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Mr. Clifton-Brown: That is an important point. Is the Minister aware that, the longer the strategic defence review announcement is delayed, the more apprehension there is among RAF personnel? I urge the Minister, if necessary, to make representations to his Cabinet colleagues to make sure that that announcement is made as soon as possible--and certainly before the summer--so that apprehension can be alleviated and there is no danger to the future recruitment and training of those highly qualified personnel.

Dr. Reid: We are extremely keen that everyone in the RAF should be assured of the continuing validity and importance of the RAF in our defence plans. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point; I hear what he says, and he can be assured that we are doing all we can to ensure that we reach a coherent defence configuration in the shortest possible time. I assure him that, although the strategic defence review is continuing, it has not stopped us taking parallel and integral measures to develop methods of retaining pilots and aircrew. That involves giving them some form of security as regards their future.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Following on from my hon. Friend's question, can the Minister confirm that the strategic defence review has now left the Ministry of Defence, is being considered by the Public Expenditure Committee of the Cabinet this week, and will be considered by the Defence and Overseas Policy

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Committee of the Cabinet next week, so that, as long as it is not unpicked by the Chancellor, we can expect an early publication of the SDR--perhaps in the next two or three weeks?

Dr. Reid: I can assure the hon. Gentleman thatthe strategic defence review--and the Air Force configuration--never leaves the Ministry of Defence. It has been overseen from the start by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office in the first stage, and by the Ministry of Defence in the second stage.

The hon. Gentleman speculates about a meeting this week and next. I can inform him that those are not the first such meetings. Throughout the process there have been various meetings of a series of committees, inside and outside the Ministry of Defence, inside and outside Government. That will continue, and the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will take the minimum amount of time necessary to achieve a coherent configuration and a relevant defence posture for the present circumstances. I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he sought.

We have made plain our view that, in all three services, we wish to recruit from the widest possible reservoir of talent and, following recruitment, we wish promotion to be based on merit. That policy will continue. As part of that on-going drive, the Royal Air Force is committed to increasing the number of recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds. Like its sister services, the RAF is an equal opportunities employer, within the limits of the law. The principles of equality of opportunity in employment, promotion and training--based on ability, performance, experience and aptitude--underpin all RAF personnel policies. Progression through the ranks is, and will continue to be, based solely on merit.

The House will no doubt recall that I announced in January that the recruiting target for ethnic minorities would increase year on year until it reaches 5 per cent. in 2001-02. As part of that initiative, the RAF is participating in discussions with a range of leaders, including religious leaders of non-Christian faiths, in an attempt to identify and then remove any potential cultural barriers to recruitment. In addition, the RAF is holding an equal opportunities open day at RAF Cosford on 15 June. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will attend the open day in order to underline the senior-level and political support for the Royal Air Force's decisions. He will be joined by Sir David Cousins, the Air Member for Personnel.

In view of some press reports this morning, I wish to make it plain that racial discrimination or harassment is not tolerated in the armed forces. There is no place for racism in the British armed forces, full stop. We have embarked on a major programme of equal opportunities awareness training. The RAF has further demonstrated its commitment as an equal opportunities employer, under the Race Relations Act 1976, by becoming a member of the race for opportunity.

In addition, the Chief of the Air Staff has personally signed up to the Commission for Racial Equality leadership challenge. The service will also be playing a full and active role in the partnership agreement recently signed by the MOD and the CRE. I remind the House that not only was the non- discrimination notice lifted that the CRE had hanging over the MOD's head, but we were singled out by Sir Herman Ouseley, the commission's chairman, as a leadership model in Britain.

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In view of some of the rather lurid attacks in the tabloid press, hon Members will expect me to refer to women in the Royal Air Force. The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently considering the issue of wider employment of women in the armed forces. Women have flown non-combat aircraft in the RAF since 1989, and combat aircraft since 1991. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, who, as Minister of State, introduced progressive equal opportunities policies in 1991. The Government claim no monopoly in advancing the case of women in society. I am sorry that so many Conservative Members are embarrassed by such an accolade. I hope that I have not damaged the right hon. Gentleman's career.

I do not like to single out individuals, but I must mention the recent case of Flight Lieutenant Jo Ashfield--or Jo Salter, as she was known before her marriage. I deeply regret the ignorant and inaccurate way in which some sections of the media have chosen to report her decision to have a baby. Let me make it absolutely clear: Flight Lieutenant Ashfield is a fine Tornado pilot. She has completed two operational tours, and is currently serving--as RAF pilots do from time to time--on ground duties. She has balanced the needs of her service with those of her family life to perform well in the most demanding of roles that any individual--male or female--can be expected to perform. She has achieved this with the dedication and professionalism expected of all those who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. We demand no less--and she has given no less.

We look forward to seeing Jo resume her career and return to the cockpit of a fighter aircraft when it is appropriate. I dare say that the cockpit of a fighter aircraft is a rather more demanding environment than the desk of the average media hack who has sat in judgment on that lady. In the meantime, I hope the House will join me in offering Jo and her husband congratulations on their happy news and in offering thanks for the way in which they have planned the birth so that she can return to duty in the service that she loves and in which we wish to see her serve.

I now come to the Reserve forces. The first Royal Auxiliary Air Force crews are now flying the Hercules out of RAF Lyneham. They were recruited from a pool of retired Hercules aircrew, and now provide a much-needed boost to our ability to support naval, army and air operations world wide. Four role support squadrons have already formed at RAF Benson, RAF Cottesmore, RAF Marham and RAF Brize Norton, and another will form at RAF Leeming later this year. Those squadrons augment regular RAF units when necessary. The developments are part of an approach to develop the skills and capabilities of Reserve force personnel as a vital element of the service's manpower mix. As I speak, members of the Reserve continue to support the regular RAF in operations in the Gulf area, Turkey, Italy and the former Yugoslavia. They play an important part in the RAF and will continue to do so.

I have taken considerable time describing the year's activities of the Royal Air Force because I think that it is appropriate to do so in the single-service debate. I have not concentrated on the strategic defence review in which my Department is currently engaged. I know that the House is tense with anticipation that I may have some

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news on that front. In order to relieve that tension, I must tell hon. Members that I will not be making any announcements this evening on the final outcome of our deliberations. However, I know that the House will want me to touch on the review and return to it later this evening if I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall give a few basic facts. We said that the review would be foreign-policy-led, and it has been. We said that the service chiefs would be closely involved from the start, and they have been. We said that the review would be open and inclusive and would aim to build a consensus on defence into the 21st century, and it has. All those promises have been kept.

Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Reid: I would not complete my comments on the strategic defence review without giving the hon. Gentleman the chance to attack me, but I ask him to allow me to continue a little longer.

Of course, our task has not been made easy by some of the rumours and ill-founded speculation in the press--much of which, incidentally, has concerned the RAF. For example, I recall reading at an early stage of the process about the Government's desire to abolish the RAF. That then became a desire to merge the three services or to split the RAF between the other two services. Without going into any details of the review's conclusions or revealing any secrets about our final decisions, I assure the House that the SDR will not result in the abolition of the Royal Air Force.

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