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Mr. Mans: I am interested in what my hon. Friend has to say about the WEU. Does he agree that, if we want European states to collaborate, we have a perfectly good way of doing so through NATO? The WEU is surely not the way forward.

Mr. Lidington: The Government are right to make it clear that NATO should remain the cornerstone of the western Atlantic alliance, but it is compatible with that principle for the Government also to try to strengthen the European pillar within that alliance. The recent White Paper on the intergovernmental conference proposed that we look for a strengthened role for the WEU as one way of giving effect to that policy.

I am pleased that we have seen some fruit from our efforts to woo France back into the main stream of the western alliance. It was a difficult courtship, conducted with the delicacy and the restraint appropriate to a Jane Austen novel. I am glad that we seem to have received a favourable response from Paris, although, as some Opposition Members have said, there is still a long way to go.

In addition to the importance that the Government rightly place on the Anglo-French relationship, I hope that they will have regard to the need to bring Germany more fully into the defensive arrangements of the Atlantic alliance. I know that there are differences between our approach and that of the current German Government, who hope to develop a defence role European Union. I personally do not think that that is desirable.

Speaking to younger German politicians, one realises that members of the Bundestag are quite rightly confident about their national identity, and take an understandable pride in the achievements of a democratic Germany during the past50 years. They accept that one aspect of their maturity as an advanced democracy will be to play a more active role as a partner in western defence arrangements in the future. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government will be able to strengthen our relationship with Germany in the years to come.

8.35 pm

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Mr. Hugh Bayley (York):

A characteristic of our debates on the armed forces is that many things are said on which there is agreement. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), who is well informed and speaks with great experience on these matters. As always, I learned something from listening to him. He said, rightly, that one of the things that the House must be concerned about is that relatively few Members entering the House for the first time have served in the armed forces.

The hon. Member for North Tayside said that that small number were supplemented by some hon. Members who take a particularly close interest in the armed forces, and mentioned in that context my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has a long-standing interest in the RAF. He forgot, however, that my hon. Friend has served in the RAF. I know that because I travel to and from Yorkshire with him frequently. As a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, he suggested to me that I might usefully spend some time in the scheme. I did so last year and the year before and, as someone who has not served in the armed forces, I learned a great deal from it.

I want to say some things that the Government may not agree with, but I base my remarks on what I have learnt during my visits to a considerable number of RAF bases, and I believe that this needs to be said. I am sorry to have to say it, but this has been a bad year for the RAF in terms of the number of aircraft that it has lost. In five months, the RAF and the Royal Navy have lost 11 aircraft, and two air crew from the RAF and two from the Royal Navy have lost their lives. That is a considerable number, and compares with the six aircraft lost by the RAF during the Gulf war.

In his opening speech, the Minister suggested that it was irresponsible to ask questions about what has been happening and why. I do not share that view. The House should be asking deep, serious and penetrating questions about these accidents. I do not intend to detain the House for too long, but we should remind ourselves of the aircraft that have been lost.

In January, two Tornado F3s collided in mid air in the middle of a training exercise. The following day, one of the attack GR1 Tornados was lost in Germany, and a Jaguar was lost that month as well. In February, a Hawk aircraft crashed on take-off at RAF Valley. The pilot, an experienced man, was killed. The press reports about that accident suggested that the reason for the crash may have been that the ailerons had been disconnected for servicing and had not been reconnected before the flight. I do not expect Ministers to comment on that until the air investigation report is published, and when it is published it will, of course, be made available to hon. Members in the Library.

Two Royal Navy Sea Harriers were lost, together with an RAF Harrier and another Tornado GR1 that month. Last month, a Tucano, from RAF Linton-on-Ouse near my constituency, crashed in Wetwang in Humberside and, last Monday, a Hawk aircraft was lost at an air display in Portugal.

The losses in the five months of this year have been twice the average rate of loss in the past four years. In his opening speech, the Minister, who is now in his place, said that those losses were nothing other than an unfortunate coincidence; that the loss of those aircraft and

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lives was simply bad luck. That could be the explanation, because accidents by their nature do not happen in a regular cycle.

The figures for air accidents are fickle and they go up and down. In 1991, the armed forces had a bad year and lost 20 aircraft, but those figures--in an especially bad year--showed a lower attrition rate than was suffered in the first five months of this year. Of course, five years ago, the armed forces had more aircraft in service than now.

Of the 11 aircraft that have been lost--nine RAF aircraft and two Royal Navy aircraft so far this year--10 were fast jets. In 1992, the Royal Air Force had 647 front-line fast jets in operational use or in in-use reserve. Now 580 fast jets are in use. In 1992, three fast jets were lost, or one for each four months of the year, but in 1996, so far, 10 fast jets have been lost, or two per month. The loss rate is eight times higher than in 1992.

