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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My key point about contractorisation was about the need to ensure that, when the contracts are renewed, there are sufficient trained people for the future contract to be renewed at a reasonable price.

Dr. Reid: Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I thought that that was the point that I was referring to just before I referred to him. I included him as having raised that point.

With regard to the future offensive air system raised by several hon. Members, we are studying a range of options. As all hon. Members want a timetable, we shall try to avoid both extremes against which we have been warned. We expect to be in a position to make a decision on the way forward around the turn of the century. I shall not, therefore, be making any predictions on that tonight. However, we are well aware of the longer-term importance of the project to the defence aerospace industry, and it will be one of the many factors taken into account in deciding the way forward on the future offensive air system.

The hon. Member for Aldershot--and, I think, one other hon. Member--referred to the important beyond- visual-range missile project. That will also be somewhat delayed, not because of the strategic defence review, but because contracts for project definition risk reduction work and the BVRAAM air-to-air missile for Eurofighter were placed with Hughes, now Raytheon Systems, and Matra-BAe in August 1987. We expected a decision on placing a development and production contract, but not, I regret, until the summer of 1999. I take on board the points made by the hon. Gentleman, particularly given that Eurofighter is linked with the decision on which missile, and when one considers the implications for the export of Eurofighter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and several others raised the question of Chinook and the Mull of Kintyre, as did the Opposition spokesman. That is a matter of great sensitivity, on which no one can ever say that the decision has been taken, that minds are closed or that, whatever happens, nothing can ever change.

My approach has been, even at great cost of myself, to study all the aspects as much as I can within the time limits placed on me. If new relevant and substantial information comes to us, we shall look at the matter again. I have no problem with hon. Members contining to ask questions. I am still dealing with questions, and the hon. Member for Salisbury, who came to see me on the matter, still has to give me a number of detailed points to which he wants answers. The matter is on-going, but my position remains as it was. I have no monopoly on infallibility--any more than anyone else has--but, at the moment, there is no reason to reopen the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) mentioned the important and sensitive subject of the Bulldog replacement project. Hon. Members will forgive me if I do not respond to each matter that was raised, because that would be inappropriate for such a contract and it would be unfair to both sides to go through the issues in a public forum.

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I shall make a decision very soon, and it will be based on the best value for money for the aircraft that does the job best. As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood requested, I shall pay great attention to what the experts--the RAF, which will have to use the aircraft--have to say. I do not want to go further than that, but I hope that hon. Members will not have to wait much longer for an answer, with which they may or may not agree and which will not have been reached without great study.

On the question of morale, Ministers accept that the RAF has been going through a difficult period of change for several years. If the hon. Member for Salisbury thinks that morale is fragile, he should have seen it three years ago. As the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife acknowledged, it was at rock bottom. Morale in the RAF is better than it was then. There is instability and insecurity, which is understandable because of the defence review, but we should note that air power remains a crucial element of our defence capability.

From my contacts with them, I believe that RAF personnel are generally content with their professional employment. There are attractions outside the RAF, but I have spoken to people who have gone as pilots to the civil sector. As in any job, the grass always looks greener on the other side. People have left the RAF to shuttle between Glasgow and Edinburgh three times a day. In the RAF they had job satisfaction and commitment to public service, and the surge of adrenalin brought about by the feeling that they were doing well not only for their country, but for the world. Some people with new jobs sometimes feel that they would rather be back in the RAF--there are attractions to the service.

The shortfall in manning, which we inherited and which we shall do our best to get rid of over the next few years, is 3.4 per cent., or 1,850 people. I hope to reduce it to about 1.2 per cent., or 600 people, by April 1999.

Several hon. Members asked about retention. I have said that we already have detailed plans under way. I entirely agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood and several other hon. Members about the cadets. The cadets are good not just as a recruiting source for RAF officers, but as a major contribution to young people: they provide opportunities and help to develop, mould and shape future initiative and character. I want the cadets to continue to thrive.

Eurofighter is needed. The Warsaw pact-produced aircraft and the countries that obtained them are a direct threat to our forces, and we must give them the best, because, with the RAF, we have the best personnel. I express again the congratulations and deep gratitude not only of the House but of this country's people for 80 years of solid, absolute commitment by the RAF.

