Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Key: May I put on record my unequivocal agreement with what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said?

Mr. Campbell: When we discuss procurement, industrial issues can never be far away. There was a joint report in the previous Parliament from the Select Committees on Defence and on Trade and Industry about the significance of Britain's industrial defence base when measured against procurement decisions.

The then Secretary of State, Mr. Michael Portillo, accepted the report's conclusions, and I would be surprised if the present Government did not take the attitude that, when important procurement decisions are being taken, regard must be had to the industrial consequences for our economy if manufacturers and suppliers other than those based in the United Kingdom are preferred. I hope for an assurance to that effect.

In that context, one cannot ignore the events of the past week or so. Westland has agreed to form a consortium with Agusta, creating the largest helicopter manufacturing enterprise in Europe, of a size and quality to rival those in the United States. Alongside the battlefield taxi decision that was taken yesterday, that is a sign of things to come.

Unless United Kingdom, and especially European, defence manufacturers integrate in the manner of those examples, the risk is that our companies will become mere subcontractors of United States defence companies. That would be bad for our industry, our defence and our political influence. I strongly believe that the integration of the European defence industry is the only way in which we can preserve in Europe a defence industrial base of sufficient quality and quantity.

There have been some political declarations on the subject--the hon. Member for Salisbury mentioned the one made in December 1997, and another was made on 20 April this year by the Defence Ministers of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain--but declarations are not enough: action is required.

As one who believes in the evolution of a European security and defence identity rather more strongly than some others in the Chamber, I believe that industrial

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1017

integration of the kind that is necessary for survival will have substantial consequences for common procurement, and that that in itself will drive the move towards far more defence integration on the continent of Europe.

Mr. Blunt rose--

Mr. Campbell: I have just about finished, and other hon. Members are waiting to speak. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Royal Air Force, like the other services, will await the strategic defence review White Paper with understandable anxiety--if not with quite the apprehension with which the citizens of Atlanta awaited the arrival of General Sherman--because of the uncertainty. I hope that, when we next discuss the Royal Air Force, many of the issues will be much clearer than they are today.

6.33 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I am delighted to follow the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), because it gives me the chance to thank him for a most informative speech.

I take this opportunity to speak up for the unsung heroes of RAF Stafford, which is the only supplies and distribution centre for the Royal Air Force in the whole of the United Kingdom since the closures a few years ago of Carlisle and Quedgeley. Consequently, billions of pounds of equipment is stored at or passes through the base every year. Mind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have a word of advice for you or for any hon. Member who may rush to Stafford to seek out the RAF base: do not look for the runway; there is no runway, as the transport is all by helicopter or road.

I was one of the many right hon. and hon. Members who attended the presentation in the Palace by the RAF. I was impressed by the number who attended and by the quality of the presentation, which included a film showing all the many and varied talents of the RAF: fighter planes, vertical take-off and landing planes, helicopters and even cooks featured in the film. I did not notice any mention of RAF Stafford, and it is my great pleasure to make good that omission today.

The RAF handed us a booklet to take away, and I searched for references to RAF Stafford. The one such reference was to the mountain rescue service that the base provides. That vital life-saving service has rightly received tributes from hon. Members of all parties. Another word of advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker: when you come to Stafford, do not bring your skis; there are no mountains in Stafford, and the service is provided most commonly in north Wales.

The main business of RAF Stafford is the storage and distribution of supplies. It is a huge operation. I have been deeply impressed by the very size of the operation.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman is rightly proud of the RAF station in his constituency. Will he consider whether its functions might in due course be better carried out on a defence logistics basis? Perhaps, following "Front Line First", we should view RAF Stafford on that basis, as part of the drive towards the most efficient way of running the Ministry of Defence with the maximum co-ordination.

Mr. Kidney: If it helps the hon. Gentleman, I will deal later in my speech with the qualities of the personnel and

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1018

with the co-operation between services in our armed forces. I ask him to be a little patient, and I will get to that point.

I recently visited the Argos distribution centre in my constituency. It is a brand new, modern private enterprise, and it is very impressive indeed. My compliment to the staff at RAF Stafford is to say that their operation is carried out as efficiently as that at Argos, with the difference that RAF Stafford's operation is much, much bigger.

The tactical support wing is based at Stafford. I am surprised that it has not been mentioned before in this debate, because it is a fantastic and vital service, ensuring that fuel and other supplies reach the front line before our services. An army may march on its stomach, but in the modern war zone armed forces do not get very far without rapid resupply of fuel for their aircraft, tanks and personnel carriers.

The tactical support wing is an illustration of co-operation between services. In the Gulf war, which is the last time that I can think of when the TSW's presence was vital, the armed services, both in the air and on the ground, had good reason to be grateful. At present, the TSW is permanently based in Northern Ireland, and it has a presence in Bosnia.

In addition to those vital services, there is the little known presence of several trade services at RAF Stafford, including engineering and carpentry. There is a modern engineering scientific laboratory service. All those services are capable of forming go-ahead, public-private partnerships. There is certainly willingness among the people based there to enter into such arrangements. Sometimes the obstacle is the rules that apply to the armed forces.

I can give a reasonably recent example of them getting in the way of modern arrangements. About two years ago, there was an opportunity for RAF Stafford and a private fleet vehicle hire company to make a private, commercial arrangement for the servicing of vehicles by RAF Stafford personnel. It was not allowed by the rules that were then applied by the MOD.

