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5.50 pm

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): I should like to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) in saying many things about the Royal Air Force, of which we are all very proud, but I shall not, with reluctance, because of the amount of time that I promised to speak. I am very grateful for catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so early in the debate. Although I would be very glad to follow my hon. Friend in his argument, I shall refrain from doing so, and will concentrate on two local matters that affect the RAF and are connected with the forthcoming closure of a local base.

In echoing what other hon. Members have said, I am very proud of the RAF and rightly regard it as the greatest air force in the world. It does not matter intrinsically if it is not necessarily the biggest. I am full of admiration for the way in which it has coped with its retrenchment, the inevitable reductions following the end of the cold war, and its changing role.

As I said in an intervention, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for keeping closely in touch with me on the forthcoming closure of RAF Stanmore Park, on which I shall concentrate my remarks. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and the House--it is another reason for my deliberate brevity--for being unable to be present at the tail end of the debate due to constituency meetings. I shall therefore read the debate in Hansard carefully. I would not expect my hon. Friend to respond to the questions I ask if I am not present. Perhaps they can be answered later by letter and I hope that he will keep in touch, as I shall with my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

It is obviously very sad for us to accept that, as has been expected for many years, RAF Stanmore Park is to close. It is to close on 1 April 1997, although it will function in a residual way for at least a few months after that, with some RAF and civilian personnel carrying on working there, as it is gradually run down. The closure is sad for all sorts of reasons. The base has a 60-year history since it was created in 1936, which has been a most wonderful period. All the people who have worked there over many years--RAF personnel and civilians--are rightly proud of what has been done, but, again, I shall not go into detail. The greatest sadness is caused not only by the sentimental history of the base, although that is important, but by the loss of jobs, even though the number may seem small in comparison to what has happened in the private sector over many recent years and in other RAF facilities and installations.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces wrote to me on 23 May to confirm the most recent stage of the plans, having considered all the options and having taken option 3B. The reality, even in an area that is considered traditionally prosperous--the outer London borough of Harrow--is daunting. We have had enough job losses in all respects and do not want any more. In his letter, my hon. Friend the Minister said:

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    Although I am glad that some of my hon. Friends will benefit from those changes, naturally I am sad that the emphasis, changeover and shift of physical and human resources will not concentrate overwhelmingly and exclusively on RAF Bentley Priory.

My hon. Friend goes on to say:

    "36 Service and 20 Civilian posts would be subject to contractorisation and 53 Service and 17 Civilian posts would become entirely surplus to requirements."

My hon. Friend said that RAF Stanmore Park will officially close as an independent unit, but Bentley Priory will be expanded, in a modest way, but at least creating some additional RAF and civilian jobs. New facilities are also to be built for NCOs and other ranks in respect of catering, accommodation, and so on.

I naturally welcome that. Since RAF Bentley Priory is the not only primordial base of the two bases concerned but one of the main important bases or sub-bases in the entire RAF panoply--at least in southern England, if not nationally--I welcome the fact that it is not only to be preserved but enhanced.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that a period of consultation with trade unions and other interested parties is beginning. I should very much like to keep closely in touch with him and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence as the stages unfold. I am willing to assist in any way in the painful process to ensure that we minimise as much as possible compulsory redundancies--I hope that there are none at all--and create the most enhanced redeployment so that everybody is placed elsewhere. Indeed, I am more optimistic about that possibility than I was a year or 18 months ago.

I should be grateful for regular and intensive consultation and contact as the matter unfolds and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the contact so far. Even though I am unable to be present for the end of the debate, for which I apologise again, I would be grateful for anything that can be said, and shall keep in touch.

This is a good opportunity to put on record another local matter that is of great concern, even though it is proceeding out of the hands of the MOD and the RAF to other Government Departments and local agencies--mainly the Department of the Environment. I mention it in this debate because one of the principal buildings on the site concerned, Government Buildings, in London road in Stanmore, was the old RAF directorate of recruiting building, which dealt with a considerable number of personnel about five years ago and is now closing down, like all the other buildings. The site has become surplus to requirements and available for redevelopment.

Naturally, there is enormous anxiety among residents in the area about what will happen. As the Member representing their interests, who is in regular and frequent touch with them and the newly created residents association in the north-eastern corner of Stanmore, I should like to make a plea. Since the Ministry of Defence has a residual involvement and there are connections with the Department of the Environment and consultations between officials about the site, I very much hope that any redevelopment will be kept to the very minimum.It would be right to return most of the site to its original green belt designation. Since it has such a designation, there cannot be other than a marginal change of use under the regulations.

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It is very important that the public agencies responsible for the disposal of the land ensure that the wishes of the local residents are the most important. It is quite legitimate, regular and important for me to request that of the relevant Government officials in this debate. If there is any development, I hope that it will be extremely marginal, only at the southern end of the area, and that the rest of the site will be returned to its original green belt usage.