It is right and acceptable for the Minister to hope that the high loss rate that we have had in recent months is just bad luck. I, too, hope that that is the cause. I hope that the loss rate will right itself in time and that it is an unfortunate statistical quirk, but it is irresponsible to assume that the only cause is bad luck that will right itself. We must consider the alternative explanations and discount them only when we have firm evidence that we should. When an accident happens, there is a thorough investigation and the reports of those investigations are placed in the Library. Each of those investigations considers a single accident.

I was not convinced, by the Minister's intervention in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), that sufficient attention is paid to trends from one accident to another and whether there are any common factors. My hon. Friend was right to say that a special inquiry should be set up to consider whether there are some common factors in the high loss rate.

I understand that none of the aircraft lost this year has been maintained by contractors. We have had evidence that contractors can fall down on the job. All hon. Members present will know about the Airworks problem when 18 Tornado aircraft were damaged, causing a repair bill of some £100 million. The same company damaged 11 Hercules aircraft. According to the Defence Select Committee's report of December last year, the company caused serious damage to the aircraft by cutting away load-bearing stringers, omitting fasteners, deviating from drawings and drilling holes in the air frames in the wrong places.

I shall give the House a long quotation--longer than I would normally use, so I ask for the House's forbearance--from the evidence given by Hunting plc to the Defence Select Ctte in its inquiry into market testing. Hunting plc said:

The cost-cutting approach that contractors necessarily follow is copied by RAF engineering teams who seek to retain work in house, as my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) pointed out. That, after all,

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is the very intention and purpose of contractorisation--to consider whether the job is being done in house as cost-effectively as possible. But the House must ask at what point the competitor pressures and contract culture start to undermine standards of RAF engineering.

A second hypothesis has been put forward by certain hon. Members about a possible--I say no more than possible--cause for the current high incidence of aircraft loss. That is that the defence drawdown has reached a point at which it is beginning to compromise the operational effectiveness of the armed forces and the RAF in particular. I was sorry to hear the Minister suggest that to raise that issue is an irresponsible act by a few maverick Labour Members. The same fear has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and one of them is present tonight.

The Independent, on 28 February 1996, in a report on a meeting, stated:

From the context of the article, I believe that one of those who attended that meeting, and who was also probably the provider of the information to the journalist, is here on the Conservative Benches tonight.

During my year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I became acutely aware of the enormous pressure on those serving in the Royal Air Force. Hon. Members have made that point already today and I will not dwell on it. The RAF is now smaller than at any time since the second world war. In March, 5,600 officers and men were made redundant from the RAF, although the RAF is now deployed in more places overseas in an operational role than at any time since the second world war. I will not list all the places but during my time on the parliamentary scheme I had the opportunity and privilege to visit the RAF detachments at Palermo, Gioia del Colle and Aviano to see what life was like and what the job--at least, the job at the base--entailed. I also observed the morale of the people involved in the front line on operational duties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North(Mr. Cook) spoke about the huge pressure on front-line jet pilots, who spend perhaps 200 days a year away from home in either a front-line operational role or training; they are away from their homes and families. When a detachment is deployed, it is not just the air crew who go--engineering staff and ground crew provide back-up.

There are 450 RAF personnel at Gioia, and most of the air crew are deployed for a three-month period. One evening in the sergeant's mess--the bar in the big hotel where most of the NCOs were billeted--a young airman told me that his wife had given birth to a baby shortly after he had come out on deployment. He would not have an opportunity to go home to see his wife or baby for two months; it was impossible for him to go home for a weekend while on an operational assignment. Those who have served in the armed forces will know that that is forces' life, but it seems to me, as someone who has not served in the forces, a hard burden to bear.

However, if someone signs up to the armed forces, that is part of the deal. If someone is deployed away from home for a quarter of the year--that is the average--that is what he comes to expect. But as the pressure to be

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away on operational duties more frequently steps up, the pressure on the individual and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North said, on that person's family, increases too.

The problems of pressure are compounded by problems of job insecurity and lack of promotion prospects. At RAF Odiham I met an extremely able young aircraft engineer who had served in his rank for seven years. He was told that he had no prospect of promotion; in the past he would have been promoted two or three years earlier. That happens not just at NCO level, but at officer level.Hon. Members have talked of the numbers of middle-ranking officers leaving the RAF because there is no a career ahead of them if they stay. Morale is, to say the least, fragile.

On 25 February this year an RAF officer was quoted in The Observer as saying:

The RAF trains harder and flies better than any air force in the world. It is an incredibly valuable and prized national asset but it is currently being squeezed from both sides: its budget and its manpower are being cut while its operational obligations are increasing.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East(Mr. Campbell), who is no longer in his place, reminded the House that NATO inspections of RAF bases have been suspended. Annual formal inspections of RAF bases have also been abandoned. Participation in the royal tournament has been reduced to a minimum because the resources are no longer there. That reflects the pincer pressure--the RAF has greater commitments and fewer resources. The strain is beginning to show. The House and the Government need to answer the question: are we now, and have we been, expecting and requiring the Royal Air Force to do too much with too little for too long?

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