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7.44 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) to his position on the Opposition Front Bench. His expertise on this subject over a great many years is well known. It is refreshing that that has at last been recognised by his friends on the Opposition Front Bench this evening.

When I was seeking inspiration for my brief speech this evening, I decided to look back to the last time that the House debated the Royal Air Force, which was on 6 February 1997, when my hon. Friend made a detailed and distinguished speech that lasted 35 minutes. He covered the spectrum of life in the Royal Air Force. His speech filled me with trepidation when considering the modesty of my own interest in the RAF.

I feel some trepidation also in being called immediately after my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who is a parliamentary neighbour. He and I shared, until relatively recently, the distinguished RAF base at Kemble. My hon. Friend has the great advantage of being on the RAF side of the armed forces parliamentary scheme--a scheme I am just about to complete. That is gladly from my point of view but sadly in terms of the debate, because I have been on the Army side of the scheme. That being so, I claim none of my hon. Friend's expertise.

I had intended to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who unfortunately is no longer in his place. I presumed, rather ungenerously, that he would not vote against the Government if he disagreed with them on the subject of the Territorial Army. On reflection, it occurred to me that he courageously rebelled against the Government on handguns when a debate on that subject took place in the House some time ago. I am therefore confident that he will have the courage of his convictions if the Territorial Army is cut as deeply as the newspapers would have us believe it is about to be.

None the less, the hon. Gentleman accused me across the Chamber of misleading the House on the Labour party's history on defence cuts. I forbore from intervening at the time to object to that accusation, but despite the fact that the hon. Gentleman is no longer in the Chamber--perhaps he will read my remarks in Hansard tomorrow--it might be worth placing on the record precisely what Labour party conferences over the past few years have said on defence.

Since 1995, any move to debate defence spending at the Labour party conference has been banned in favour of a motion calling only for a defence review. Before that,

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for six consecutive years there were motions calling for a cut in defence spending to the western European average--a cut of £5 billion. All those motions were passed. As recently as October 1990, at least five members of the Cabinet defied the Labour leadership by voting for that policy on the National Executive Committee.

In 1993, a Labour party conference resolution to cut defence spending was passed with a necessary majority. In 1995, the leadership avoided the debate altogether. It was then faced in the House with a rebel motion, which was supported by 42 Labour Back-Bench Members.

The suggestion that the Labour party has always been in the forefront of defending defence is absurd, and the notion that the strategic defence review is foreign-policy- led and may not result in substantial cuts in the defence budget is extraordinary. Labour's track record is there for all to see. I find it distasteful that the hon. Member for Stockton, North accused me of misleading the House.

Experts on news management will use the SDR in years to come, perhaps when someone is engaged in a PhD on it, as an example of a classic case of news management. There has been a series of leaks in Sunday newspapers along with briefing, counter-briefing, rumours and counter-rumours, on what the outcome of the SDR will be. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) correctly said that a great deal of that material will be coming from the special adviser. My hon. Friend should know; he was a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence during the previous Administration, as were other of my hon. Friends.

The strategy is well known. Someone has a word with a journalist from The Sunday Times and says to him, "You know, some people are suggesting that the RAF should be disbanded altogether, giving up fixed wing aircraft to the Royal Navy and helicopters to the Army, or vice versa, but I'm not sure whether you should carry that on Sunday." On Sunday, The Sunday Times carries it, and on Monday the Ministry of Defence assesses the reaction. If there is utter opposition and people throw up their hands in horror, the Minister says, "I have no idea where that journalist got that extraordinary story from. Don't worry about it." If the reaction is positive, however, the Ministry will crack ahead with the policy. That is classic news management, and the SDR is a classic example of it.

Another advantage of news management is expectation management. By putting about a story in The Sunday Times that we may be about to disband the RAF, the Minister can turn round when the SDR comes out and say, "Don't worry, those are absurd stories." Indeed, he did that rather convincingly this evening. He can say, "Those stories that we might consider disbanding the RAF were, of course, nonsense. I can reassure the House that all we are going to do is cut it in half, and that's not nearly as bad as the story that that idiot in The Sunday Times carried some months ago."

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I hope that my hon. Friend can reassure me that he is not related to Mr. Bernard Grey, who seems to be responsible for many of these things.

Mr. Gray: Heaven forfend. I have the distinction of having an "a" in my surname, and therefore am a Scot. I suspect that Mr. Grey has an "e" in his name and therefore, I regret to say, is an Englishman. Perhaps I

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should not say that, as I represent an English constituency. I must be careful about these matters--and it is St. George's day. I regret that I am not wearing a rose, but I admire the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) who is. I wish that I were.

