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Mr. Mans: I apologise to my hon. Friend.

I shall refer briefly to some of the other programmes. Many hon. Members have referred to the criteria for the Nimrod replacement. I acknowledge the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside and of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East on ensuring that we have the right aircraft.

We had a similar debate about 25 years ago, and the Royal Air Force decided on a pure jet solution. We have to ask why we want to change our minds. It raises a number of questions, such as whether the right decision was made all those years ago, to go for a particular concept, which was different from the concept that the Americans went for at that time. However, I noted that the Japanese Government recently said that their new maritime patrol aircraft should be a pure jet and not a turbo-prop.

I suggest caution in relation to export potential. We all want to export and to ensure that the aircraft that the RAF buys has export potential. However, we must not be beguiled by the idea that a huge number of orders will flow directly from a particular decision being made. Export potential is important, but it does not happen quite so soon and is not as lucrative as people make out when the original decision is made.

We need decisions on the two missiles that have already been mentioned today. I hope that those decisions--as well as the decision on the Nimrod replacement--will be made before the summer recess. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood about the missiles. I believe that there is a lot of sense in some of the collaboration that is taking place, provided that it can be done cost-effectively.

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When it comes to the conventionally armed stand-off missile, we should look at the opportunities of moving it forward, so that we can get the benefits of a reduction in research and development expenditure when we combine with NATO and others to produce new systems.

I hope that we can find out exactly what the private finance initiative is that is associated with university air squadron and air experience flight aircraft. That is important, because it is a way of ensuring that, in future, cadets and students at universities get a bit more flying than they have had until now.

It is dangerous for politicians to make predictions, but I make one tonight about air power in all its facets. The Air Force has not gone through a very easy patch in the past year or so. The very basics of the use of air power have been challenged by, I suggest, many people ignorant of those matters, who have drawn completely the wrong conclusions. I was very pleased by the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood made on that subject.

I believe that, in future, air power will be more rather than less important. It allows one to project military force over great distances speedily. Technology is driving its capabilities forward very fast. In practice, politicians find it an effective way of responding to crises speedily--and with a minimum of casualties, which, although it is always important, is even more important in our multi-media age than it was previously.

I strongly believe, therefore, that despite the difficulties in the past year or two, the Royal Air Force has a great future.

9.11 pm

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham): I am very pleased to be able to speak for just a few minutes at the end of this important debate.

I was almost put off by the enormous experience of my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood(Mr. Wilkinson), for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans), who have just spoken from their experience as serving RAF personnel. My experience of the Royal Air Force was confined to only 18 hours of dual flying in the university air squadron before the RAF decided that a 6 ft 5 in, substantially framed gentleman in a flying helmet and a Chipmunk were completely incompatible.

Over the years, my constituency has led me to speak frequently in the Army debate, the Royal Navy debate and the defence estimates debate, although infrequently in the Royal Air Force debate. We have had Chatham dockyard in my constituency, and we still have the Royal School of Military Engineering. I believe that the nearest RAF establishment was at RAF Detling, which is quite a long way outside the constituency, but we do have a substantial interest in the defence industry.

Shorts started its life in the Medway towns, and we still have one of our leading-edge technological firms in GEC-Marconi Avionics. There is scarcely a procurement project that does not involve GEC in some consortium or other, and I make no apologies for pushing its claims for the replacement maritime patrol aircraft. I think that it offers the only new aircraft among the three contenders. The idea of refurbishing a 25-year-old airframe appears highly speculative.

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I have visited GEC. The company has an impressive simulator of its mission system avionics suite. I understand that the combination of the P3 aircraft with GEC avionics makes a formidable contender for that contract. I hope that, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement takes that difficult decision--which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre needs to be taken very soon--he will take into account the fact that that aircraft is likely to have a long service, and make up his mind as to which will be the best option for long service with economic through-life costs and so on, and not simply choose on the basis of a figure for initial purchase.

My final point concerns married quarters. A substantial garrison is situated in my constituency--although it is not a Royal Air Force establishment--comprising several married quarters. My constituency home backs on to married quarters. Service personnel in my constituency are worried that, although my hon. Friend wishes to ensure that those who are entitled to married quarters should continue to have that entitlement, little has been said about availability. Entitlement does not guarantee availability.

I am particularly worried that we may build in unnecessary rigidities in terms of married quarters. I am concerned about potential purchasers' proposals to dispose of married quarters at the time of renewal if they wish either to develop the site or to offer a comparable alternative site. I am worried that comparable sites may be remote from the establishment that the married quarters serve, which could affect the ability of wives and families to find work in the area. If the purchaser decides to develop a married quarters town site--there is such a site in my constituency--alternative provision some distance from that site would involve substantial hardship for families.

