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8.53 pm

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre): I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) and pleased that he has had such a pleasant time with the RAF under the parliamentary scheme that we have with the armed forces. I shall not dwell too long on what he said, but I want to make one point in relation to the accidents that he mentioned.

During his time with the Air Force, the hon. Gentleman may not have picked up the fact that a continuous inquiry is being held into the relationships between different accidents, as well as near-accidents and incidents. Every such incident, near-accident and crash is looked at to see whether something has gone wrong which could affect other aircraft in that fleet or with that role. Therefore, the idea of another special inquiry is superfluous. I am confident that that exercise is continuing all the time. If there are lessons to be learned from the spate of accidents, they have already been learned or certainly will be learnt when the full findings of those accidents are made available in the normal way.

A number of other speakers tonight made a series of requests of my hon. Friend the Minister, and I shall start with a personal one. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) said, he is a member of the Royal Air Force Reserve, as I am, and a pilot. I have been personally affected by the changes in the Royal Air Force over the past two years. The aircraft that I have been

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flying for the past 19 years sadly left service with the RAF on 31 March after a period of 49 years, 10 and a half months. It was perhaps a little churlish of those in charge of the operation not to postpone that for an extra six weeks, to ensure that the aircraft had been in service and had flown for 50 years.

I have been forced in my middle age to learn to fly a new aeroplane. I was slightly worried by what my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside said about the possibility of the air experience flights and the university air squadrons having yet another new aircraft, as I can see myself having to prepare for that in a special way. All I ask of my hon. Friend the Minister is to let us have a little information about that as soon as possible, as I should like to know whether, in the near future, I shall be required to go through the exercise that I have been through over the past month yet again.

Compared with previous years, the RAF has, over the past year, been in the news a great deal. As we have heard, the news has not always been welcome, and it has not been an easy year for the RAF. What is sometimes forgotten is that, when politicians sign off decisions, service men have to implement them and do so for a considerable period. As Lord Craig said in the House of Lords on Monday in another debate, the devil is often in the detail.

It is a tribute to the service men of all three services, but particularly the RAF, as it is the subject of tonight's debate, that they have got on with the job and done what has been required of them in a year when manpower has been reducing rapidly and many non-core activities have been contractorised. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for North Tayside and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), and I worry that we might have gone a bit too far.

I very much want to see the new Valley contract operate properly and successfully. I am certain that the people employed will be first-class, but we need to look closely in the medium and long term to ensure that we have the balance right.

That also relates to flying training, for which an element of discipline is necessary. That has to be taught at some stage during training, but if there are too many civilian instructors, it will be harder to do so. We must be careful and analyse in detail the effects of the changes. One can easily add up the figures, save money on flying hours at the beginning of training and turn out a pilot with wings, and show that one has saved the taxpayer money in doing so, but one must then see whether that individual is as effective on his squadron as his predecessor was two or three years before who went through the previous system.

As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out. We may well have got it right. We may well have saved money. We may well have retained the operational effectiveness of which the Air Force is rightly proud, but I want squadron commanders in front-line air squadrons, front-line aircraft, to tell the Ministry of Defence how the new pilots who have been trained in the new ways are performing; whether they need further operational training to bring them up to the required standard; or whether they are achieving that standard just as quickly--I hope that they are--as their predecessors did a few years ago. Only then will we know whether the changes have been successful. I hope that they are, because we want to move forward, but we should not count our chickens just yet.

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Also occurring this year--I hope that it is transitory and will not continue--is the changeover from manning by airmen to manning by contractors. Undoubtedly, gaps will be created as a result. We have already seen that. The RAF, quite rightly, has curtailed activities that are not essential to its front-line duties. I fully approve of that, as it is a reasonable response. It is a difficult year, and I look forward to the time when most of the contracts can be awarded and we can create more stability in the running of the armed forces, particularly the Royal Air Force.

Indeed, while suffering a cut of 42 per cent. in its strength over seven or eight years, the RAF now operates in more locations overseas than it did before the change. Its tasks are greater, while its resources are fewer. It is worth saying that the RAF has always had a tradition of getting on with the job and doing it well, and that is precisely what is happening this year in the units that I have visited, in which there is still the same professionalism and commitment to the job. A good illustration of that, which has already been mentioned, was the Red Arrows' highly successful trip around the world, which did much for the quality of the RAF, its professionalism and, indeed, the serviceability of the excellent Hawk aircraft they flew. They performed well, and I am certain that that will lead to many exports.

For the reforms that have taken place to bed down, it is important that we have the period of stability that we are always promised. I agree with a number of hon. Members, from both sides of the House, who said that we should look more closely at the proposal to sell off the married quarters estate. I shall not dwell on the matter. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East(Mr. Campbell) was right. I believe that we can gain what we need by getting rid of the vacant quarters and at the same time provide the necessary resources to upgrade quarters that are below standard, without having, at this stage at least, to go through the much larger operation of selling the whole estate, which is envisaged. In a slightly parochial sense, the RAF has always spent a bit more than the Army on its estate, with the result that it is likely that the proceeds used to upgrade the estate will go in the direction of the Army rather than the Air Force, although that is probably right if one is to bring all the quarters up to a particular level.

In talking about stability, I shall make one other point. The Labour party--I welcome this--tries to suggest that defence is an issue on which we can combine, that there should not be a diversity of view in any sense and that it is an issue on which we agree. I would like to see, in that spirit of bipartisanship, the Labour party drop the silly idea of a further defence review. I cannot think of anything more likely to create the very conditions that we and the Labour party least want to see.

A defence review would not promote stability. It would promote anxiety across the whole rank structure as to what would be the next change. If the Labour party is serious, it should say, "The armed forces are about the right size; we have got it about right. We shall not have a defence review--we shall have to make the odd change here or there, but we shall not have a review." I do not understand why those on the Labour Front Bench cannot make--or have not made--that commitment. I hope that they make that commitment later tonight.

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I had planned on making a few remarks about air power. However, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces--who is a former Guards officer--made a tremendously supportive speech about the use of air power, and I was encouraged by that. I am unable to add anything to what my hon. Friend said about the importance of air power in the future.

If aeroplanes and air forces are to carry out the tasks that they are asked to do, they must have the right weapons and platforms. Eurofighter is of vital importance to the future of the Royal Air Force. Despite some of the knocking copy that we have seen in the media,the programme is doing relatively well compared with previous programmes. The workshare arrangements seem to have been worked out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work that he has done in that area--he has ensured that the Germans understand that, if they buy fewer aircraft, they cannot expect the share of the work that they had in the past. That has been a highly successful outcome and I am pleased about the new management structures, which may even reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that the programme has some chance of succeeding in the future--he seems to think that it has not in the past.

Mr. Wilkinson: I have confidence in the aeroplane, but I query the need for a European Armaments Agency. That is a separate issue from the management of the aircraft.

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