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Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): I thank the Minister for that announcement, and for his co-operation and courtesy during the time that we have been discussing the issue with him. Now that he has been able to make the announcement that BRAMA has secured the contract, can he confirm, first, that it is aware of the requirements--of which it has been informed informally by ourselves and others--to ensure that the maximum number of local people are employed at Valley in the 400 jobs announced, and, secondly, that it will co-operate with the agencies and the Welsh Office to ensure that, where those skills are not currently available, training programmes will be put into place and it will co-operate with us?

Mr. Soames: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, for representing so clearly the views of his constituents and for being so positive at what has been a difficult time. I am happy to give him the assurances he seeks. I know that the consortium has been closely in touch with all the agencies concerned, and I believe that obviously this will be an astonishing success and will bring great benefit to Anglesey and the wider area. I know that it will be welcome news to local people who were worried about the future of the station.

The terms of the contract ensure that the very high standards set by the Royal Air Force for the provision of support services will continue when BRAMA take over. To that end, BRAMA intends to set up training arrangements to equip personnel with the necessary skills and to establish a long-term training programme to provide individual development and continuity of supply of qualified personnel. Initial discussions with the local training and enterprise council and college regarding provision of training began during the tendering process, and will now be pursued further.

Mr. Spellar: Does the provision with regard to training apply only to upgrading skills of existing trained personnel, or is there provision for apprentice training to ensure a continuing throughput of skilled personnel?

Mr. Soames: I am not able to answer that question, but I will happily let the hon. Gentleman have a detailed note later.

Following the implementation of this contract, Royal Air Force Valley will still employ more than 300 Royal Air Force personnel. I am fully confident that they will, in partnership with BRAMA, continue to deliver advanced fast jet training to the high standards for which they rightly have a fantastic reputation.

We are pressing ahead with the work following on from Sir Michael Bett's independent review of the armed forces' manpower, career and remuneration structures. Good progress is being made. I emphasise again that this is not a savings exercise. Rather, it will lead to better structures and better management of our people. I hope to make a further and more detailed announcement on this subject later in the summer.

Changes following "Front Line First" have highlighted the vital role performed by our reserve forces, and we have been looking closely at how we can make better use

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of the tremendous enthusiasm and great array of skills that people bring to the Reserves. As I announced on Third Reading of the Reserve Forces Bill on 20 May, we have now decided to form a Royal Auxiliary Air Force support helicopter squadron at RAF Benson in October. I hope that this will prove an innovative concept for the wider use of reserves, and I hope to give the House further details later in the year.

Before leaving the subject of reserves, I mention in particular the members of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve currently called out for service in the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. I have seen the exceptional service and support they give to our regular forces in the provision of intelligence, photographic interpretation and meteorological forecasts. We are extremely fortunate to have such high-quality people on the reserve list.

The Royal Air Force is emerging from a period of great change. This process has inevitably imposed strains and tensions on individuals and the organisation alike. It says a lot for both that these changes have been carried through in a period of exceptional operational activity. I am extremely conscious that we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

I am very proud of the Royal Air Force. It is equipped with modern, capable aircraft, and manned by professional, extraordinarily skilled and dedicated people. It enjoys a superb reputation at home and abroad, and anyone who has the honour to travel in the name of the United Kingdom on defence business knows that that is no idle boast. It is one of this country's great assets, and we intend to ensure that the means are made available to retain and enhance that asset for the future.

4.44 pm

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West): I thank the Minister for a comprehensive report on the current operations of the RAF. I convey to the House the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the shadow Defence Secretary, who is today out in Bosnia, meeting our troops, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who is in Camberley, meeting other troops.

I am sure that we were all shocked this afternoon by reports in the evening paper that the beating retreat ceremony in Horse Guards parade was disrupted by a raucous party of hooray Henrys in the Office of the Secretary of State. I am sure that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces deplores that as much as the rest of us, and I was slightly surprised that he did not take the opportunity, on behalf of the Department, to issue an apology for those unfortunate events.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): Would it not be appropriate to ask Mr. Terry Venables to investigate and to conclude that the doctrine of collective responsibility should apply?

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): Offside!

Mr. Spellar: Or, in line with certain civilian air companies, that perhaps handcuffs should be provided for the occasion.

This is the third and last of the services debates in this Session. Like others, it provides a fitting opportunity for the House to pay tribute to the illustrious history and valued

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current role of our troops. Since the last RAF debate in the House, we have had the 50th anniversary of VJ day, which was so memorably and dramatically highlighted by the Lancaster bomber dropping a million poppies. Recently, we have had a tremendous display of Spitfires, reminding us of another epic period in the last war.

As the Minister mentioned, by chance or good parliamentary management, today's debate is on the anniversary of D-day, when the domination of the air by the allied forces played such a considerable part in the success of that operation. Those events reminded us graphically of the key front-line role played by the RAF in the defence of these islands and our liberties.

As the Minister said, the RAF is still very much in the front line. In former Yugoslavia, it has played a full part in the campaign to restrain the Bosnian Serbs, in a variety of roles including successful bombing missions, combat air patrol and reconnaissance missions. For four years it has been part of the longest humanitarian airlift in history. That humanitarian role has been to the fore again in the continuing flights from our base in Turkey over northern Iraq as well as flights over southern Iraq.

Closer to home, as the Minister said, the RAF has played a valuable role in Northern Ireland, and we all hope that the current talks and engagements in the political process will lead towards a normalisation of the position. We must not take too much for granted and, as the Minister said, must maintain our preparedness.

This year also marked a major break in a long tradition when it was announced that the Tornado squadrons at RAF Bruggen were being redeployed to existing operational bases in the United Kingdom. We all recognise the logic behind that decision, but we should also take the opportunity of paying tribute to the vital role they played in maintaining the peace during the long era of the cold war.

We should also use the opportunity of this debate to pay tribute to the work of the Reserves, which was covered in much more detail during the extensive debates on the Reserve Forces Bill.

The Minister mentioned, and undoubtedly other hon. Members will also discuss, the considerable concern that has been expressed at the spate of crashes earlier in the year, with the loss not only of aeroplanes but of human life. Thankfully, that appears to have abated slightly, but we all recognise that any service can have a run of bad luck. The RAF had a similar spate in 1994. I understand that the United States navy has recently had a similar experience with Phantoms. There will be individual inquiries into the crashes and no one would want to pre-judge their outcomes. However, we are asking for a broader inquiry in order to consider the crashes collectively and see whether there are any common factors and any lessons to be learnt.

We must ask whether aircraft availability and the cost of flying are restricting pilot training. When I asked the Minister on 12 March what was the current average period for completion of fast jet training, I received the astonishing reply that it was 259 weeks and that that would be reduced to 109 weeks by the end of the year. When my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields asked on 25 March about the average air crew training hours for Tornado aircraft, he was told that the monthly average for 1991-92 was 17 hours 45 minutes and that that had been reduced to 13 hours 55 minutes in 1995-96.

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I do not pretend to be an expert on pilot skills. There are those in the Royal Air Force--and indeed some in this place--who are better qualified to make an informed judgment in that regard.


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