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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I did not realise that my hon. Friend intended to raise the subject of RAF Kemble,

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which is half in Gloucestershire and half in Wiltshire. I intervene only to reinforce what he says by asking the Minister please to hasten the decision on the sale. Commercial contracts relating to the leasing of the buildings are at stake, and it would be helpful if it could be put on the market as soon as possible. I believe that the planning brief has been virtually finalised, so there is no reason why it should not be put on the market.

Mr. Gray: I apologise to my hon. Friend. I should have mentioned to him that I intended to raise the matter of RAF Kemble. I think that it is two thirds in Wiltshire and one third in Gloucestershire, but we shall not argue about that. My hon. Friend spoke at some length earlier about the C130Js based at RAF Lyneham and he did not tell me about that, so perhaps it is fair do's all round.

The remaining existing and strong RAF interest in my constituency is largely based in and around RAF Lyneham, which has 3,000 personnel. If one throws in their wives and others who stay with them, that is a substantial part of my electorate.

Mr. Frank Cook: Wives thrown in.

Mr. Gray: We, being trendy new Conservatives, are happy to accept that people other than wives may be staying with them. I believe that "partners" is the currently acceptable new Labour expression. They account for a large number of the voters in my constituency.

The well-being of RAF Lyneham is extremely high on the agenda of issues with which I am much concerned. RAF Lyneham does not seem to be threatened in any shape or form by the strategic defence review, but we are, none the less, disappointed that a beautiful new training building has been erected for the new C130J Hercules, with training already taking place in the mock-ups getting ready for the arrival of the aeroplane, but that so far the aeroplane is delayed by about one year. I understand that it may now be ready by November or December. I hope that it will be, but I cannot help but feel that RAF Lyneham is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, I wonder why Lockheed is not being pressed more fully for full compensation for the late delivery of the aeroplane.

Also based at RAF Lyneham is the very good RAF auxiliary squadron of air dispatchers. They are nearly all retired RAF people. I think that I am right in saying that it is the only air dispatch squadron in the Territorial Army. We also have the air mobile squadron, which has the famous claim to be first in and last out in any conflict because the Hercules must be there with the stores.

I want to raise several issues concerning families and the way in which people live in and around RAF Lyneham. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) rightly said that defence debates such as this are about not only guns and aeroplanes but the way in which the RAF and service personnel live with their families.

The first issue that I am particularly keen to raise concerns schools. The school in Lyneham, and particularly secondary schools in north Wiltshire, have raised with me the fact that the standard spending assessment is based on the number of children in a school, a figure which can be calculated only once a year--I think on 19 March, or around that time.

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I have raised the matter with the Department for Education and Employment, but it tells me that, if it were to change the basis of the calculation for service schools such as those in my constituency, it would have to do the same for other schools. If service personnel are posted and, as a result, the number of children in a school goes up or down, the Government should be ready to increase, or on occasion to decrease, the amount of money given to the county for its schools.

I appeal to the Government to change the method of calculating SSA so that the number of service children in secondary schools in north Wiltshire might be calculated, say, once a quarter, so that the SSA more accurately reflects the number of children in the schools.

I do not want to be distasteful, but another issue that I am keen to raise relates to sewerage in and around RAF Lyneham. Because of the de-icing of the runway at RAF Lyneham during many years, the sewers, which have not been renewed since the 19th century, regularly clog up. The water and sewerage provision in the area--on the base and in the village--is unacceptable.

The issue was raised with the MOD, I understand, as long ago as 1972, and the MOD gave the absolute assurance that the work would start in 1997 and be completed in 1998. I regret to say that, despite that assurance, sewerage in the village of Lyneham is still in something of a mess.

Labour Members point this way. They may be right; the failure to renew the sewers in Lyneham may be the result of a slippage on the part of the previous Conservative Government. [Interruption.] There will be a slippage if the sewers keep bursting. Had I spoken on the subject as a Government Back-Bencher, I would have been as harsh on my Minister as I am being on the present Minister. Will the Government please sort out the sewerage in Lyneham with all due dispatch?

The RAF has been the lifeblood of my constituency now for many generations, and it still is to a significant degree in the form of RAF Lyneham and the many retired RAF personnel who live in the area. The RAF is an extraordinarily important part of life in North Wiltshire. Therefore, as we approach the strategic defence review, I join my hon. Friends in appealing to the Minister not to forget the RAF, the RAF families who surround the bases and the RAF retired personnel who have given such distinguished service over the years.