The news management, briefing, leaking and counter- briefing that has been going on in the context of the SDR has been made worse because of the inter-service rivalry in and around the Ministry of Defence--Army against Navy, RAF against Army, and so on. The Minister says that that cannot be the case, but I have a letter from a serving General in the Army, whose name will remain confidential. He is a friend of mine. He has written on Ministry of Defence writing paper. In his letter, he says:

He goes on for two or three pages, telling me, a humble Back Bencher, how he believes the RAF must be slashed to pieces. There is no PS, but the hidden PS is, "But, of course, my particular branch of the Army must be saved."

It is entirely unhealthy that one service should be against the other. It is particularly unhealthy when the Regular Army is against the Territorial Army, or vice versa. I very much hope that the strategic defence review will not give in to such rivalry, but that it will instead do precisely what the Minister has always claimed--use a foreign policy baseline to produce a sensible combination of the three services.

It is extraordinary that the foreign policy baseline, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk referred so convincingly, has not been published. That inevitably leads Opposition Members to presume that there is no such thing. I am particularly puzzled that, when announcing the strategic defence review, the Minister went to great lengths to make it clear that Eurofighter and Trident were exempt. We all welcome that and would not for a second suggest that they should be reviewed, but if the review has a foreign policy baseline, how can one start by excluding the two most expensive items in our defence budget? There can be no foreign policy baseline if one excludes consideration of those two things. The reason they are being excluded is surely the employment consequences of doing away with them. In other words, the review is economics-led--Treasury-led--not necessarily foreign-policy-led.

None the less, I am encouraged by what the Secretary of State said when we last debated this subject: he gave an absolute commitment that there would be no cuts as a result of the strategic defence review. I think that he said at the time that he would put his job on the line on that basis. If there are deep cuts when the SDR is announced, as we on the Opposition Benches suspect, I am certain that all Ministers currently serving in the Ministry of Defence will have to consider their positions carefully.

I have a particularly strong constituency interest in this subject. North Wiltshire is firmly a defence-related constituency, and the RAF in particular has always played an extraordinarily important part in it. Until recently, my constituency had RAF Lyneham, RAF Kemble, RAF Rudloe Manor, RAF Colerne and RAF Hullavington. I regret to say that we do not have all those bases now,

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which we all deeply regret. Some of them have converted to Army use. RAF Lyneham, RAF Rudloe Manor and RAF Colerne are the only three that remain with the RAF.

In that context, I divert from the RAF to a more interesting constituency area--the disposal of the former RAF bases, which I hope you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will consider in order, as it is closely allied to looking after the RAF families who live in the area and to other RAF issues, even if it is not directly related to the issue of the RAF as currently structured. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to answer these points when he winds up.

The first point is about RN Copenacre. Hon. Members may be surprised that North Wiltshire, which I suspect is the most inland constituency in Britain, has a Royal Navy base. It is probably the most inland RN base anywhere. It has been wound up, and we have a large vacant site. The Minister is considering where the Defence Vetting Agency should be based. I believe that the three options available are Woolwich, Southampton and RN Copenacre. I very much hope that he will consider moving the agency to Copenacre.

Until recently, Corsham's economy was 39 per cent. dependent on defence. I think that that is the largest dependency of any town in England. It is extraordinarily high. The closure of Copenacre, Rudloe Manor, Spring Quarry and others has caused significant difficulties for the town. Many people in Corsham commute to Bath, Bristol and Chippenham to work now that there is no RAF employment in the town. We are in the process of applying for Government funding to re-establish Corsham station, which existed until recently. The county council owns the land. I hope that the Minister will speak to the Minister of Transport and that he will add his voice to ours, suggesting that the station has something to be said for it, or that we may be successful in applying for Konver II funds from the European Union to make up the economic deficit as a result of the closure of RAF bases.

I ask the Minister and his colleagues to hasten the sale of three sites in my constituency, all of which are still owned by the RAF but which could be better used in other ways--RAF Kemble, RAF Rudloe Manor and RAF Spring Quarry. The Minister might be interested to hear that the RAF Kemble Heritage Association, which is a limited company and represents businesses currently based on the site, has come to an agreement with the four local authorities involved--two in Gloucestershire and two in Wiltshire. They are putting together a joint proposal on purchasing the RAF Kemble site for use by the existing businesses on it and to keep it open as an airfield. Many businesses are dependent on the airfield.

Perhaps the Minister will give the proposal careful consideration, particularly if a property speculator comes along with an outrageously high bid for the site. The RAF Kemble Heritage Association is, I understand, prepared to pay £500,000 more than the commercial valuation for the site. It is prepared to pay a reasonable market price for it. Perhaps property speculators will come along in the hope of building housing on the site and will pay a ridiculously large amount. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to deviate slightly from the subject to make that important point to the Ministry of Defence.

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