That example brings me to the people who work at RAF Stafford. Service personnel and civilians work alongside each other collaboratively. Industrial relations are first class. Everyone shares the same values of high quality, customer service and enterprise. It is no wonder that the organisation is so effective when the people who work there are so clearly valued by those who manage it.

Like everyone else, those stationed at RAF Stafford are anxious about the outcome of the strategic defence review. Its secure status as the only remaining supplies and distribution centre for the RAF may be an illusion. There has been much talk of tri-service working or jointery. Further modern developments in the services of the armed forces hold no fears for RAF personnel. If asked to service more sectors of the armed forces, they will deliver in style. The industrial relations, the modern organisation and the facilities on site all demonstrate that such services will be safe in their hands. Defence Ministers need only to ask, and they will respond magnificently.

6.41 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): We have had an informed and good-humoured debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) noted that this debate is

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1019

something of a stocking filler. It is held at the Government's convenience. It is an opportunity that Labour Members attending the social function elsewhere are sadly missing. I am sure that members of the Royal Air Force will take note.

Various matters have been raised and I wish to deal with two main ones. The first was mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury and commented on by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann). The Government should consider changing the format of these debates. Ten years ago, Lord Younger of Leckie, when he was Secretary of State for Defence, put it to the Opposition, other parties and Government Back Benchers that we might consider doing away with the three single service debates and having two functional debates, one on the armed forces dealing with personnel and policy and the other on procurement and equipment. I endorsed that, but it was rejected because some hon. Members felt that the single service debates enabled them to raise single service constituency issues. However, we have moved beyond that. In this debate, many of the issues have cut across single service boundaries. I urge Ministers to consider the matter.

The second point is the question of what the Royal Air Force is for. The Minister of State talked about press speculation that we might be considering abolishing the Royal Air Force. All hon. Members present tonight would oppose that, with the concurrent conclusion that the RAF's current roles would be taken over by the Army and Royal Navy. The purpose of the RAF must ultimately be to achieve air supremacy in terms of its operational level and defence of the United Kingdom and to provide air support for the Royal Navy and the Army.

Hon. Members will probably agree that the idea that air power alone is a war winner or can always deter aggression is an over-simplification. I and many other hon. Members have concluded that we must get the balance between the Army, the RAF and the Navy correct in the strategic defence review. One problem in this debate is that we must bear in mind the balance of personnel, equipment and policy in relation to the Army and Royal Navy, which I hope that we will debate soon.

This debate is being held in a vacuum because, despite the Government's attempt to give the impression that they have been open and have consulted, the consultation has been based on the phrase, "We hear what you say." It is almost impossible to establish the baselines of the strategic defence review and so to discuss in an informed way crucial issues of RAF policy, organisation, personnel and equipment. I want briefly to consider some of those issues and ask Ministers some questions in the light of the strategic defence review.

I was fortunate to have an Adjournment debate on the strategic defence review a month ago. I again remind the House that the SDR has not started off from first principles as the Government claimed. Labour's priorities at the general election did not mention defence, so in any consideration of defence or, indeed, public expenditure, we must recognise that defence is not a major priority. We understand from everything that Ministers have hinted that the overall defence budget will remain at about £21 billion, at best. The defence review will not honestly examine our commitments and capabilities because if it did, it might conclude that we need to spend more on

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1020

defence, but that has been ruled out. The SDR is determined by budgetary constraints, for the simple reason that the defence review is part of the comprehensive spending review.

The Minister of State was flippant about our not needing to worry about the foreign policy baseline, but that is the most crucial basis of the SDR. Why has it not been published? Time and again, hon. Members have asked for it to be revealed to them. This is not some academic debating point, but crucial to understanding the shape and size of the RAF and the equipment that it needs. We do not know what the commitments of the United Kingdom Government are. In the most friendly way, I issue a challenge to the Government in their reply to say what the foreign policy baseline is. If they do not, I assure them that the men and women of the RAF, who take a great interest in policy, will conclude that the baseline is highly flexible. If the Government's eventual decision on the SDR means that there is not sufficient money, the baseline will have to be moved.

The Minister was again flippant about my intervention about a Ministry of Defence mission statement. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will be fascinated to know how flippant he was. After all, the Foreign Secretary insisted on issuing a mission statement for the Foreign Office within a fortnight of taking office. He made the point that any Government Department was effectively a large business and that it was the duty of the Government to come up with a mission statement. By heavens, if the Ministry of Defence is not a large business, I do not know what is. Surely, if the armed forces have to come up with mission statements--simple statements of aims and objectives--why cannot Ministers? I should be grateful to hear whether Ministers are any closer to coming out with a mission statement.

Like many hon. Members, a few weeks ago I attended in my constituency 80th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the RAF. Many hon. Members have commented on the contribution that the RAF has made, not only to the history of our country but to our independence. It is important to re-emphasise that we are dependent for our ultimate independence on the training, morale, equipment and motivation of our armed forces. I know that defence is not a priority to the Government or to our constituents. Many hon. Members are only too well aware that this is the first time for probably more than 100 years that our homes in the United Kingdom have not been under a direct threat. When people are not under a direct threat, it is easy for them to consider that defence is of marginal importance.

If we reduce the capability and strength of the RAF, it will be extremely difficult to rebuild it if we face a major crisis in the next decade. It is no good the Ministry of Defence working on the assumption that it would get a two-year warning. As an historian, I cannot think of an example in which the British Government have had a two-year warning or been able to act on one. The 1930s are a classic example of that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page