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Dr. Reid indicated assent.

Mr. Collins: I am glad to see the Minister nodding in response to that.

More broadly, procurement has an immense impact on aerospace, which is our most significant manufacturing industry. It is worth remembering that the Hercules, which has been mentioned many times in the debate, came into service in the late 1960s because a previous Labour defence review had cancelled the British alternative--the HS681.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot spoke of his support for supersonic vertical/short take-off and landing--again, we should note that that Labour defence review cancelled the P1154 Harrier. The Labour Government of the 1970s cancelled yet another supersonic carrier project, the AV16. The United Kingdom aerospace industry is inevitably concerned about Labour defence reviews, and I am not even taking into account the magnificent TSR2, which was cancelled in 1965 by a Labour Government that had pledged at the 1964 election--

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): That was before the hon. Gentleman was born.

Mr. Collins: It was, in fact, the year I was born.

The Labour Government pledged in 1964 that they would not scrap the TSR2. However, they not only cancelled it, but--in an act of immense spite that is still talked about in the aerospace industry--ordered that the construction jigs should be destroyed to prevent a future Government from revisiting that decision. There is a long history of concern in the industry about the impact of Labour defence reviews on its projects and viability.

I hope that, in considering the strategic defence review, the Government will consider how to preserve and enhance a manufacturing industry that not only is the United Kingdom's largest, but above all others gives us a technological lead in Europe and the world. The industry's potential should never be underestimated.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot and other hon. Members from both sides of the House, I had the pleasure and privilege to attend a briefing by the Society of British Aerospace Companies, which pointed out that the British aerospace industry represented 70 per cent. of the value, in terms of market capitalisation, of the whole European industry. The Ministry of Defence and the RAF will inevitably have not only an interest but a great say in the discussions about the so-called Euroco--the consolidation of the European aerospace industry--so it is important that the Minister recognises that the United Kingdom should use its immensely powerful bargaining chips and interests.

We must not do what we have done so often before--be terribly reasonable Anglo-Saxons in the face of French obduracy and allow the French to win out. Concorde is

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always spelt with an "e" because the French insisted on it for ever and a day until they got their way. The 1967 Anglo-French variable geometry project did not last long because, once the French had got hold of British swing-wing technology, they decided that they no longer wanted to take part but would build the aircraft themselves. It has been difficult to bring the French into collaborative projects for military procurement. They are not part of the Tornado or Eurofighter projects because they always choose to go their own way unless they can dominate the venture and run it for themselves.

I strongly urge the Minister and his colleagues in other Departments not to blink when, in considering British procurement policy and the British aerospace industry, the French insist on terms. No deal is better than a bad deal, and any deal would be bad that transferred control over the British aerospace industry, which is the most competitive in Europe, to France or Germany, whose industries are far less competitive. I hope that the Minister can say something about that.

The debate about the future of the RAF will always concern not only its relationship with the other services, as we have heard, but whether the manned aircraft will continue to play a role on the battlefield.

It is important for the Minister not to fall into two possible traps. The first would be to underestimate the importance of advancing technology and the increasing cost of aircraft, about which the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) spoke. We can see the possible end point of that in the American B2 bomber, each one of which costs $2 billion.

That is pretty absurd by anyone's standards, and one could project ahead to a point at which the entire RAF budget would be taken up by a single aircraft procured in a single year. That is clearly not sustainable. In the early 1970s, the Americans had a lightweight fighter project that resulted in the F16, and it may be sensible to consider carefully the balance between quality and quantity, although no one would want our pilots to fly in anything but the finest aircraft.

British Aerospace says that its industry these days is 50 per cent. software, and that is probably increasing. Those who go through Euston station as often as I do--on travels back and forth to my constituency--will have seen from a large poster there that it is possible for any of us to fly an F22 via a personal computer game.

As such technology advances, along with the advances in remotely piloted vehicles, Tomahawk cruise missiles and other technologies, it is important not to underestimate the ways in which some of the functions performed by manned aircraft may be able to be replaced; but the second trap to which I referred is that fallen into by a previous Conservative Government: in the infamous defence White Paper produced by Duncan Sandys in 1957, he suggested that the future of the RAF lay entirely with deploying rockets and missiles, and he cancelled a whole range of military aircraft projects.

More than 40 years on, it is clear that that judgment was wrong. For as far ahead as we can foresee, there will be some role for manned military aircraft. Not only do we want British pilots flying British skies in RAF aircraft, but as much as possible of the technology and hardware should be British. I hope that the Minister will be able to contribute to that.

