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Mr. Cann: Does the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) want to have a go while we're at it?

Mr. Menzies Campbell indicated dissent.

Mr. Cann: As I understand it, the Israeli air force is very efficient at what it does, and it can do it elsewhere, just as the RAF does when it moves around the world, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I was certainly not quoting someone called Hart, as I understand he belongs to a Conservative think tank.

The RAF has a wonderful history, and has done a great deal for this country. We need to consider seriously what it should be doing in the next 20 to 30 years, and I am not sure that, as a country, we have done that.

6.2 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): The first half of the final sentence in the speech made by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) is entirely correct: we have to reach some conclusion about what the Royal Air Force will do in the coming 20 to 30 years. The decisions made in the strategic defence review will almost certainly be those which shape its future, and even if the present

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Government were to be replaced at the next election or were radically to change their policy, those decisions will be so fundamental and far-reaching that they will probably not be able to be changed. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman is correct.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that he thought the timing of this debate was rather curious, because we were after the time of influence and before the time of decision. I suspect that that is exactly why this time has been chosen. We are in a vacuum, which explains why much of what he had to say was in the form of questions. Alas, much of what I have to say will be in the same form. I do not believe that my questions will be answered this evening, but I hope that they will be answered by the time the far-reaching conclusions of the defence review are made public.

I have some sympathy for the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who has now left the Chamber, who thought that the Hercules aircraft had taken part in the Berlin airlift. He might have thought that because he has recently travelled in one, and those aircraft certainly have the appearance of having been around since the Berlin airlift. If ever there was a need for a replacement, it is for the Hercules.

However, I shall say more later about the C130J, which has not exactly been a paradigm of good procurement. Hon. Members who have flown as passengers in the Hercules will know that even the simple act of going to the loo involved some anxiety, because of the corrosion in that part of the aircraft.

I should properly begin with an apology, because, as a result of a prior commitment this evening, I will not be present for the winding-up speeches. I have apologised to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Salisbury. [Hon. Members: "Are you going to the Labour fund-raising dinner, too?"] I cannot afford the price of a ticket. It appears that the Minister cannot, either; perhaps he is too much of a plain speaker for that no doubt rather gilded occasion.

The qualifications which I claim enable me to contribute to this debate are, first, that I am my party's spokesman; secondly, that, like the hon. Member for Ipswich, I am a member of the Select Committee on Defence; and thirdly, that I have the great advantage of having a very strong constituency interest, because RAF Leuchars is based in my constituency. That allows me to associate myself very strongly, if I may, with the Minister's observations about mountain rescue. The RAF Leuchars mountain rescue team, which is situated just on the edge of the Cairngorms, is frequently in operation and is a credit to the RAF, precisely as the Minister described.

As we have acknowledged today, the fundamental strategic defence review decisions are not known, so they cannot inform our debate. However, in addition to the seminars, to which some of us have had invitations, and the public sessions, one feature of the defence review that is rather different from that carried out sub rosa--if I can put it that way--by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) when he was at the Ministry of Defence, is that there has been a remarkable amount of speculation in the newspapers.

The Minister dismisses that as "mere" speculation, but I pause to observe that, if some of the information about the Territorial Army that has appeared in the past week is speculation, it is the most detailed speculation of all time.

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That gives rise to the view, with some justification, that there is a certain amount of inter-service briefing. I hope that the ultimate conclusions of the review are not unduly influenced by what looks on the face of it like competition for available resources.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. and learned Gentleman is making an interesting point. Does he agree that, the longer the SDR is delayed, the greater the chance that the bad news will be leaked deliberately? Any good news will not be leaked, so might not the services be jeopardised by the delay?

Mr. Campbell: I am with the Minister on that point. As I said, the decisions announced in July will shape the defence of the United Kingdom for the next 20 years, and will have consequences that are unlikely to be easily unravelled. On that basis, I tend to the view that the review should take as long as is necessary to get it right, and it should not be pushed.

I deal now with an issue that might in some circumstances be considered parochial, but which I think has considerable political significance. It concerns the role of the Air Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is important that, in the SDR, the level of senior service representation in Scotland is not changed. As we know, defence is not a responsibility that is to be devolved to the Parliament in Edinburgh.

It would be quite wrong to downgrade, by rank, status or responsibility, the office of the Air Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland, because the representational duties in Scotland, which are carried out by the RAF, the Royal Navy and the Army, are extremely important in presenting the public face of the services. They are important not just for themselves, but because, at a time of constitutional change--which I support, and for which I have been something of an advocate--they underline the fact that we are having home rule within the United Kingdom and within a parliamentary system which embraces Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that responsibility for defence remains a UK responsibility.

"Sending the wrong signal" is a much-overworked cliche, but it can be used in a defence debate without too much criticism. It would be sending the wrong signal if there were any downgrading of the seniority of the senior representative officers of all three armed services.

I see that the Scottish National party Bench is empty. I have racked my memory, and perhaps the Minister could assist me. In the past 10 years, there have been perhaps 30 or 40 occasions in the House to discuss defence. I cannot remember a single occasion when the Scottish National party contributed by way of a speech. Indeed, I can hardly remember any questions being asked about defence from a party which says, "We must have independence so that we can have a Scottish navy, a Scottish air force and a Scottish army."

If Scottish National party Members have such enthusiasm for defence, one would think that they would occasionally participate in these discussions, which are bound to have consequences if they ever achieve their

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highly unlikely political objectives. The decisions taken here would have some effect on what they were able to do in Scotland in that regard.

Dr. Reid: I was challenged to rack my brains, and I have done so. The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. I cannot remember any occasion when Scottish National party Members have been here to contribute to these debates. I would not mind that, except that the party--as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows--parades up and down Scotland, telling people that it is prepared to defend this regiment, that battalion or this company of the Territorial Army. In the hon. and learned Gentleman's area, the Scottish National party has no legitimacy whatever to do this when compared with his own record.

Mr. Campbell: I am grateful for the Minister's felicitous reference to myself. One of the great claims for a Scottish defence identity--if one can call it that--is that we would be able to preserve regiments such as the Black Watch and the Royal Highland Fusiliers, and the Scottish National party would stand four square in their defence. The party's defence would be more effective if its members came here from time to time to contribute.

Everyone who has spoken in the debate so far--and those who will speak later--will acknowledge that the RAF has come through a period of rapid, and occasionally painful, change. Manpower has been almost halved in the past 10 years. It is no secret that morale has been fragile, and, on the basis of some of the anecdotal evidence of this afternoon, that fragility is still present to some extent.

From my experience, I believe that something of a recovery is under way. That is related to the quality of operational activity which the RAF has been required to undertake. For example, the air campaign before the deployment of NATO forces in Bosnia helped to restore morale. Although the length of the deployment on Invincible, in particular, caused some difficulty for families, nothing is better for the restoration of morale than asking the RAF to do a serious job.

There are some signs that morale has improved. It would be right if the uncertainty which a review necessarily involves could be eliminated, and some clear guidelines would assist in the process of recovery.

One thing seems to be absolutely essential. If the expeditionary strategy hinted at in the speculation--as the Minister would describe it--prevails, we shall require a well equipped and well motivated RAF in a strategic role, and not in the support role which has been suggested from time to time. The RAF may have given up its partial responsibility for carrying the nuclear deterrent, but its strategic significance remains as important today as it has ever been.

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