There is no need for the Treasury to become over-obsessed with the apparent possibility of maximising every disposal to the detriment of local residents, who want only marginal, high-quality housing that is consonant with the existing housing provision. That would be right and proper for all concerned.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, once again for your indulgence in calling me early in the debate.

5.58 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): I begin with a proposition that I believe will enjoy support in all sections of the House--that the Royal Air Force needs a period of stability. Even the bald numbers by means of which the Minister explained the changes in Royal Air Force personnel at the beginning of the debate are themselves sufficient to justify that argument. In 1990, when "Options for Change" was first discussed--at almost exactly this time of year, if my memory serves me correctly--there were 90,000 people in the Royal Air Force. As the Minister told us, by 1999 that figure will have been reduced to 52,500.

By reason of "Options for Change", the defence costs study and other minor reviews, those in the Royal Air Force must sometimes have felt as though they were engaged in a perpetual cultural revolution--and it is a revolution that still has three years to run. The "turbulence"--the euphemism that is sometimes used to describe such change in the services--has a long time to run before we shall be able to say that it has been overcome. In that context it is reasonable to say that, to manage those changes properly, a period of stability is required.

As well as the reduction in personnel, there has been substantial restructuring of the Royal Air Force itself. There has been the merging of 11 Group and 18 Group, the moving of 1 Group headquarters to High Wycombe, and the total disbanding of 2 Group. If we considered the effect of changes of that sort on any comparable civilian organisation, we would not have to think for long before realising that they must have consequences affecting efficiency, capability and morale.

When those changes are coupled with the commitments that the Minister explained in detail--commitments to the implementation force in the former Yugoslavia, to the force keeping guard over Kurdistan and northern Iraq and to that engaged in connection with southern Iraq, plus our continuing commitment in the Falklands and other places--it is hardly surprising that this has been a period of perhaps unprecedented change for the Royal Air Force.

In such a debate it is important to recognise those difficulties, and not simply to pretend that they do not exist, or that they would not in any circumstances have serious consequences. One consequence has certainly arisen. Questions have been asked about the readiness of

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Tornado squadrons in particular. We are told that, on one day in September last year, only six of the 36 GR1 Tornados stationed at Bruggen were serviceable.

For many of us that raises eerie recollections reminiscent of the state of British armoured units in Germany at the time of the Gulf war, when we were able to meet our requirements in the Gulf only by substantially cannibalising the tanks and other armoured vehicles left behind in Germany. The capability of the Royal Air Force is right at the centre of the justification for its existence, so in such a debate it would be wrong not to recognise that the present situation gives rise for concern.

We know that Royal Air Force NATO inspections have been suspended during the transitional period, as have what are called tacevals--tactical evaluations of particular units. RAF Leuchars, a front-line air base in my constituency, used to be subject to regular tacevals, but they have been suspended in an attempt to reduce the burdens on Royal Air Force personnel dealing with the dramatic changes that I have already mentioned.

That is understandable, but inevitably it affects our degree of knowledge about the state of readiness of those units. If we take away regular assessment, we cannot know which areas of activity or potential activity are up to standard and which are not. That is why I say that in such a debate we should not conceal the difficulties. Difficulties can be managed properly only when they have been acknowledged.

Our natural admiration for the Royal Air Force, which has been expressed by almost every hon. Member who has spoken, and I guess will also be expressed by everyone who speaks later, should not lead us to conclude, rather after the manner of Voltaire's "Candide", that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

I remain, as I suspect does the whole House, wholly committed to Eurofighter 2000. It is vital for the Royal Air Force, and unquestionably vital for the United Kingdom aerospace industry. It is a matter of some relief to many of us that the work-share agreement now appears rather more firmly based than previously, and that the co-operation and agreement, between ourselves and Germany in particular, appears to be at a much more acceptable level than it has seemed to be on some of the more fraught occasions since 1992.

As others are, I am attracted by the idea that there may be an additional purchase for the Royal Air Force of up to 70 more Eurofighters than those for which we are presently contracted. I understand that that would mean that, by about 10 years into the next century, the fast jet fleet of the Royal Air Force would consist of the Eurofighter and the Tornado GR4. I can see economies of scale arising from that arrangement. We would not have to retain such a wide range of spares, and we would also have the advantage of specialisation. There would be a whole range of advantages for us if the fleet were configured in that way.

However, there might also be disadvantages in terms of operational capability. If the fleet consisted only of Eurofighters and Tornado GR4s, the flexibility that we presently enjoy would be prejudiced. I therefore hope that, when we think about whether to purchase a further tranche of Eurofighters and to proceed as I understand is under consideration, serious attention will be given to the effect that such a decision could have on the operational capability of the service.

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The single big procurement issue of the moment is the replacement maritime patrol aircraft.

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