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9.7 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I must at the outset declare three interests. First, if I were not to confess to having participated in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I would not be listened to very attentively. Secondly, I have a professional interest, inasmuch as I have run an aviation consultancy company of my own for many years; I have always regarded professionalism in both aviation and politics as essential if one is not to come to grief. Thirdly, RAF Northolt is in my constituency. I believe that it is the oldest flying station still in active operation. It goes back to 1915, before the formation of the Royal Air Force, and is still going strong.

This debate has been illuminated by hon. Members of all parties, many of whom have been fascinated by air power and recognise the immense debt of gratitude that we owe to the Royal Air Force for the security of our country. Some have served in the air cadets; some have had flying scholarships at civil flying clubs paid for by the Royal Air Force; some are graduates of university air squadrons; and some have been involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, grappling with their stomachs in extraordinary attitudes and at high g-forces and emerging to tell the House how exciting their experiences were and how marvellous are the men and women of the service with which they have become acquainted.

We should be remiss not to pay tribute to former hon. Friends who participated in our past debates. Bill Walker, the former Member for North Tayside, flew Tempest aircraft, the last piston-engined fighters in Royal Air Force service, and was a doughty champion of the air cadets. Lord Hardy of Wath did his national service in the Royal Air Force and has never lost his love for the service, and he maintains his intense interest in it to this day. Keith Mans, the former Member for Wyre, was a Vulcan captain. That was an important role because, with the Victor and the Valiant, the Vulcan formed the deterrent force that preserved the peace during the cold war. He is to become secretary of the Royal Aeronautical Society. How lucky the society is to have him. Lord Monro still fulfils the illustrious function of Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, and was a link with those who fought in the Royal Air Force in world war two.

In that connection, I cannot fail to mention as only one example of a generation to whom the House and the nation owe so much the late Wing Commander Laddie Lucas, who was Member for Brentford and Chiswick from 1950 to 1959, and commanded 249 Squadron in the defence of Malta in 1942. It was the highest-scoring squadron in the defence of the island, and he won the distinguished service order and the distinguished flying cross. He was encouraged to fight the 1945 general election and stood for West Fulham but did not beat Edith Summerskill. He returned to the Royal Air Force and brought back from France 180 bottles of champagne stowed underneath his fighter. In those days, it cost 12 shillings a bottle, and it was drunk at his wedding to the sister of Thelma Bader, the wife of Douglas Bader, of whom he wrote a wonderful biography, as he wrote so many books about the air war in world war two.

It is the 80th anniversary of the service. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) described in his book "Aces High" the life of

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1052

combat pilots on the western front. Their lifespan was often measured in days or, if they were lucky, in weeks. They had little training and were courageous beyond our ken. It was not only on the western front but on the home front that they faced challenges. I found a poem in the Royal Air Force journal about Cranwell camp, HMS Daedalus, in 1916:

    "There's sailors living in the huts

    It fills my heart with sorrow.

    With tear-dimmed eyes they say to me

    It's Cranwell camp tomorrow.

    Inside the huts live rats they say

    As big as any goat.

    Last night a sailor saw one

    Trying on his overcoat.

    It's miles away from anywhere

    By Jove it is a rum one.

    A man lived here for 50 years

    And never saw a woman."

Times have changed. In 1920, the Royal Air Force college was founded and in 1933, the fine permanent buildings were established. Now, women officers are trained alongside their male counterparts, and the central flying school and the college of air warfare are also there. It is an outstanding centre of excellence.

In considering the history of the Royal Air Force, we should not forget the inter-war years. They were perhaps characterised by Trenchard's policy of air control, which those following the Iraqi crisis will understand. To symbolise that period, I thought most appropriate the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). A memorial to Flight Lieutenant Kinkead was erected on the 70th anniversary of his death. He flew in the Schneider trophy contest as a member of the Royal Air Force high speed flight. In the great war, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service, and later the Royal Air Force, gaining 32 aerial victories. Early-day motion 950 had 105 signatures. The Kinkead trophy is still awarded to this day at the Royal Air Force college at Cranwell.

The debate was opened by the Minister for the Armed Forces. It was perhaps a political dance of the seven veils--mysterious, tantalisingly unrevealing but, sad to say, much less exciting than the real thing. At the end of it, I wondered whether this was the same man who spoke in the Royal Air Force debate from the Opposition Dispatch Box a year ago. This time, his speech was much more inclusive--less incisive, but more inclusive. It included just about every kind of generality, but no answer to any question that I could gather was of concern to right hon. and hon. Members. At that opening stage, he made no observations about the RAF's equipment programme, which is central to its capabilities.

