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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that, whereas the Lightning had two collaborative partners and the Eurofighter has four, the FLA is likely to have eight? That means more potential for political procrastination. The difficulty is in getting eight potential partners to agree to one programme.

Mr. Blunt: I agree to some extent. Quite legitimately, British Aerospace would say in response that Airbus, the civil side, has been a terrific success, so why cannot that be the model for the procurement of the FLA. However, the FLA is too unknown. It does not fit the operational needs of the Royal Air Force. If one challenges British Aerospace about whether we are really going to have three aircraft in the inventory, it says that it will buy the C130Js and lease them to other people to make room in the inventory for FLA. That is pretty incredible, and it cannot mean value for money, either for British Aerospace or the Ministry of Defence. I urge the Ministry to focus on a C17 and C130J mix.

Finally, I deal with support helicopters, and pick up my initial theme of how the Air Force organises itself. I want the Air Force as an institution to feel secure, but it has to be open to new ideas on how to reorganise its contribution to the whole defence effort. Support helicopters are a classic case of a capability that should belong to the Army. Clearly, we must find a home for the people who joined the services with the intention of flying fast jets but who, having gone through expensive training, were then found not quite to have the mental or physical capability to fly fast jets, although they are perfectly capable of flying transport aircraft or support helicopters. We do not want to waste all the training invested in those people, but do we really need an all-officer flying crew for something that is, frankly, the equivalent of a flying truck?

The Army Air Corps has non-commissioned officers who fly aircraft extremely well. I know from my own work that if we had the same rank structure flying the support helicopters of the Royal Air Force as are flying the helicopters of the Army Air Corps, who arguably fly more demanding missions involving combat and tactical decisions in the field, on capitation costs alone of the rank structure, we would save about £8 million a year.

Mr. Keith Simpson: My hon. Friend's theme is the maintenance of the morale of the RAF, and its heritage and history. He will know that, during the first and second world wars, the RAF had sergeant-pilots in operational fighting aircraft.

Mr. Blunt: That is true, and these days, we should look for the best flyers. In terms of flying attack or support helicopters, I am not sure that we must look to the officer corps to provide pilots.

I am afraid that I must return to the issue of the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre. I share the concerns expressed in the House about the merits of

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the decision by the RAF board of inquiry, which has been supported by Ministers. It is beyond peradventure that, even without the voice data recorders from inside the support helicopter, the pilots were negligent--that is what has been said in the board of inquiry report. Frankly, it is almost impossible to achieve the standards asked for and, like other hon. Members, I hope the Minister will look at that matter again.

8.50 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): It is a great pleasure to contribute to a debate which has been so erudite and well informed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), and I associate myself with his comments on the Thrust SSC team who did so much to raise British morale and spirits recently.

I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who attacked the present arrangements for the RAF's public relations department. He has won the prize as the first person in the UK to find an area in which the Government have under-invested in PR. That is surely notable.

On a less partisan note, I shared the sentiments that the Minister expressed in congratulating the RAF on its 80th anniversary, and his comments on the 50th anniversary of the Berlin airlift. In particular, I share his tribute to the former Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin who, in the role he played in the creation of NATO, the Berlin airlift and turning the Marshall plan from theory into fact, was the outstanding British Foreign Secretary of this century.

The Minister referred to low flying. Perhaps he thought that, with the debate coming towards its end, he had escaped without any constituency representations on the issue. However, the Minister and my constituents would be surprised if I made no reference to low flying. It is not true that in my constituency--in the southern part of the Lake district--there is unanimous concern about low flying. When letters appeared in the Westmorland Gazette a year or so ago from people suggesting that RAF aircraft were flying so low that it was possible to see the pilot from their bedroom, a 15-year-old boy wrote to the paper, saying that he was extremely jealous and that he wished he could inspect the site where those wonderful aircraft could be seen so close.

I fully accept that we cannot expect young men and women to put their lives in danger for us in combat and training without providing them with the ability to train in a low-flying environment within the UK. My constituents accept that our area is relatively underpopulated and should take a balanced share of that activity. Some concerns have been expressed by the Lake district national park authority and the Yorkshire dales national park authority that perhaps the amount of low flying we are getting is a little disproportionate. We do not attack the principle of it, but I hope that the Minister will bear in mind my representations. I hope that he will assure us that we are not getting more than our fair share.

The strategic defence review has been referred to. There is the potential for the Government to believe that one of the ways of having deployable air power is to have serious aircraft carriers. I very much support the idea of having serious aircraft carriers with proper aircraft flying

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off them. As Barrow-in-Furness is next door to my constituency--and, declaring a small interest, because my brother-in-law works at the Vickers shipyard there--I hope that it will be possible to build those carriers in Barrow.

One lesson we should learn from the 1920s--in contrast to the comments of the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann)--is that it would be a grave mistake in the context of joint operations to believe that only the RAF should fly aircraft off aircraft carriers. The Minister may recall that this was the position in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was regarded as a great mistake and it stunted the British lead in aircraft carrier technology. If that decision had not been reversed shortly before the outbreak of war, many people believe that the conduct of the early phase of the war could have been more disastrous than it was.

In the strategic defence review, I hope that the Minister does not repeat another mistake from the 1920s--the so-called 10-year rule, which was imposed by the Treasury in the first few years after the first world war on the assumption that there could be no serious external threat to the United Kingdom for a decade. Then, as now, the fact that the international climate seemed propitious did not mean that clouds could not rapidly gather in a blue sky. I hope that the review will put in place forces which will be flexible and appropriate enough to cope with a sharp and unexpected deterioration in the general international climate, as well as with occasional, but significant, out-of-theatre crises.

The Minister referred to the retirement of the RAF's nuclear capacity, the WE177 free-fall bombs. It is worth noting in the context of the various anniversaries we have marked that this will be a significant development in the history of the RAF which, for more than half of its existence, has had a nuclear role. From the battle of Britain, and before, the RAF has had a significant role in protecting our country, and we should pay tribute to its role in contributing to the nuclear deterrent, which has played a significant role in maintaining the peace and security of these islands.

The Minister said that it was the Government's policy that should there be clear progress towards genuine nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the Government at some point would consider including the British nuclear deterrent--now solely Trident--within the negotiations. First, it is worth noting that a non-nuclear world is unattainable because the technology cannot be disinvented. With the internet and a scale of scientific exchange which would have been considered inconceivable in the 1940s, it is simply incredible to advance the proposition that the technology can be forgotten or controlled out of existence. We have had significant difficulties persuading, or enforcing, non-proliferation in one country--Iraq. We cannot believe that it is possible to do it across the world as a whole.

Secondly, I urge the Minister to reflect that a non-nuclear world is not necessarily desirable. If we compare the 50 years since the nuclear weapon was developed, with all its horrors and difficult moral challenges, with the 50 years before, we see that far fewer lives were lost in global conflict--even in medium-level conflict. I hope that the Government will not take the view without debate that a non-nuclear world is desirable, as real issues arise.

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Hon. Members from both sides of the House have spoken extensively about procurement. I add my support to the passionate and compelling case made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) for the Slingsby Firefly aircraft. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the aircraft will be assessed by exactly the same criteria and that he will go not for the cheapest option, but for the one that provides best value for money in terms of performance and long-term, as well as short-term, running costs.

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