he wants to avoid compulsory redundancies and we want to maximise the redeployment effort?

Mr. Soames: I was grateful to my hon. Friend for taking the trouble to see me to ensure that we were carrying out the restructuring operations in the correct way. I assure him that we will keep in touch with him about the restructuring that is taking place in his constituency.

The Government recognise that morale is extraordinarily vulnerable during a period of restructuring and redundancy. The higher command of the Royal Air Force deserves a great deal more credit that it gets for piloting the service so successfully through what has been an extraordinarily difficult time. I utterly reject the criticisms that have been voiced that the Royal Air Force is a demoralised force, lacking direction and feeling, abandoned by its military and political masters. That is a gross and unfair distortion.

It is true that the Royal Air Force has experienced a great deal of turbulence, and it has, like the other two services, had to get to grips with profound change. However, it is also true that it is a force of immense professionalism, which has responded in a good spirit to the challenges it has faced. There is no evidence to link any change in working practices with a degradation in skills in the air or on the ground.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): A few moments ago, the Minister said that the Royal Air Force was a forward-looking body. Will he learn from

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experience? Does he remember that, during the Gulf war, we lost a number of aircraft because they had to overfly the airfields that they were attacking? Will he give us an assurance that he will look carefully at the provision of stand-off weaponry for the future?

If he does that, will he look carefully at the team put together by Shorts for the stand-off weapons programme, which includes British Aerospace, British Aerospace Systems and Equipment, Royal Ordnance, Lucas Aerospace and MSA in Scotland? We believe that it creates a unique opportunity for us to tie in the skills that are being developed in the United States in relation to its stand-off equipment and for the United Kingdom to reap a considerable transfer of technology and high-quality jobs.

Mr. Soames: That was a formidable intervention from the hon. Member. Mr. Deputy Speaker, the only thing that can gladden your heart and cause your spirits to rise is that it means that he will not have to make a real speech during the debate. I have tried to persuade the hon. Gentleman that these are matters for my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, and I am sure that he will deal with them.

I correct the hon. Gentleman on one point: the aircraft losses during the Gulf war occurred because the Royal Air Force was charged with dropping munitions of a certain type, which caused it to have to undertake the most dangerous and difficult missions--during which, very sadly, a number of aircraft were lost. They were not lost because they did not have the weapons to do the business; they were lost because they were delivering the weapon of the moment, which required them to be positioned right over the runway.

Our main concern, of course, must be to ensure the health and fighting efficiency of the service. We have an active recruiting campaign, and training that is among the best in the country. These are not hollow words. I saw some excellent training under way when I visited RAF Cranwell, RAF Honington and RAF Shawbury recently.

The Government have announced a number of important decisions on equipment procurement and upgrading--a matter that my hon. Friend will deal with at much greater length later--which is a measure of our firm support for the Royal Air Force and our determination to maintain its position in the premier league. We continue, and will continue, to drive down overheads through rationalisation and restructuring. We are making use of competition from the private sector in the delivery of support services--as is every other air force in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. As part of the search for greater efficiency, we shall continue with this search for savings. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will have more to say about that when he replies to the debate.

However, I am pleased to announce that, following a competition, a five-year contract has been placed with Brown and Root and Marshall Aerospace Ltd.--BRAMA--to provide support services at Royal Air Force Valley, including Hawk aircraft maintenance. After an extended implementation period, this contract will come into effect on 31 March 1997. It will result in savings of

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£25 million during the contract period, and will provide 400 new civilian jobs at the station--a welcome boost to the Anglesey area.

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