The Minister made some points that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) found interesting about the creation of a Defence Aviation Repair Agency, bringing together RAF St. Athan and Royal Naval station Fleetlands. I am sure that it is a sound move. I wonder whether it presages the creation of a joint support helicopter force, about which so much has been leaked in the press. If it does, I should have nothing against that, either. I am sure that it is a rational and logical development. I am also sure that the Minister is right to stress the importance of interoperability and integration.

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As someone who has had the honour of taking two parliamentary delegations in the past three years to the Baltic states--first to Estonia and then to Latvia--let me say how much I welcome the initiative that the RAF is taking through the "Partnership for Peace" programme. That GR7 Harrier aircraft should have been out to Finland and the Baltic states as well as to Hungary, Bulgaria and Moldova, I find exciting. I am pleased that a Nimrod is going to the Baltic later this year. We should not forget Ukraine, which is pivotal to European security. It is exciting that, under the outreach programme, the RAF is to participate in the Kiev air show.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) mentioned the future of his station, and I must mention the future of mine. RAF Northolt is a station that fulfils a key role. It provides the transport of VIP personnel, Government Ministers and senior service officers. It is well located for the headquarters at Northwood, Bentley priory and High Wycombe and, of course, for Whitehall. It is important that it should remain in RAF hands. There should be no question of its becoming a sort of Heathrow north, with the RAF allowed to have just a little enclave.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury paid tribute to the work of the Defence Evaluation Research Agency armament and aircraft establishment at Boscombe Down. It is working at the frontier of aeronautics, proving aircrafts' worthiness for service use. It is the kind of institution that makes the United Kingdom a centre of military aviation excellence throughout the world. It is also the site of the Empire test pilots school.

My hon. Friend also stressed the importance of air cadets. So many hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have done the same, and I am glad that they have done so.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) made a puzzling speech. A number of my hon. Friends have commented on it. I found it moving that he paid a tribute to his father, who worked on Lancasters, Hampdens and Wellingtons, but he did not appreciate the crucial role of the RAF in securing the air superiority and dominance that are necessary in modern warfare.

The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is not like one of the socialising members of the Labour party, is not in his place because, I gather, he had to go to Buckingham palace. He spoke about the importance to Scotland and Northern Ireland of an air officer. We should note what he said. He also stressed the importance to the RAF of the ASTOR system for the provision of effective intelligence and the control and command that it provides through battlefield surveillance. Such functions will be needed whatever the international situation, and such a system is a potential peacekeeping asset. It has the potential to win wars, and it builds confidence.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) spoke with knowledge and commitment about the stores and distribution centre and the mountain rescue team at Stafford. Logistics is as crucial in modern operations as it always has been. I recently visited RAF Wyton and found that it had been transformed from the flying station that I knew into a centre for logistics command. The work there was as thrilling and exciting as, I am sure, the work that the hon. Gentleman witnesses in his constituency.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) spoke with great authority without in any way being didactic. I should like to re-emphasise a couple of his points. First, we should not go down the Canadian route because individual service identities are still immensely important. Above all, it would be much better if the Government felt able to publish the foreign policy baselines for the strategic defence review.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) went from the Air Training Corps into the airborne forces, and that demonstrates the importance of the corps in providing air-mindedness in the broadest sense. The hon. Gentleman supports the Firefly. It is an excellent aeroplane; otherwise, it would not be operating with the RAF and in the American service north and south of the US-Canadian border. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), I had the privilege of flying the 260 version and I have also flown lower-powered versions. It is a lovely aeroplane and I hope that it is chosen but, of course, the Royal Air Force will decide.

Like all my hon. Friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made an excellent speech. It is remarkable how well they speak. My hon. Friend has a real understanding of the values and ethos of the service, and his acquaintance with the parliamentary armed forces scheme deepened the local service knowledge that he has acquired in Gloucestershire. He made an important contribution to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is from the other side of the Kemble runway. I remember it because I used to fly Hunters from it. He made a marvellous speech, but he was far too eulogistic about me. He said that I spoke for 35 minutes in last year's debate, but I spoke for less than half that time. If I thought that I had spoken for 35 minutes, I should be seriously worried.

If the Minister remembers nothing else, he will at least remember my hon. Friend's comments about the sewers at Lyneham.

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