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Mr. Gray: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend because I am greatly enjoying his speech. I have already been accused once of misleading the House and I am keen that that should not happen again. The Official Report for Thursday 6 February 1997 shows that my hon. Friend started to speak at 7.27 pm and that the hon. Member who followed him rose at 7.57 pm. I am afraid to say that that is exactly half an hour.

Mr. Wilkinson: Well, mathematics never was my strong point. I learned mine before the days of calculators. I do not know whether Bill Walker rose to speak or to intervene, but we shall study Hansard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot--a flying scholar, as I said--gave us a lesson in the importance of air power as such. He also emphasised how crucial Eurofighter 2000 and short take-off vertical landing aircraft are for the future of the Royal Air Force. I believe that the joint striker-fighter will be a crucial element of bringing together the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, which are already flying together very effectively in joint air groups, as shown during the latest episode in the Gulf.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who spent much longer than I in the Ministry of Defence--that is why the Ministry of Defence has

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progressed so far and so fast--described from an historical perspective the nature of the Royal Air Force, and its importance to the country as a separate service. I was struck by his professional judgment, as a former regular Army officer, of the merits of the C17 heavy lifter. He also understood the potential of the C130J, which we hope will come into service in the relatively near future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) made a speech of great fluency, rationality and distinction. I have a house on top of the Pennines, and I rather like the low flying aircraft, but I realise that I am not typical. In a balanced and well-argued speech, my hon. Friend drew attention to the potential nuisance that continues to be caused to his constituents by Royal Air Force low flying aircraft. However, I feel that the Royal Air Force is managing the problem well. It goes out of its way to explain to hon. Members the precautions it takes, and how sensitive it is, in conducting those necessary operations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale did us all a service in reminding us of the crucial role that the Royal Air Force played in sustaining the peace during the cold war, when it was responsible for the nuclear deterrent. Now, of course, the WE177 is being phased out. During the cold war, the Healey axe--the abandonment of the 1154, the HS681 and the TSR2--were cataclysmic events for the service, and have led to the folk memory, which persists for good reason, to the effect that the Royal Air Force is not necessarily happy unless it has in power a Labour Government who have genuinely changed their attitude to defence.

We shall see whether Labour has changed its attitude when the defence review is finally published. Until then, we must suspend judgment. All I know is that the Royal Air Force is down to 53,000 men--to my mind, the absolute minimum. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot emphasised the importance of flying hours. Tornado F3 crews fly about 183 flying hours a year; Tornado GRI crews, 210; Harrier crews, 206; and Jaguar crews, 197.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot was right to say that we should keep the Jaguars. Those three squadrons are extremely cost-effective. The fact that I worked on the project when it was a prototype does not mean that I say so for sentimental reasons. Those squadrons proved themselves over Bosnia and in the Gulf war, and they are now acquiring the thermal imaging and laser designation system, and the hands-on throttle and stick. The aircraft has been upgraded extremely well at St. Athan, which the Minister visited. The Jaguar's cost per flying hour is only £13,000--markedly less than that of the Tornado, which is £23,000. The maintenance hours per flying hour are 12.2 for the Jaguar and 17 for the Tornado. I urge the Ministry of Defence to think very carefully before disbanding those two offensive support and one reconnaissance Jaguar squadrons, certainly until Eurofighter comes into service. We do not want a hiatus in the front line.

If the Minister is worried, may I suggest that the Royal Auxiliary Air Force could crew those aircraft. They might be operated at lower intensity, but it would make good sense. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force has played a crucial role in this period of diminished manpower strength in

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the service. As the regular manpower has declined, so the number of roles taken on by the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has increased.

How right my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire was to mention his casualty evacuation squadron, the Wiltshire squadron, which is an example of the imaginative new role that the auxiliaries are now taking on. They are reverting to their traditional flying role, which they had until 1957, although they do not yet have formed flying units.