8.6 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I am delighted to participate in the debate--a prospect which I particularly relish given the presence of the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is such an engaging character, who really enjoys his job. He is certainly a round peg in a round hole. He enjoys it so much that I understand that he may even seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak again.

However, the Minister may have found his match in my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who I am delighted will respond on behalf of the Opposition. I join my hon. Friends in paying tribute to him, because he is one of the great experts in the House, and has been for many years, on matters to do with aviation, not just the RAF.

I also pay tribute to the Minister for the way in which he is trying to approach the review. He mentioned earlier a meeting which took place 48 hours ago. It is important

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that people outside the House should understand that, although parties may differ on detailed issues of policy, nevertheless hon. Members speak to each other. Occasionally, we even enjoy a glass of wine together. I may say to the Minister that the Chardonnay could have been slightly cooler, but no doubt he will have a word with his private secretary about that. Despite our differences, we do have the opportunity to engage in constructive debate.

In view of the important contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), this has been a wide-ranging debate, moving from sewerage at Lyneham through to the wider issue of the joint strike fighter going on into the 21st century.

I am delighted to participate in the debate because I have such a great attachment to the RAF. I venture to suggest that I even owe my existence to the RAF, because my parents met when serving with the RAF in the far east during the war. They knew each other for only five weeks before they were married, so but for the RAF I would not be here. I have a greater interest than even the Minister in the well-being of the RAF, and everyone who has its interests at heart will be delighted by his assurance that it is safe as a separate service.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said when he outlined the Opposition's position, we are debating the RAF in a vacuum, because the strategic defence review has not been completed yet, and we have nothing firm to go on. Understandably, the Minister cannot give details today, so we rely to an extent on rumour, speculation or even hunch. We do not know the provenance of stories floated in the press, and do not know how accurate they may be.

Dr. Reid: Nor do I.

Mr. Howarth: We do not know how accurate such stories are, but there may be truth in them. It is the job of the Opposition to press the point and to ensure that they are not considered to be simply the wild imaginings of journalists; indeed, they may be kites flown by Ministers to test public opinion.

The Minister hopes that the review will be published ere long. He and the Secretary of State have made it clear that it is driven by foreign policy considerations, andthat it will not be resource or Treasury-driven. As Conservative Defence Ministers discovered, the Treasury is a powerful institution; many people argue that it is too powerful. The Treasury has an important role to play, but I hope that the Minister will ensure that it does not get its way, and does not use the review as a cost-cutting exercise, because that would destroy the reputation and credibility of the Minister and of the Secretary of State.

The Minister and the Secretary of State have made great play of the fact that the review is based on foreign policy considerations and on creating the right shape of forces with which to meet the foreign policy baseline. If it turns out to be a cost-cutting exercise, their credibility will be shot to pieces and there will be great anger. I hope that it will not come to that, and I do not think it will, because I take comfort from the fact that the Government, like their Conservative predecessors, believe in exerting British influence throughout the world, and acknowledge that the armed forces have an important role in underpinning and reinforcing British foreign policy.

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The British people take great pride not only in the quality of the services, as has been acknowledged by hon. Members from both sides of the House, but in the fact that our services professionally, skilfully and effectively carry out the tasks that the Government call on them to undertake in support of British foreign policy around the world, whether they be humanitarian or, as in the Gulf war, offensive.

The Prime Minister has been in office for a year, and has great aspirations to walk on water and to flex his muscles internationally. The Prime Minister could see his ambitions and aspirations on the international stage thwarted if the Treasury comes down too hard on Defence Ministers' proposals. He would not tolerate that, and I hope that the Treasury would be given its marching orders.

Hon. Members have mentioned morale in the RAF and in the services generally, which is an extremely important issue. The review represents the third reconfiguration of our armed forces in less than 10 years. My hon. Friends with more direct experience of the RAF than I have,such as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), have mentioned many examples of the dissatisfaction--I shall not use the word "despair"--that is felt around the services.

The RAF has received much of the flak during reviews and studies. Overstretch is common to all three services, but the numbers relating to the RAF speak for themselves. In 1990, the RAF had 90,000 personnel. The general mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will be pleased that the number will be reduced to 52,500 by next April--a 40 per cent. cut in manpower, which must have an impact on operational effectiveness.

In 1996, the Defence Committee concluded that the RAF was only just about meeting its commitments. Since then, additional calls have been made on the RAF to act on behalf of the Government in a wide range of roles--the Minister mentioned the extensive commitments in which the RAF has been engaged since he became responsible for it--despite continuing decline in numbers. Morale has unquestionably suffered.

