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Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre): Perhaps I can assist the hon. Gentleman. The difference results from the fact that, in the last year that he mentioned, there was more operational flying and less training. In the first two years that he mentioned, there was less operational flying and more training.

Mr. Spellar: I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the Royal Air Force is determined to retrieve those training hours precisely because it perceives the difference between training experience that is aimed at particular tasks and skills and operational experience. There is concern that the disparity should be redressed, and the RAF's appearance before the Defence Committee last month reinforces that point. I believe that the Select Committee was correct to press the RAF about the issue, and we await the outcome of its deliberations.

Mr. Soames: I must clarify that point. Is the hon. Gentleman calling for another review over and above the individual crash inquiries, which obviously do the same thing as would an overall review?

Mr. Spellar: I hoped that I had made it clear, but I am happy to reinforce that point. I said earlier that proper, individual inquiries are conducted into each crash. We are asking for a broad review that examines features common to those crashes rather than simply looking at each case in isolation. We ask the Minister to undertake that review to see whether there are common faults and lessons to be learnt. I hope that I have clarified my request.

I hope also that the Ministry of Defence will look more critically at contracting out training. We would be alarmed at the prospect of extending civilian training schemes to fast jet pilots. Even in areas of greater compatibility, we should be concerned about eroding the RAF training base. The RAF cannot be simply a project manager: it must have strength in depth and retain an all-round competence. It is important that the RAF provides a proper career structure for its personnel while delivering continuity and security.

The same considerations apply to the maintenance side of the RAF in logistics command and the many skilled civilian staff. We are concerned about the retention of trained personnel in these rather turbulent times to which the Minister referred. For example, 11 out of 12 Tornado flight commanders in Germany intend to exercise their option to retire early at the age of 38. It is from that officer pool that the future station and squadron commanders are drawn. Perhaps the Minister will say what measures the Government intend to take to correct that worrying problem.

In spite of the Minister's bluster on such occasions--we all accept that the Minister in full bluster is quite an impressive sight--the fact remains that people inside and outside the forces cannot understand why billions of pounds are spent on redundancy, including compulsory redundancy, while hundreds of millions of pounds are

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spent on recruitment and the armed forces remain undermanned. Only last week I received a letter from a man who asked why his son was to be made compulsorily redundant from the RAF next year while it continued to advertise for new trainees.

That is not only a great waste of training and experience--I am not sure whether those factors carry much weight with the Government--but the worst possible advertisement for new recruits. When major international companies such as the Rover Group--which announced its profits today--proudly proclaim their job-for-life concept, does the Minister believe that the RAF, with its hire-and-fire mentality, will be able to compete for the best recruits? That is a real problem for the RAF.

Mr. Soames: Although the hon. Gentleman has extremely limited experience in such matters, he should realise that the services have never been job-for-life organisations. The question of recruiting balance and structure is a matter for the Royal Air Force. It must decide what staff age profile it wants and needs. It must constantly refresh its staff and bring in new and younger blood at all levels and in all ranks. Finally, we cannot compel people to join the Royal Air Force, the Army or the Navy. Therefore, we must spend a great deal of time, money and effort ensuring that we get our message across.

Mr. Spellar: I thank the Minister. I am not entirely sure how long he served in the armed forces. Perhaps he will tell us whether he served as long as Lord Craig, who expressed concern yesterday in another place about flight commanders. The Minister should move away from cheap personal abuse and answer properly the questions that are asked not only by the Opposition but by many in the forces and by their families. They are extremely concerned about the uncertainty of careers in the forces and they are not impressed by the large-scale handing out of compulsory redundancies.

Mr. Bill Walker: The hon. Gentleman is correct to refer to the views of Lord Craig, who has considerable experience in that area. He will know from his own service that flight commanders of that age often leave the forces in order to enter the civilian field and earn large salaries working as captains for major airlines. We must recognise that the reduced size of the Royal Air Force means limited opportunities for flight commanders to become station commanders and air chief marshals.

Mr. Spellar: I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he would accept that 11 out of 12 is a high proportion.

The Government do not seem to have time for continuity and competence in maintenance. How else can one explain the decision to contract out the Tornado repair work at RAF St. Athan, whatever the cost? Hon. Members have questioned the Minister about that matter, but he will not come clean about how much damage was done and what the final bill will be. Perhaps the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who knows more about such things, will expand on that issue when he replies to the debate. If he does, we shall be able to evaluate the effect of that decision on the alleged savings to be derived from contracting out.

