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Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. He will have seen the speculation in the newspapers that, as part of the SDR, there is a proposal to cut the Territorial Army from 53,000

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to 40,000 soldiers. It is too early to speculate what may be in the SDR, but if that is the case, will he join us in the No Lobby in voting against it?

Mr. Cook: I must answer the hon. Gentleman not by an evasion, but by what I always tell my Whip, who happens to be sitting not far away, with his feet on the Bench. I am pleased that he is present. My standard response to my regional Whip when he approaches me, which he does from time to time, is that I shall listen to the debate, weigh the arguments and cast my vote according to my judgment at that time. That is not always a welcome response. It has elicited one or two monosyllabic replies, but we are still speaking and we are still comrades, if my hon. Friend allows me to use that term with reference to him in our new climate.

I must answer the hon. Gentleman by saying that I am concerned about the matter. I try to be a man of my word. I shall weigh the arguments at the time, and he will see then.

Mr. Keith Simpson: On the hon. Gentleman's point about the requirement for the reserves to have a senior officer--

Mr. Cook: A more senior officer.

Mr. Simpson: --a more senior officer as their spokesman at the Ministry of Defence, I must declare an interest. The present director of reserve forces and cadets, Brigadier Richard Holmes, who is a Territorial Army officer, is one of my oldest friends and a former colleague. Given his wide experience and his knowledge of, and contacts among, senior officers, most people would argue that, whatever the outcome of the strategic defence review with regard to the reserves, as the first reserve officer he has probably played a more influential part than if he had been some three-star regular officer. I wanted to put that on record.

Mr. Cook: I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I in no way want to detract from the job that Brigadier Holmes has done. I have the utmost regard, respect and admiration for him, as I have for Brigadier Nick Hepburn, who plays a similar role in the north-east.

My argument is that, in the United States, there is a two-star general with overall responsibility for reserve concerns. If we had a two-star general with the extra brassware on his shoulder--more than a brigadier, although he could have a brigadier as his adviser--the fact that he had the higher rank would give his word heavier weight in any argument. That is a truism. If the hon. Gentleman disagrees with that assessment, we shall have to agree to differ.

Finally, I strongly associate myself with the words of the hon. Member for Salisbury and the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife with reference to the Chinook disaster on the Mull of Kintyre. My questions have never been satisfactorily answered. The inquiry was constrained by the remit that it was given at the time. The matter deserves a fresh airing. None of us can rest easy until then.

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7.25 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): This is the first RAF debate in which I have participated since I have been in the House. I confess that my knowledge is not as detailed or of such long standing as that of other hon. Members, but I wish to participate in the debate because I have almost completed a year's secondment with the RAF under the parliamentary scheme.

I pay tribute to the Minister and to the RAF for the considerable resources that were placed at the disposal of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) and myself over a six-month period. We have seen a huge part of the RAF's operational capability. Everywhere we have been, we have been treated with the utmost courtesy. We have encountered a huge number of RAF personnel, from the most senior officers to the most junior non- commissioned service men. They have always been punctilious and have answered any questions that we might have. As a consequence, I have a reasonably good overall knowledge of how the RAF is functioning. I thank the Minister for that, and the RAF for putting those resources at our disposal.

The Government inherited a situation where RAF numbers had been reduced from about 90,000 to the current deployment of around 55,000. The Minister referred earlier to 53,000. When he winds up, perhaps he would clarify the number for me. Although the reduction has caused some operational difficulties, we still have one of the most flexible air forces in the world. That was demonstrated in the Gulf conflict. The only air force that the Americans would have anywhere near them in the front line was our air force, because of its discipline and training capabilities. That is a great tribute to our RAF.

While on secondment with the RAF, I encountered a number of apprehensions and problems. However, I do not want my remarks to be taken as a criticism of the RAF, which I regard as a superb and flexible organisation. I mentioned the shrinkage in manpower, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) dealt acutely in his excellent speech. As a result of the reduction in manpower, people at officer level and at senior NCO level have not received the promotion that they might otherwise have expected.

At certain RAF stations that I have visited, there is considerable dissatisfaction, particularly at senior NCO level. At one RAF station, I encountered a group of 20 very angry NCOs. When I put to them the standard question that I always ask when meeting such a group--"Would you recommend that your brother, son, daughter, nephew or niece should join the RAF?"--not a single hand was raised. I think that that is rather sad, and I hope that the Minister will look into the problem.