The armed forces, particularly the RAF, have benefited from the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which we put in place at the end of our term of office. If offers a ready reserve and a sponsored reserve. That is the key to making contractorisation a success. I have seen at RAF Northolt occasions when it has not been a success. The 146 emergency landing at Stansted is a case in point. Then there was that ghastly business of the Airwork Tornados at St. Athan. However, we are moving forward.

If contractor personnel are subject to service discipline, can be required to wear uniform and can be called to the colours in emergency or war, many of the inhibitions to their cost-effective use can be removed. That is why I would also urge sponsored reserve engineering personnel. I have seen, as has the Minister, how well RAF St. Athan works. It is crucial to be able to augment capacity in time of emergency or war. St. Athan provides that. We must have a balance between regulars, reservists and contractors. That is the way forward.

The Royal Air Force needs above all to maintain its integrity. It must maintain its principles of service before self and its overriding doctrine that only the highest standards will suffice. The service is looking resolutely to the future.

I hope that, in Whitehall, it is understood that command of space is just as crucial for war winning in the future and for the prevention of war as is control of the air. Before too long, we shall face the necessity of putting into place a ballistic missile defence system for our country, and I hope that it is under serious consideration.

The quality of a country's armed forces reflects a nation's self-esteem. The value that a nation places on its liberty and its institutions is reflected in the quality of the armed forces that serve it. We are extremely fortunate in having in the RAF a service of the very highest quality.

9.33 pm

Dr. Reid: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I say--I am sure the House will agree--how good it was to see the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) at the Dispatch Box. For many years I have listened to his speeches from the Back Benches--always short, sharp and concise, and, in my experience, never running to more than 17 minutes. Although it is form to pay such tributes, on the occasions that I have listened to him, the sincerity, passion and patriotism that he brings to these issues has shone through whatever he has said, whether from the Front or the Back Benches.

The hon. Gentleman's speech tonight, and also that of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who opened for the Opposition, shows that it is possible to develop--over time, and not without pain, anguish and the biting of tongues--a consensual framework on national security

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and defence issues. That does not mean that hon. Members on either side of the House have to be bland or uncritical or enter into a form of bondage to the other side.

I think that tonight's debate is the best that I have heard. Although the contributions have been small in number, their quality has been very high--as they say in Scotland, good gear comes in small bulk. I thank the hon. Member for Salisbury for his compliments about my collective, inclusive, caring, sharing, consumer-friendly speech--what a pity that he added that I did not answer any of his questions. I shall now attempt to do that, starting with what I know to be the most important. I have taken immediate advice from my officials about those questions that I cannot answer and instructed them to find out the answers.

The first question, which I know is of particular importance to Conservative Members, was raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who asked about the temperature of the chardonnay served in the office of the Minister for the Armed Forces. I have taken immediate advice about that, and I understand--of course, I am not in breach of the convention that we should not ask about our predecessors--that, in days past, claret was the order of the day and that it was best served at the slightly warmer end of the scale. While I am on the subject, I ask Conservative Members to thank their friends for the Christmas gifts of quails' eggs, claret and grilled rare species, but I would be grateful if they would tell them that there is a new Minister for the Armed Forces.

I shall deal with one or two of the myths that were put about today. On the question of news management, I hope that hon. Members will not assume that every mistake that appears in the Sunday Times is the fault of the Ministry of Defence. We do not have enough people or time to create or be responsible for every mistake that appears in the Sunday newspapers. I assure the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that some of the detail that appears in the Sunday papers is news to me as well as to him. Like any Government Department, we like to present our case, but we are not into spin. This is a serious Department of State, and it will be treated seriously by this Administration.

Several hon. Members referred generally to inter-service rivalry. I pay tribute to the three services, from the chiefs of staff--Dick Johns in the Air Force, Jock Slater in the Navy, and Roger Wheeler in the Army--down. There has been unparalleled openness and a willingness to look critically, to learn and to be flexible, and all the politicians involved have agreed with every outcome that has been achieved. Politicians, the military, civil servants and the wider services have made a genuine attempt to co-operate, and I dispute any suggestion--through leaks and so on--that there have been any significant inter-service rivalries. The services are a credit to their country, and that bodes well for their future integrated operation.

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