The Government are also considering contracting out maintenance work elsewhere in Wales at RAF Sealand and RAF Valley. The Minister made an announcement to

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that effect this afternoon. However, he did not answer the question that I put to him regarding longer-term training and apprentice training. Contractors will be able to use redundant RAF personnel to fulfil the contracts and they will be able to bid on that basis. If we are to retain long-term competence through the contracting route, the real question is what training efforts will be made to ensure that we have the skills in this country.

That is the difficulty that the Minister faces, and we must continue to press the Government on that point. When we asked whether contracts would include the requirement to ensure proper training, we received no reply. There has been mention of additional funding to the local training and enterprise council to provide conversion training. That is most welcome, but we still need to look to future competence.

The danger is that such measures could lead to a hollowing out of the logistical capability of the RAF. We are concerned about the potential weakening of our surge capability, particularly if we became involved in two theatres of operation at the same time. We are also concerned about the reduction in the RAF's benchmarking ability, which enables the proper evaluation of bids for contracted work. We firmly believe that any decisions on contracting work must be determined by pragmatism not dogmatism and we shall impose a moratorium on new contracts while we evaluate the schemes that are currently in the pipeline.

In that context, I shall move on to the story of the sale of the married quarters estate--a quite extraordinary saga that is drawing increasing public attention. Frankly, there have been some problems with the estate over the years, particularly with the high number of voids for long periods and the condition of some of the properties--mainly Army properties, but to a lesser extent in the Navy.

It was sensible and pragmatic to examine the forces' long-term requirements and to consider whether all the properties involved were suitable and whether, due to their location or for other reasons, some were surplus to requirements. That process seems to be continuing separately from the overall sale. However, the main sale of the married quarters estate does not appear to be driven by any of those considerations or by anything other than a desperate attempt to fill the Treasury coffers for a pre-election giveaway. It is a "live now, pay later" deal. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be living it up and the service men and women and their families will be paying--not only in money, but in the loss of mutual support between families in the service community.

The purpose of the scheme cannot be to introduce private sector skills because the management of the estate will continue to be carried out by the defence housing executive, as will the repairs. Only this week The Times carried a substantial advert for positions in the defence housing executive to deal with the management of the estate. The problem has been identified as follows by one of the losing bidders, Johnson Fry:

The only housing management side seems to be with the defence housing executive.

Nor can the scheme benefit the troops of all services. Under the current review, they are faced with rent increases between 10 per cent. and 25 per cent. this year

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alone, with worse to come as they move up towards market rents. As the MOD pays market rents to the new landlords, there will be increasing pressure to make up the deficit. Individual service men and their families will be paying for that and financing this dubious deal.

We should also recall that service personnel will have lost their rights to the discounted sales scheme that was of considerable benefit to those leaving the service. They are also concerned that the better-quality property--much of which is with the RAF--will be sold and service personnel will be moved into the less desirable properties. Some hon. Members may wish to draw attention to that during the debate.

Nor can it be to the benefit of the services in general. I mentioned earlier the return of Tornados from RAF Bruggen, and the services are obviously considering the return of other units. The sales may close that option. Perhaps that is why the sale is not only unpopular with the service men and families, as was shown by the recent evidence of the Army wives to the Select Committee, but of concern among those in the higher ranks of the forces who are planning for the future.

Looking to the future, will the Minister tell us what will happen after 25 years? According to the prospectus:

that is an interesting word--

    "alternative accommodation."

Where will that leave the MOD and individual service men and women and their families? What certainty does it give them? That is also why it caused such uproar in the other place earlier this week when peers from all parties expressed serious concerns and reservations about the scheme.

What is the driving force behind the sale? It is fair to say that in some of the press publicity some chaff has been dropped to suggest that it is to pay for repairs. If that is the case, perhaps the Minister can say in his reply that the total proceeds of the sale will be devoted to upgrading service houses over and above current expenditure. That seems to be causing some humour in the ranks, so I presume it is not the answer. If he cannot say that, will he tell us what percentage of the money made from the sales will be spent on upgrading the properties? Perhaps he would like to intervene now.

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