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Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman mentioned a period of stability. Do his comments reflect a change in his party's policy? During the last six years it was in office, review after review--each described as a bitter pill to swallow, but a final one--did a tremendous amount not just to whittle down the size of the armed forces but to undermine their morale. Is he now saying that that was a mistake?

Mr. Key: The hon. Gentleman asked a long question, as he usually does, and my answer is short--no. What I said appears in the previous debate on the defence estimates, in 1996. It was the policy declared by Michael Portillo when Secretary of State--that there would now be a period of stability.

Mr. Blunt: Does my hon. Friend share the concerns that Field Marshal Vincent, one of the informal advisers to the Ministry of Defence on the strategic defence review, placed on the record in the Defence Committee--that there was no foreign policy base line to rely on, even for advisers inside the Department, other than the speeches made at the Royal United Services Institute and elsewhere by the Secretary of State, to help advise the Department?

Mr. Key: I have indeed heard that. I had hoped that some of those worries would be discounted today, but apparently not. It is serious when distinguished people feel that there is a fundamental flaw in the Government's strategic defence review. I certainly share my hon. Friend's concern about that.

Now for some probing and cajoling. I shall ask the Minister some questions arising from discussions with Royal Air Force families and their representatives. On Saturday, it is the Association of RAF Wives' annual conference. They would never say so, but I know that wives are disappointed that no Minister is able to attend. The RAF has been through a period of contraction and increased commitments, and the wives have borne their

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full share of the consequences. Were a Minister to attend--I am sure that there are good reasons why they will not--I dare say he would hear that there is much for which they are thankful, but some real concerns, too. When families are posted abroad, the wives or spouses usually have to leave their jobs, and do not pay national insurance in their own right for that period. When they return to the United Kingdom, they are disqualified from some of the benefits to which they would normally be entitled. I cannot believe that we cannot find a way around that in the social security review. I invite Defence Ministers to take that up with Ministers in the Department of Social Security to see whether we can assist those families. The aspirations of RAF families have changed during the years, and it is right that wives should seek work while their husbands are at work.

My second concern is pre-school education. In the United Kingdom there is a choice between pre-school playgroups and school for four-year-olds. Such a choice is a normal civilian aspiration, and parents make their choice in the belief that pre-school playgroups are more appropriate for some children than others, but sometimes when RAF families go abroad, notably to some parts of Germany, they have no such choice and have to send their children to schools where inappropriate pressure may be put on them. I should be grateful if the Minister would consider that.

Special educational needs pose another problem. I compliment the Ministry of Defence on the great progress that has been made. Parents are not forced to serve overseas if they have a child in need of special care, but often parents prefer to go overseas as part of their normal work. Sometimes, service schools abroad have special needs provision, but often they do not. In particular, special needs provision is apparently being cut in Cyprus. I should be grateful if the Minister would check that out, too.

Then there is the matter of the separation of husbands and wives when husbands are sent on detachment overseas. Some men are now sent three times or more to Bosnia or the Gulf. A year ago we were told that those separations were being monitored, and I and the Association of RAF Wives would be grateful if the results of that monitoring could be published.

The RAF wives have told me that they are impressed by the determination of the Defence housing executive and Annington Homes to provide a good service for them. Sometimes that service falls down on station, but complaints are referred by the Association of RAF Wives to the Defence housing executive and they are usually sorted. RAF wives are glad of that. I am glad to say that their worst fears have not been realised.

Finally, there is the vexed question of quarantine for pets, which has a huge effect on the families of RAF personnel. Literally thousands of forces families are caught by the system, which is cruel, expensive and unnecessary. There is a better way of doing that which will improve our safety against rabies. I know that the Government have set up a review and that quarantine will always be needed for pets brought in from some countries, but surely not from Cyprus, which is rabies-free, or from married quarters in Germany. The Government's review of quarantine is proceeding at a leisurely pace. Will the

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Minister ensure that the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, is aware that thousands of forces families hope for action soon?

The Minister has been strong in his support for cadets, and I pay tribute to him for that. The Air Cadet Council has meetings in the next few weeks to consider the serious financial constraints that are appearing over the horizon for it. The contraction of flying sites and the loss of gliding sites has also been serious. The further cadets have to travel, the more difficult and expensive flying experience becomes. Some air cadets are forced to give up, and others are deterred from joining.

The Minister knows that air cadets gain an invaluable inside knowledge of the RAF and the world of flying. They learn loyalty, dedication and discipline, and they reap the benefits of training at an early age. There are more than 40,000 RAF cadets, including members of the Air Training Corps and the air element of the Combined Cadet Force. Astonishingly, about 50 per cent. of the RAF officer entry and 26 per cent. of airmen entrants have been members of the cadets at some stage. That is truly remarkable. The Minister will agree about the importance of promoting the interests of the air cadets and ensuring that they have adequate resources.

I come now to the less agreeable subject of morale at the front line of the RAF. The Minister and I spend much time listening to what people think we ought to know. We also use our eyes and ears, but mine have been picking up some signals that he may have missed. As he said, no one should doubt for a moment the professionalism, skill and dedication of our pilots or of Opposition Members who raise controversial issues. People should not mistake or misunderstand what I am about to say.

Pilots have told me that they hear politicians praising them, as today, Government and Opposition Members alike, but they sometimes worry that we are insulated from the day-to-day realities of life in the RAF. What I am about to say is what they want the House to understand. There has been a lot of talk about the lack of a future, or an uncertain future, in the RAF. One immediately points to the Eurofighter project, instituted by the previous Government and pursued energetically by the present Government, but that seems a long way off for some, who tell me that they feel that we have reaped the peace dividend but minor conflicts now pose much more of a threat and we, the politicians, apparently do not see that or refuse to acknowledge the consequences.

At the height of the cold war in the 1980s, the RAF had some 33 front-line combat squadrons to counter the Soviet threat. Each one was utilised--cannibalised--to fight the conflict in the Gulf. The RAF now has about 19 combat squadrons, yet vastly more commitments, with Bosnia, the Falklands, the Gulf, Iraq, and so on, than at the height of the cold war. The simple fact is that the RAF is vastly overstretched. I know that the Minister knows that, but people feel that the RAF does not have the resources it needs and, as a result, people on the ground feel that they are not appreciated.

I am told that promotion prospects are not good. To get up the ladder now, it is perceived that one must not only be good at one's flying job but take on extra, secondary, duties to show commitment to the service. People who spend seven months of the year out of the country on exercises and operations feel stressed and offended by that.

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Those who are leaving now are perceived to be the thin end of the wedge. As the Minister knows, the airlines are recruiting hard and the RAF seems unconcerned that its people are unhappy. I am told that simple things go by the wayside in the pursuit of greater efficiency. New flying suits for aircrew have been cancelled because of cost. That may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but such economy measures rankle.

People feel that the RAF is not the place that it used to be. It is difficult to explain, but it is what so many have said. Basically, they mean that much of the fun has gone out of the job. Aircrew stayed in the RAF because of the fun factor. The hard work and the bad times were worth it because of the rewards, but there are fewer rewards now. One pilot said that he was pursuing a thankless task. Of course he is wrong, but that is how he feels.

Most people with an option to leave are considering doing so. Even those who said that life was okay said that they would still leave as soon as their engagement was complete. Only one pilot out of about 20 expressed a determination to stay.

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