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7.18 pm

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): I shall follow up several points raised by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). First, I was particularly interested in his comments about training. I recall suggesting in debate two or three years ago that elementary flying training within the service was not simply about teaching people how to fly: it was about teaching people to fly into very hostile environments. The traditions, record and indoctrination that are necessary parts of military training confirm the hon. Gentleman's argument.

As to the reserve service, I hope that civilian instructors--who may not have received the same training as the hon. Gentleman and one or two other Conservative Members--will not become reservists as an excuse for administrative convenience.

The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the Auxiliary Air Force. He will also acknowledge that the sergeant pilots of the Volunteer Reserve made what was perhaps a greater contribution in Fighter Command during the second world war.

I wish, however, that he had continued his historical analysis. There were those who would have threatened the independence of the Royal Air Force, but Trenchard convinced them that the RAF could police the empire very cheaply, and that it would be cheaper to have a few squadrons of biplanes patrolling Kurdistan or the Himalayan areas of the Indian subcontinent than to have large numbers of infantry--whether British or imperial troops--stationed there.

Without that, it is unlikely that the Air Force would have survived the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s. However, it did, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, we now have the oldest independent air force in the world. It is one of enormously high quality, to which the rest of the world looks with admiration. Is standing is probably higher abroad than it is in England. One reason for that was that, until the Minister's speech this afternoon, Government tributes to the Air Force over recent years have been somewhat grudging.

Although the debate so far has been forward-looking, we have all referred to the mistake that was made five or six years ago at the end of the cold war. All Governments in the west, including ours, reached out to grab the peace dividend because they thought that it meant there would be peace. Certainly, once the iron curtain had fallen and the Warsaw pact had disintegrated, there was no prospect of huge armies surging across the north German plain, the response to which was the Royal Air Force's principal obligation for most of the post-war period.

However, the end of the cold war and the grasping of the peace dividend was followed by an extremely large number of new commitments that presented new

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problems, anxieties and costs that may not have been anticipated. Ten years ago, the Royal Air Force had far fewer commitments than those to which a response has been given in the past 12 months.

The RAF has been operating in more locations during the past 12 months than it did at the height of the cold war. The Minister said that they were low-key commitments, and perhaps they were. They may also have been a great deal less comfortable and hospitable than those to which the service was accustomed during the cold war. Shrinking numbers of aircraft, squadrons and personnel have had to bear an increased burden.

It is all very well for the Minister to pay tribute to the RAF, and I welcome that, but the fact remains that the air crew, and the ground engineers and communication people who travel with them, spend an inordinate amount of time away from base and their wives and families. Recently, I saw a squadron diary showing how many weeks in the year the pilots, engineers and communication personnel spent away from base. It is not fair.

It is all very well to pay tribute to them for their dedication, but they pay a bitter price. It may be that the price they have paid is the reason why a substantial proportion of quite senior officers find it necessary to leave. The Air Force has lost some excellent people in the past few years, and we should ask why.

We are asking too much--not of them, as they are professionals, but of their families. They tend to be family men. The public image of an RAF pilot is a fresh-faced 19-year-old, but he is probably in his 30s, married with 2.1 children, and he likes to see his wife and children occasionally. More importantly, they want to see him. I trust that we will see a more positive and healthy approach from the Government.

Over the past few years, the Government have taken the lead in Europe's response to crisis. Perhaps they feel that, as a member of United Nations Security Council, we have to take the lead in accepting obligations and commitments although other wealthier members of the western alliance in Europe have been slow to offer a meaningful response. Perhaps they are incapable of offering one. If we are to accept those commitments, we have to speak a little more bluntly to some of our European colleagues about fair deals.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood has joined us on the delegation to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. He may recall the meeting at Church house a few months ago when we were discussing the future organisation of security in Europe. A number of delegations from other countries--left, right and centre politically--spoke about the need for adequate logistics, training and police and medical staff. I moved an amendment stating that, if they planned to discuss proper commitments and undertakings, they would have to have people capable of firing guns and serving at the sharp end of conflict. The amendment was defeated.

Our allies are quite happy for Britain to provide a large proportion of the troops currently serving in Bosnia. The hon. Gentleman may recall that, in April, when we were in Strasbourg, it was proposed that the IFOR troops should remain in Bosnia a great deal longer. I was asked to move a amendment to that effect, but the people who asked me to do so represented countries that had no personnel there.

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I asked why I should expect my constituents to serve in Bosnia and expect Britain to provide a quarter of NATO troops, when they were not sending anyone at all. "We are behind you," they said. "Yes, I have noticed that," I replied, "and I shall not move the amendment."I did not do so. However, we may have to accept there will be an extension. That will give the British Government an opportunity to speak bluntly, but unfortunately they are not doing so.

On Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence addressed the WEU assembly in Paris. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), who has replaced me as leader of the Labour delegation because I retire at the next election, has persistently followed up the argument that I had been advancing for some years--along with hon. Members on both sides of the House--about breaches of sanctions in the former Yugoslavia.

About four years ago, the Italian Minister told a Conservative Member and me that the Council of Ministers had all the information about breaches of sanctions, but would not tells us, or do anything about them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hodge Hill has taken over that initiative, but we still have not learnt anything more. He raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Defence, who unfortunately is not here, but no doubt will hear about it later.

When he was asked why the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence had not replied to my hon. Friend's persistent pursuit of the matter, the Secretary of State's response in Paris was to blame the nationalised British Post Office. That is hardly the mature comment that one would have expected from him in such an environment.

I also endorse the point raised by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood about the future equipment of the service being of the highest quality. We give our service men inordinately heavy tasks, and we ask a great deal of them. It is essential that they have the proper equipment. Much of the equipment is British or part-British, and it is superb, but the Air Force should not be seen merely as a customer.

If it is to be a customer, however, privatisation should not be taken so far that the Air Force lacks the capacity to be an intelligence customer. Last year, I asked the Minister to ensure that the Air Force retained sufficient capacity in its operations to be able to judge whether the taxpayer was getting a good bargain and to perceive whether the contractor was providing adequately for training--an important matter, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I have a number of questions. I do not want to speak too long, but may I ask the Minister, in his reply to the debate, not to overlook the future large aircraft. I went to a briefing across the road attended by other hon. Members, where the French advised us that it was our duty to buy the FLA. The committee of the WEU on which I serve went to Toulouse, where we were given a programme and a timetable for the development of the FLA. I made the following remark: "Your timetable shows the FLA entering Royal Air Force squadron service 18 months before it has its maiden flight." Their response was, "We do a great deal by simulators nowadays."

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The fact remains that we were properly committed to replacing, as was necessary, at the earliest possible stage, the older Hercules with the C130J. I spoke strongly in favour of that partial replacement, but the Government hit on what seemed a satisfactory compromise by replacing the older Hercules with the FLA.

Where, however, are we going now? Chirac seems likely to cancel the FLA. If we had done what the French had wanted, we would not have the C130Js, but would be waiting for the FLAs, which, even if they did replace the Hercules squadrons at Lyneham, would not do so for another 10 years. Meanwhile, the Hercules, which entered squadron service in 1964, bringing Britain back from its east of Suez policy, would have continued to serve long after it had reached its sell-by date.

I hope that the FLA will fly and that the Royal Air Force will be able to use it, but, even if it does, what will the Minister do about adequate heavy-lift capacity? What is going to lift the helicopters and all their appurtenances, which will be required in future regions of conflict in Africa, Europe, Montserrat or wherever the Minister may guess they might be? The Air Force will have to have such capacity. Europe may not be able to provide it, but it can provide the replacement air-to-air refuelling aircraft. There is no reason why the airbus could not be reasonably and economically converted to serve that purpose to replace the tankers currently in use by the air force.

I give this advice to the Minister. A year or so ago, I conducted--imperfectly, because, for one reason, of delays in some member states' response--an analysis of the capabilities of western European air forces. I found, for example, that the vast majority of western European air forces had no experience or ability in air-to-air refuelling, a singular omission; that many air forces had no all-weather-strike capacity, which is not acceptable if Europe is to provide properly for its security; that their capacity to undertake intelligence gathering and reconnaissance operations of the sort that the Sentry and Nimrod undertake was, in most cases, non-existent; that some of their pilots fly only when the weather is fine, during the day, perhaps after a good lunch; and that there is an inordinate number of different types of aircraft.

As ours is the most admired service, as we bear most of the burdens and as we serve as the model for and are admired by Europe--as the Minister has said, people come rushing from Europe to see how our contracting and hard-pressed service is operating--we are entitled to say, "Don't expect Britain to continue to bear burdens that you must share more frequently than you are doing at present."

If we do not say that, it will be unfair on the air crews and ground staff who serve them, who know very well that that is the position, but who are too discreet and too loyal to say it. We are imposing too much on them, which is not fair. It is time that the Government sought to ensure a much fairer deal in the responsibilities for air operations in the western alliance. Until that is achieved, we are entitled to feel aggrieved.

May I make one mischievous suggestion? The Government's current position with regard to Brussels and European negotiations is absurd. It is equivalent to a child taking its bat home because someone has bowled him out. However, I have sympathy with Conservative Members who think that we should show some criticism of the fact that one or two member states have been less helpful than they might have been; perhaps Germany is one of them.

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As a tribute to the enormous sacrifices that were made in the history of the oldest independent air force in the world, and as a little reminder of the genuine independence that Britain displayed between 1940 and 1944, why not give Bomber Command the medal that it should have received after the second world war? Go back to negotiations, but make a little gesture. It would be much more sensible.

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