Mr. Gray: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did indeed mislead the House slightly earlier when I claimed that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) had spoken for 30 minutes last year. On careful reflection and looking at Hansard even more carefully, I realised that I had missed the fact that someone else had spoken in that time and that my hon. Friend did, indeed, speak for only 17 minutes. I regret the fact that I misled the House on that point.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I am sure that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) has noted the hon. Gentleman's apology.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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Dibden Bay, Southampton

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McAvoy.]

10 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I am delighted to have been selected for this Adjournment debate. I too have a small apology to make. Because, I imagine, of my handwriting in submitting my request for the Adjournment debate, as some people may have noticed, the Order Paper earlier stated that the proposal was to discuss Dibdon bay. I see that the immensely clever people who write the Order Paper have, through their erudition rather than my assistance, now amended that to the correct spelling. I apologise if the House had been misled.

This debate is about not just a bay, however we spell its name, but the viability of a great UK port and the future of UK ports in general. My aim is to place several arguments on the record, so that the local discussion, when it comes, will consider all the issues: local amenities, environmental concern, transport links and national and indeed international issues relating to shipping in ports.

I emphasise at the outset that no detailed planning proposal for Dibden bay has yet been submitted. I am therefore not asking the Minister to pronounce on a particular proposal; I would be most surprised if she did. However, I hope that she will join me in emphasising the importance of effective UK ports, because that is the heart of the issue.

Where does the issue start in the case of Southampton? Dibden bay sounds a very romantic place. It was historically a bay, but it is now effectively a large area of reclaimed land, situated between Marchwood military port and Hythe marina on the western side of Southampton water. It is owned by Associated British Ports and was reclaimed in the 1940s, with further reclamation in the 1980s.

ABP proposes to build a new container terminal with 1,850 m of quay on the site, and to provide a purpose-built rail terminal and an access road carriageway to service it. Although the land is entirely reclaimed and does not form part of the heritage area of the New forest, the mudflats in front of it are of environmental significance. ABP proposes to construct a 40-hectare creek to create new inter-tidal mudflats, together with an extensive area of landscaping. I understand that those proposals have already been discussed in some detail with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The proposal has strong advocates and strong opponents in the Southampton area. I am obliged to my parliamentary colleagues, the hon. Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) for writing to me expressing their sorrow at being unable to attend the debate. They take a different view from me, but it is based, among other things, on the impact of the proposals on the New forest area. That is understandable, and I expect them to do their job as constituency Members of Parliament. The impact on the area is my concern also.

I hope that those hon. Members will listen carefully to the issues I have raised and think carefully about the consequences of the wider issues of development upon

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Southampton port, which include the validity of the case for port expansion in Southampton and the significance of hub ports in the rapidly changing world of container shipping. I accept that there are real environmental and transport concerns about the proposals, but I hope that my contribution can focus the debate at the right level of concern. We should properly take immediate local issues into account.

We have a duty to ensure that development takes place with the least practical environmental damage, but we must also look at the wider national and international case when deciding whether to support the aims of the proposals. I understand that the immediate view might be to regard grass as clean and environmentally friendly and ports as dirty and industrial. However, an effective ports policy and the possibility of transporting much of the United Kingdom's freight by sea from hub ports is an immense potential environmental gain. Transporting a tonne of freight over a kilometre of sea is 20 times more effective in energy terms than transporting the same amount by road. The issue is perhaps not as clear cut as we might think at first glance.

In order to understand the essence of the issue, we need to understand the role of ports in the United Kingdom economy. To do so, we must realise what is happening in the world of container shipping. Ships are getting larger, and are delivering loads assembled from a large area and intended for distribution to equally large areas. Ships traverse the globe, carrying an ever larger number of containers, and they require the facilities to berth them.

The latest generation of ships, already built and operating, can take up to 8,000 boxes. They can be handled only by ports with a strong infrastructure and sufficient water and wharfage. Those ports will need to be able to distribute loads efficiently, and must therefore have good road and rail links. Above all, they must have good deep-water access. They are likely to be required close to the main deep sea shipping routes between Europe and the rest of the world.

Probably only three ports will fully fit the requirements by early next century--Southampton, Thamesport and Felixstowe. Those are firmly established international trends now. This method of transporting large quantities of bulk freight will not go away.