I believe that the proposal should be rethought. I have seen my hon. Friend's letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who is very interested in the issue and had hoped to participate in the debate. I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the matter and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to rethink the proposal to sell the entire stock.

I understand the problem caused by the 11,000 voids. Are those voids associated with closed establishments? Do they relate to married quarters that have no future use and could be sold off readily? Are they voids within established estates around existing and continuing garrisons, such as the one in my constituency? I should like answers to those questions. Some of those 11,000 voids could be sold in order to raise substantial capital, which would be sufficient to renovate some of the estates that I know are in bad shape. Some married quarters in the Medway towns are in a poor state and need capital spent on them. I question whether my right hon. and hon. Friends' proposal is the best way of raising the necessary capital.

9.17 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen): I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that the standard and the quality of the speeches in today's debate has been very high. That is due in part to hon. Members' associations with the Royal Air Force. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) served in the RAF and my hon.

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Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley) spent some time with the RAF as part of the armed servicesscheme. The hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood(Mr. Wilkinson), for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans) brought to the House a diversity and richness of experience that has made the debate particularly interesting.

In addition, a number of hon. Members have in their constituencies RAF stations or defence industries which employ many people. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces began the debate, quite correctly, by referring to the recent activities of the Royal Air Force in Bosnia--my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North(Mr. Cook) gave a vivid account of his experiences in the former Yugoslavia--in the Gulf and in Northern Ireland. Since the unfortunate ending of the ceasefire, the RAF has played a very important role--as it always has--in preserving peace in the Province.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth, among others, said, the world has changed considerably in the past decade and defence cuts were inevitable. However, the scale has been pretty enormous. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, said that morale has inevitably suffered because of the cuts. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East(Mr. Campbell) spoke about turbulence in the Royal Air Force, and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood also mentioned those difficulties.

By the year 2000, the Royal Air Force will be down to 55,000 men and women. That represents a 38 per cent. reduction in manpower. I agree that defence is a matter of consensus, but at the last general election the Conservative manifesto stated:

The Government have exceeded that.

The hon. Member for Wyre, who is not in his place, said that there was no need for another defence review. Tonight is not the time to go into the rights or wrongs of that, but some of the more devastating effects of the cuts might have been less devastating had there been a well thought-out defence review as we have suggested.

By March 1997, there will have been 8,600 redundancies in the Royal Air Force--the largest cut since the second world war. Many of those redundancies are compulsory and 5,000 of them occurred in the current year. Strike command is particularly affected, contributing the largest number at just over 3,000. My hon. Friends the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) all referred to the effect that that has on RAF stations up and down the country. Stations at Brize Norton, Lyneham, Brampton, St. Athan, Cranwell and others are due to lose considerable numbers of personnel. Some operational stations were better stocked in 1935 than they are in 1996.

I would like to give the House the first quote of the evening from the Royal Air Force News, which is a semi-official newspaper. This is what it said about the redundancies:

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    That is not right. If, instead of Treasury-led cuts, there had been a proper review of our defence in terms of resources and matching commitments, it would have been a different story.

I should like to quote the hon. and learned Member for Fife, from last year's RAF debate.

    "I do not believe that we could contemplate any further reduction in funding for the RAF, without affecting its front-line strength. There is a limit to the reductions of the numbers of personnel or the contracting out of support services that can be made".--[Official Report, 4 May 1995; Vol. 259, c. 491.]

We all agree with those sentiments and a number of hon. Members referred to them this evening.

A year or two ago, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon publicly disagreed with the Treasury--and then had to publicly retract that disagreement--when the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who happens now to be the Secretary of State for Defence, was asking for cuts. The air chief marshal was particularly concerned about the comparison that was made--presumably by spin doctors--with the Israeli air force. He is reported as saying:

That is perfectly right. I sometimes wonder how such stories get about. Labour Members have mentioned and will mention again the advice that the Secretary of State for Defence receives. Perhaps some of these advisers were at last night's infamous party, and we wait for the Minister to give us some explanation of what happened there. I refer to Mr. David Hart, who, in The Spectator on6 February 1993, attacked the RAF as top heavy,

    "with too many command groups controlling too few front-line squadrons."

I do not deny that all sorts of people can have views on the RAF, but in an article in The Observer in January this year, Mr. Hart was described as

    "unelected, without the responsibilities of a civil servant and lacking any military experience. Mr Hart is a millionaire property developer, failed playwright and novelist."

I hardly think that such people should be providing advice to the MOD and House of Commons.

