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Mr. Bill Walker: My right hon. Friend should remember, when speaking on behalf of British Aerospace, that the collaboration and co-operation on the present generation of modern Harrier aircraft is an example of American and United Kingdom co-operation.

Sir John Cope: Of course, and that is one of the reasons why the AV8B has been extremely important to my constituency, among other things. That is one of the reasons why I am not putting it in absolute terms. Nevertheless, I still believe that we should look to increase European co-operation when we can.

Part of the reason why we joined the European Community in the first place was to increase the size of our home market as the base from which to do business

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with the rest of the world. We sometimes forget that nowadays, when looking at the statistics of trade within Europe. I do not and would not suggest that the European Union is the base from which we should do business in relation to defence. Clearly, the Western European Union is the right body from that point of view. The EU contains some countries that are neutral--why should they not be neutral if they so wish?--and that makes it a different organisation.

One of the areas of least co-operation in the WEU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is in deciding the specification for defence products. Now that there is new vigour in achieving WEU co-operation, more attention should be given to trying to agree the specifications for defence products. Again, that is not a universal point--before any of my hon. Friends intervenes again. I recognise that the Eurofighter is an example of specific agreement on the specification, and the future large aircraft is another, to a degree, but such examples are relatively limited. I gather that our requirements and those of the French on the stand-off missile are similar, but they are not the same at this point. The two Governments and Air Forces are trying to combine, as was done in the case of Eurofighter, where a limited number of countries worked together.

My general point is that companies work right across Europe--

Mr. Wilkinson: The world.

Sir John Cope: And the world. They need to do so. The Governments and air forces are showing that they need to get their specifications closer together, as much as they possibly can. More attention should be given to that aspect of future planning for defence procurement.

6.45 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): The right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) criticised the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, for having made a fairly thin speech. I think that those were the words. [Interruption.] I accept the correction, but I take issue with the comment anyway, because if one measures one performance against the other, frankly there is no competition.

Our pattern of debates on defence issues must be renewed and reconsidered. We currently have a one-day debate each year on each of the three services, followed by a two-day thrash on the defence estimates. We do not get to grips with it. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces has, on more than one occasion this evening, both in his speech and in interventions, stressed the importance of the joint command, joint training and the joint control centre. As we are moving into a joint force activity, especially with the combined joint task force, we should debate defence issues in a less compartmentalised way.

I appeal to both Front Benches to get together, please, and review the approach for next year, because if they do not, they will have to the year after, as that is the way in which we are going, and it makes sense to look at it in that way.

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We have heard much about EFA, CASOMs and SWAARMs--all the acronyms that we are pleased--

Mr. Arbuthnot: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: By all means.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I am sorry to interrupt what will clearly be an interesting speech, but the problem with having a day to debate procurement and then, perhaps, an extra day to debate the armed forces, is that we would lose a day's debate on the armed services. I do not think that anybody would wish to see that.

Mr. Cook: I am asking for a review. I do not want the Minister to have to find the answer this evening. Let us just talk about it through the usual channels before next time. If both Front Benches do not review it next time, they will have to do it the time after that. That is my point.

Let us return to the acrimonious acronyms. I heard a complaint from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who said, "I don't know how long I'm going to be, as I have to cover so many subjects." I think that that is a fault, and I shall not fall into that trap. I want to talk about just one topic in essence, with a small conclusion later.

I shall concentrate on sustainability because I have seen press reports that have said that it is one of the main anxieties of Sir Peter Inge, the Chief of the Defence Staff. I was puzzled by that, so when I attended the plenary session of the North Atlantic Assembly in Athens a couple of weeks ago, I took the opportunity to nobble--I do not know whether it is spelt with a k--Sir Peter at an evening reception at the ambassador's residence, to ask him what he meant.

Sir Peter was very helpful and he said that he thought that our draw-down was at about the right level, that he was satisfied with manning levels and with the equipment that was available, and that we had it about right for now. He said that he was worried about sustainability. I asked him what he meant, and he referred to the number of personnel that we currently have in Northern Ireland--and we intend to maintain that number until we get some sort of a guarantee of a lasting improvement in that awkward climate.

We also talked about our commitments elsewhere in the world. Sir Peter is proud of the fact that 12,000 United Kingdom military personnel are taking part in exercises in the United States. We apparently knocked America for six because they did not think that we were capable of providing a force of that size. That is good--as long as we stay where we are.

The Defence Select Committee recently released a report on what we call overstretch in the military. We heard a considerable amount of evidence, and two days before we published the report, we got the famous add-back. It seems that, even at this stage, add-back is proving hardly sufficient. When we visit units, we get reports not just from rankers, but from senior NCOs and the commissioned ranks, that personnel are being pushed to the limit.