I have recently received a copy of a letter from the leader of the county council which was sent to local Conservative Members in Hampshire. He says:

of Dibden bay

    "hinges very much on trade with the Far East. Only a moment's reflection suggests that, with the present upheaval and turmoil in the Far Eastern economies, this may not be the best time to make decisions about a capital project with a pay-back period of many decades. I think our present view would be 'wait and see' . . . I should certainly welcome your views on the prudence of making decisions at a time of uncertainty about the future performance of the Far Eastern economies and their trade patterns."

I must tell the leader of Hampshire county council that that bizarre argument cannot go unchallenged.

It is simply fanciful to believe that the fact that the Japanese and far eastern economies are in some difficulty will alter the fixed pattern of container shipping from the far east to the UK--that suddenly the large container ships will disappear or not come to the UK. That is out of the

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question. Indeed, if we take that argument on board and indulge in short-term thinking, we will potentially throw away our stake in the UK's industrial future.

Ninety-five per cent. of the United Kingdom's imports and exports go through ports. We must get our ports policy right in the long term, by doing the thinking now. Hub ports are at the heart of that thinking. They will serve as the prime ports of entry, redistributing to either other UK ports or UK inland destinations, and receiving goods for shipment in return. Trade is likely to be concentrated on those ports, but there are problems--the capacity of the hub ports, for example, and the structure of world container shipping lines. Together, they present a difficult scenario for those who believe that our ports can stay as they are.

If the new generation vessels cannot dock or discharge, not only will those ships that will go elsewhere, but the lines and consortiums operating them will naturally base their operations on particular ports. They will take the whole of their business to other ports. In other words, there will be no such thing as a static hub port. Hub ports will either have to evolve to meet the new shipping challenges, or they will almost certainly shrink rapidly.

The consequences for Southampton are obvious. Currently, the port of Southampton is almost full, if we include the present roll-on/roll-off and bulk services in the picture. It has no land or wharfage on which it can develop at its present site. According to the argument I outlined, it will either consolidate its role as a national hub port with Dibden bay or it will shrink to only regional significance without it.

There are also severe consequences for the UK economy of a failure to deal with the need for effective hub ports. Ships entering the English channel from deep-sea voyages can, in effect, turn left or right to unload. That is not a terribly nautical term, but it sums up the choices available to ships entering the English channel. They can berth in England or in Rotterdam, Antwerp, or, perhaps, Le Havre. Ports in France, Belgium or Holland that can offer good facilities will capture hub trade from the UK.

The French Government have recently shown that they take the issue seriously, and that they will continue to subsidise their main ports. Commissioner Kinnock is pursuing the issue of a level playing field for ports, but we should not underestimate the threat of continental competition on major UK ports.

Containers arriving in Rotterdam can be transhipped or sent to the UK by a combination of sea and rail, but only at a cost. That cost is estimated to be a premium of about £100 per box, so, if our long-term policy succeeds in driving that traffic to turn right when it enters the English channel, we will, among other things, add considerably to the cost of UK industry, with all the consequences that that entails.

My central case is therefore that we need a strategic view of ports policy. I hope that the Government will tackle the issue in the forthcoming White Paper on integrated transport. We need to ensure that there is a full debate on the exact plan, infrastructure and environmental design of any development on Dibden bay. It is proper that ABP should fund all those elements which will make the eventual design work satisfactorily, although I have to say that that does not appear to be the case currently with other European ports often in direct competition to Southampton.

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I suspect that the question whether in the European Union we should subsidise all or none of our ports is one for another day, but the debate on Dibden bay is more immediate. It will be entered into shortly, and I know that environmental concern will be a prime weapon.

An environmental policy on ports would be greatly helped by a clear definition of what the country needs in terms of port facilities. We know now that demand for development in each of the three emergent UK hub ports will be considerable. The options will not concern development at Southampton; or, failing that, Thamesport; or, failing that, Felixstowe. They will come down to the choices we make to allow a hub and feeder port strategy to work overall in the UK.

In the 1980s, there was a free-for-all in port development. If someone had money and saw the chance to capture business, that was okay with the Government of the day. We got superfluous terminals in inappropriate parts of the country, sometimes at great environmental cost.

A proper view of strategic need would put an end to the practice of considering each proposal as if it were on a planet all by itself. Areas in other estuaries in the UK will remain untouched as a result of a proper ports policy. That must be a gain for those who want to seeindustrial development tempered with environmental considerations. We will have within our grasp the ability to move freight by far more appropriate environmental means. These are real gains, which can be made by thinking holistically. I hope that that is what we will do in the upcoming debate on the development of Dibden bay.

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