If those NCOs cannot receive promotion, perhaps they could attain some technical grade that ensures an enhancement of their pension, which they justly deserve. As I said, those people are automatically deployed with the RAF and, because they are not front-line pilots, their tours of operation are longer. Therefore, their overstretch is greater than that of pilots. I hope that the Minister will address that problem.

The RAF's personnel are its most important asset: they are irreplaceable. I have already alluded to difficulties with retention caused by the fact that people are not being promoted as they had expected. Recruitment in certain trades, particularly in the technical field--I am thinking,

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for example, of armourers--will become a real problem. When service men near their release or review dates, they will simply leave the RAF. That is particularly true of service men in their mid-40s. They know that, if they take another seven-year term and remain in the RAF until they are in their 50s, they will be unemployable outside the service. They are precisely the people whom we must retain.

I am also troubled by the issue of recruitment to certain trades. I asked particularly to visit the head of the public relations department, Air Commodore McRobbie, who is an excellent man. I spent quite a long time with him, as I believe that public relations is extremely important not only for the RAF but for all three services. A huge amount of good news about excellent work done by the services both nationally and at individual station level is never reported in the media. I understand that it is difficult to get the media to print good-news stories--newspapers will print with alacrity one bad-news story that cancels out 20 good-news stories--but I think there is a structural problem with the MOD's public relations department that merits the Minister's personal attention.

Air Commodore McRobbie presides over the RAF public relations department. However, there are three separate public relations departments within the RAF for each command, and each has its own commanding officer--in other words, Air Commodore McRobbie does not have control over those three separate departments. Although he works closely with them and they enjoy an amicable relationship, that is not the same as having one senior RAF officer controlling all the public relations economics and personnel.

The public relations department should not be underfunded. It is important that youngsters--particularly those of school age--view the RAF as an attractive, modern and up-to-date organisation; it should be at the forefront of their minds. I have visited the schools in my constituency and I know that that is not so. Several improvements could be made to the RAF to change their attitudes.

Technical qualifications for service men vary throughout the RAF. In some stations in some areas, the situation is extremely good: service men automatically receive an NVQ or a GNVQ if they pass their course. In many cases, the most lowly NCO has a degree before he enters the RAF. However, that does not mean that a proper technical qualification, or perhaps an in-service degree qualification, should not be the norm. The RAF should also be an invest-in-people employer in every department. It should also be the norm that, wherever possible, squadrons and stations are registered ISO 9001. One expects up-to-date qualifications and verifications as a matter of course in an organisation with the RAF's capabilities.

During my time with the RAF, I noted several other matters that merit attention. The Minister mentioned the problem with contractorisation at RAF Valley. In many ways, the contractor agreement at RAF Valley anticipates what will happen with other large contracts elsewhere. RAF Valley is situated in north Wales in an area that is not well populated--there are certainly not many ex-RAF personnel in the vicinity. Many large contractors rely on employing ex-RAF personnel who, because they have severance and redundancy packages or pensions, may be paid relatively low rates.

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When considering granting future contracts, will the Minister stipulate that the contractor must carry out a reasonable level of in-service training, particularly of new recruits? That would alleviate the problem that arises at the end of a contract when employees are not available, or, if they are available, are much more expensive, with the result that any potential savings are lost. That is a particularly important issue.

Another issue concerns the interface between contracts, the strategic defence review and value for money. RAF Sealand, for example, had to undergo a contractorisation exercise at the same time as a value-for-money exercise, together with the other reviews that the previous Government put in train. RAF Sealand now faces the strategic defence review. Some of those reviews were inevitable and necessary, but I wonder whether it was a good idea to conduct the contractorisation and value-for-money exercises at the same time. There is concern that, when the present contract comes up for review in five years' time, there will be a continual interface.

Several equipment issues have been raised in the debate. The RAF obviously needs to play a strategic role in any situation in which the British Government wish to deploy it--whether it be in conjunction with other forces on a multilateral or humanitarian basis or on a matter of United Kingdom air defence. I am slightly worried about the time scale of some large defence procurement contracts and the SDR. Although Eurofighter is specifically excluded from the SDR, it represents a huge cost. The potential contract for the United Kingdom is 232 aircraft, and I understand that the procurement will increase to 20 aircraft a year until 2014.