Some weeks ago, we visited a type 23--HMS Lancaster in the Irish sea--and we were told by the senior warrant officers, by commissioned ranks and by the

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stokers that working 17 hours a day, seven days a week, even on a home base, was a regular thing. While there was decent morale in terms of esprit de corps and confidence inone's workmate--one's marra--there was considerable dissatisfaction on the home front because it was thought to be unnecessary in those situations.

I was further disturbed when I visited RAF Marham--similar criticisms were commonplace. That is not the result of a lack of morale or a lack of commitment; the individuals, in all three forces, give their best--more than their best--at all times. How long can we expect that to be sustained? Today we are talking about the Royal Air Force, so I shall keep my comments specific to it. I have mentioned RAF Marham, where we found criticisms about duty hours, guards and the like.

I refer to the Charlie 130s--the famous Hercules that are operating in the Falkland Islands--which are used for refuelling purposes. Some people have said that the Charlie 130s are the result of lash-ups that were designed on the back of a fag packet. They are somewhat Heath Robinson in appearance, they are single-skinned, they have unarmoured flexi-pipes and they are a serious source of risk. They need to be replaced, as they have been working there for an awful long time. I remind hon. Members that the subject of my speech is sustainability. They are sustaining themselves at the moment--but how long can we expect them to do so?

Our visit to Yeovilton allowed us to learn from squadrons 800 and 801, which had been flying Harriers on a six-month-on, six-month-off, basis with the Invincible and the Illustrious in the Adriatic. There was an admission that there were degrees of jading, if not with the aircrews, certainly with the aircraft. We have heard comments from the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), about rolling robbing in the RAF. How long can we allow it to go on?

Most embarrassing of all was when the Defence Select Committee visited Bosnia--I can see smiles on the faces of Government Members; in a way it was humorous, but it could have been somewhat less humorous. We relied on the famous Chinooks, which had undergone their mid-life update. The commanding officer was proud of them, to the point that he said that they were infinitely better than anything that could be produced from the EH101 as a replacement.

We got into the first Chinook and flew about 15 miles before we had to return to transfer to another Chinook. It got us about the country for the next day and a half until, when we sought to depart from the American garrison at Tuzla, it refused even to cough into action. We were rescued by the United States cavalry in the shape of two Black Hawks, and we got back to Split for our connection a great deal faster than we would have done in the Chinook.

The point I am making is simple: how long can we expect equipment and people who are under pressure to carry on? There is not a lack of commitment on the part of those who maintain the equipment, there is not a lack of courage on the part of those who operate it and there is not a lack of dedication. I refer to the case of Corporal Wayne Mills--the first recipient of the conspicuous gallantry medal. He won the medal in Gorazde some time ago, for behaving in a particularly exemplary way in

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protecting his section of eight men when they encountered a numerically superior force of Serbs who were somewhat undisciplined and probably inebriate.

Wayne Mills defended his lads by telling them to leg it for safety and creating a one-man ambush. Wayne Mills, in characteristic British understatement--note that I said British--said that the whole thing was more to do with breathlessness than with bravery. In other words, the lad probably could not have run any further, but he still had the guts to create a one-man ambush out of his own ability.

I am talking about sustainability. They will turn it on in all three forces. Why? Because they take pride in the fact that all three forces are can-do forces, because we, as politicians, send them out to do a job, because that is why they joined the forces and because that is what they are paid to do. It is our responsibility to ensure that, when we send them out to do the job, they have the wherewithal with which to do it. It is as easy as that. A few Government Members are smirking. I am not telling them what I think; I am telling them what Sir Peter Inge, the Chief of the Defence Staff, is anxious about. If he is worried about it, by God, we should be worried about it, too.

Let us not plead breathlessness at a late stage. Corporal Mills did not plead breathlessness. He was a very brave man; they were all brave in that unit, regardless of whether they received awards. I say that with pride, because my son was with them and received a commendation.

Lastly, I wish to discuss the suggested sale of married quarters. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East described the reaction to the suggestion in the services as apprehension. That is the wrong word. I tell the Minister of State for Defence Procurement: the right word is anger--downright anger; anger at lack of consultation, anger at an unheeding response, anger at the risk to which those people feel they will be put.

I add my support to the idea that the current voids should be put on the open market. I believe that 10,000 or 11,000 voids would be snapped up at £10,000 apiece. I add another suggestion. Many local authorities have written to the Government, pleading for the move to be stopped because they want the opportunity to take those properties into their housing stock. If those local authorities were allowed to put to use some of the assets that have accrued as a result of the sale of council housing, the MOD's problem could be resolved a great deal more rapidly than it previously supposed.

If that cannot be the case, I say to the Minister, "Take your current idea of selling married quarters on the open market and dump it; forget it altogether."

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