I note that, in December, The Daily Telegraph, not normally a friend of my party, managed to discover a Christmas card sent out by Mr. Hart, on which he was dressed as a pilot. The newspaper said:

People such as Mr. Hart should return to their previous professions and leave giving advice to people in the armed forces and the MOD who know what they are talking about.

Mr. Hart was probably responsible for initially advising that we should lease American second-hand airplanes--which eventually did not come--instead of updating Tornado F3s. I am delighted that hon. Members on both sides of the House were responsible, I hope, for changing the minds of the MOD and Ministers, who sensibly take no notice of people such as that.

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We have talked a lot in the debate about the relationship between the defence industry and the MOD and procurement. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will make announcements on the replacement maritime patrol aircraft. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East and the hon. Members for North Tayside and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) have all referred to that.

Perhaps the Minister will make an announcement on the future large aircraft. My hon. Friends the Members for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) talked at some length and with great feeling about the FLA, and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside discussed its effect on his constituency, which I hope to visit fairly soon. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening. Has France announced that she will pull out of the programme? What will happen? Will he look into that? What pressures are there in the negotiations that are proceeding between ourselves and the French Government?

The right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who has now left the Chamber, talked about the relationship between procurement decisions and the defence industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West said, it is about time that we thought about that relationship. When the MOD makes decisions, they have enormous consequences for employment prospects, research and development and this country's manufacturing base. There is a unique relationship between the two. All hon. Members believe that that is the case.

My hon. Friend the Member for York in particular and the hon. Member for Wyre referred to the tragic and costly aeroplane crashes. I understand what the Minister was saying: that there is not necessarily a link between the 11 crashes. They have cost lives and nearly£200 million. We must consider the fact that that compares with an average annual loss of 14.2 aircraft between 1991 and 1995 and that the losses occurred in a front-line fleet that is approximately one third smaller than in 1991. I do not know whether training cuts or "over-stretch" have anything to do with it. I do know this. When the individual inquiries are opened, it will behove the Ministry of Defence to consider the incidents as one to discover whether there is a link. If there is, Ministers should tell the House what must be done. We cannot answer those questions.

My hon. Friends the Members for Warley, West and for Alyn and Deeside mentioned RAF St. Athan, which is also of interest to me as a Welsh Member of Parliament. We have been told that market testing is important to cut costs and ensure that money is properly spent. That may be true in some cases but has proved devastatingly wrong for St. Athan. The Minister has a duty to the House and the nation to say exactly how much money taxpayers must provide to pay for what has happened there.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to the Bett report in respect of married quarters. I assume that the House will be informed of the Government's response before the summer recess, because that report is of enormous importance to all the armed forces and especially to the RAF. Pensions are a significant and worrying issue. On 30 May, no fewer than five former Chiefs of the Defence Staff wrote to The Times to express their concern about service widows in particular. I hope that the Minister will take those views into account. As

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he knows, the value of the pension has dropped since 1980. The immediate pension for personnel leaving at age 40 has been justified by the need to compensate them for their low salary expectancy in civilian life.

Sexual harassment in the armed forces is of concern to many hon. Members. The Government should produce reliable figures and tackle the problem seriously if they are genuine about wanting to attract more women to the armed forces and to the RAF in particular. There is no excuse for harassment, which should be dealt with effectively. In 1995 there were 10 reported cases, four of them in the RAF. Those were only official complaints. No central record is kept. All complaints should be recorded. I have no doubt that many women are afraid to complain about harassment, so proper methods should be introduced to make it easier for women to express their concerns.

The hon. Members for Wyre and for Gillingham spoke of the significance of the RAF. The Chief of Air Staff has said that the Air Force is at the heart of national security. We all agree. We are familiar with the problems that change has brought and sympathise with personnel who have lost their jobs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North made an important point about sustainability. We must plan for not just the next two, three or five years but for decades ahead, which requires much thought and a proper defence review. The move to the contractorisation of support services, and to reducing stocks of spare parts and ammunition, carries elements of risk. There are other areas of concern.

We have not ended the review of the Royal Air Force or of the other armed services, because the world has changed and will undoubtedly continue to change. A number of hon. Members, including the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said that we live in a highly dangerous world--more dangerous in a way than in the days of the cold war. I believe that the United Kingdom's role will be centred on our international obligations as a member of the United Nations and, of course, as a key member of NATO. The RAF will play its important role in that, as it has done in the past.

It is significant that we are debating the RAF on the anniversary of D-day. It is significant that my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth talked about a medal for Bomber Command, because all hon. Members--particularly those of my generation--owe a great debt to all the men and women who served in the RAF in those years. We pay our warmest and most sincere tribute to them.

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