I pay tribute to someone who has not been mentioned in the debate, but who deserves considerable credit for the extraordinary dignity and courtesy that he showed while commanding the RAF during the past five years. Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon had great political pressures placed on him when he was in command, and he had to watch his service take fantastic reductions in manpower and in equipment. Sir Michael has now retired, after doing a great job in difficult circumstances.

The result of the review for the RAF and for the other services must be the creation of a stable climate in which there are real career prospects for those who join the services, especially the RAF. They must think that is a service worth joining for the long term, not simply to put in the hours on a long-haul transport aircraft necessary to get a better paid job with British Airways with infinitely reduced commitments and more time to spend with their families. The Minister must address that matter.

Ministers have said that they believe in the continuation of the three separate services. Subject to more jointery, I hope that that will happen. Jointery is not new. My hon.

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Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was at the Ministry of Defence when it was first pushed up its scale of priorities, and the previous Administration carried out rationalisation, although there is clearly scope for more.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) was not enthusiastic about Eurofighter, and questioned the need for it. I shall deal with that issue in a moment, but we must understand why we need a separate RAF and what its role is. I can do no better than quote from a recent article by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, chairman of the Air League and chairman of Cobham plc, and a very great man indeed. He wrote:


That encapsulates what the RAF is about. It has a range of roles. It does not have one simple role, but that is summed up in one expression: air superiority. Without that in the Gulf, we would have had a much more dramatic loss of life, which would not have been sustainable against public opinion at home. Therefore, air superiority is vital, but to provide it is not cheap, as Ministers are finding out.

This should not be seen as a debate between investment in people and investment in equipment. Of course the people are important--everyone has paid tribute to the skills of those who serve, particularly those in the RAF who fly combat aircraft. I have never flown one myself, but it is a very skilled operation. Pilots have to be able not just to fly, but to manage a sophisticated weapons system as well. We need first-class supplies both of equipment and personnel, so we cannot stint on training. In this review, I shall look carefully at the implications for RAF training.

In the 1980s, during the time of the previous Government, there were severe restrictions on flying hours. It is no good having highly professional pilots who have not had the flying hours to maintain their capability on the aircraft. Not only that, but I do not believe that Members of Parliament or Ministers would be able to have clear consciences if they knew that they were providing highly professional and skilled people, who are devoted to their country and committed to their service, with second-rate kit. We have to give them the best equipment available. Preferably, it will be British, and generally those two coincide.

I am concerned at the proposal to mothball some kit. I hope that, when he sums up for the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood will deal with the question about the Jaguars. If Eurofighter is not going to come into operation until later, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold suggested, we have a serious gap. The Jaguar has a role to play, and I do not believe that it should be mothballed.

It is no good mothballing kit if no pilots with current flying experience with the aircraft are available when we need it, and if there are no qualified engineers with up-to-date training to service it. Otherwise, those aircraft will go into theatre without proper servicing back-up. That needs to be dealt with.

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In the new world order, Governments expect to call on the services at a moment's notice, so they must not deny them the training. That was what was behind my question to the Minister, when I asked what "high-intensity readiness" meant. I hope that the services are getting a lot of training, so that they can feel confident about going straight into battle.

On training, I am bound, as a former university air squadron pilot, to say that I hope that university air squadrons will be safe in the review. They have an important part to play. They are a great source of air-minded young men and women with the opportunity to fly, and a source of material for the RAF.

It is important that we understand that we provide the equipment for our services to ensure that they have the best available to carry out the tasks we impose on them. It is not for the benefit of industry, but there is, of course, an industrial dimension to this; it would be foolish to ignore that, particularly as British Aerospace happens to be one of Britain's great success stories.

It is appropriate to pay tribute to Sir Dick Evans, who has been just been appointed, with effect from next month, chairman of British Aerospace, and John Weston, who will become, I think, chief executive, for their contribution over a long period to the industry. I do not think that anyone with the interests of the RAF at heart will deny that it has done well in terms of equipment. Some exciting new equipment has been delivered, and some is yet to come.

Going through some of the programmes, as I tried to say to the hon. Member for Ipswich, it is extremely important that we have Eurofighter. It is also important that we cease this endless debate about something in which we have invested a huge amount of money, time and skill. It not only provides us with an air superiority fighter, which is what we need--it is a superb aircraft in that role--but enables us to continue to develop a huge range of technologies, in many of which Britain leads the world.

Eurofighter exists not as a job-creation scheme, but to provide a first-class bit of kit. However, it also gives British industry the opportunity to remain at the leading edge of technology, so that, when it comes to the joint strike fighter, British industry will be able to play its part and perhaps get the chance to take part in production of an aircraft for the United States air force.


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