What will happen if a change of Government in Germany delays the signing of the contracts in June? I understand that the first Eurofighters are due to be delivered in 2002, and to be in operational deployment in 2004. If those dates are stretched a little further into the distant future, we might find that our existing Jaguar fleet, with its stand-off capability--if they are spared in the strategic defence review--and our Tornado fleet, with its mid-life update, are very old aircraft indeed. What would happen if we had to deploy in a modern conflict, such as might have arisen in the Gulf recently when Saddam Hussein refused to allow the inspection of weapons sites? I gather that the Americans were unwilling to allow any RAF assets to be used in the first strike. That suggests to me that we should look carefully at the timetable for the deployment of Eurofighter.

It is all very well having a modern airframe with a low radar footprint, but it is only as good as the defensive and offensive aids that are deployed at the aircraft. That brings me to missiles. In the past few weeks, there has been a shake-out of potential missile manufacturers in the United States. I am concerned that the next generation of missiles, the beyond visual range air-to-air missiles--let alone the advanced short range air-to-air missiles--could be delayed even beyond 2007. I understand that that is very much on the cards as the threat from the Russian R77 missiles is perceived to have lessened. However, in these days of increasingly available technology, one never knows from where the threat may come and when ballistic capabilities might be acquired and deployed. We should be making plans so that our aircraft are fitted with the latest missile capability.

There are a number of causes of unhappiness within Ministry of Defence procurement--so-called MOD PE--which is considered to be rather bureaucratic and

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slow-moving. I ask the Minister to clarify the contract to supply the new generation of C130J Hercules, which are late in delivery. Although an element of compensation is built into the package with Lockheed for the procurement of those aircraft, why is it--this emerged in a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee on class I, II and III votes--that the contract does not provide for full compensation to be paid to the RAF? If there are design problems with the C130J--whether involving icing of the wings, or the propellers, or whatever--the RAF should not suffer financially.

It is true that we have considerably improved the way in which we operate procurement, but a great deal more could still be done. I know that the Government are looking towards smart procurement, but problems have arisen in the past over the large-scale procurement of a large asset. On occasion, all three armed forces have examined the latest example of bolt-on kit and decided, "We must have it." Consideration has not been given to any change in the main contract or what effect the "we must have it" approach would have in terms of delay, delivery and overall costs. No doubt costs are scrutinised carefully when we enter the initial contract, but we do not always scrutinise costs as the contract is proceeding.

It seems to me that there should be clearly defined review dates. There should not be a drip, drip approach to large contracts. A proper review date would enable MOD PE, after one year, two years or whatever period is specified in the initial contract, to say, "This may be desirable, but what will be the revised procurement cost, and for how long will the project be delayed?" Our approach to the procurement of larger assets should be much more disciplined.

I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, so I shall be relatively brief in my summing up. As I have said, there is considerable apprehension at all levels of personnel in the RAF about the delay with the strategic defence review. I understand that that is imperative--and I understand also that the SDR must be agreed by the Cabinet--but I hope that the SDR will not become enmeshed in the new expenditure review, which would delay it even further.

I hope that, when the SDR is produced, it will be comprehensive; that it will focus on the proper foreign policy baseline; and that it will give the RAF complete operational capacity to defend the United Kingdom and take part in unilateral or multilateral operations throughout the world while participating in every humanitarian role that the Government of the day may possibly wish it to. The longer the SDR is delayed, the more apprehension there will be; the more personnel will decide, on reaching their review date, not to stay with the RAF; and the more difficulty the Minister will have with recruitment subsequently.

When the result of the SDR is known, I hope that all senior officers in the RAF will take every opportunity to visit every squadron at every base to explain carefully all its implications. At various different stations, the men have said to me, often in front of their station commander, "Yes, we are able to make the points that we wish to make to our station commander but we often do not know whether they go further than him." On those occasions, the station commander naturally gave an explanation.

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The Chief of the Air Staff emphasised to the hon. Member for Lincoln and me yesterday that he had had a fair hearing throughout the SDR process. If all men in the RAF could hear the Chief of the Air Staff and other senior officers saying that, they would be considerably more satisfied.

The RAF is a superb and flexible organisation. It is the second best and most flexible--if not the best and most flexible--air force in the world. After 18 years hard work under the previous Conservative Government, the United Kingdom is the second largest defence equipment exporter in the world. I hope that when the SDR is produced, and when all its implications are fully understood, those two positions will be maintained.

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