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I thank the Minister for that substantial answer. I also thank him for his earlier co-operation with me prior to coming to the House today. However, it beggars belief that this information was to be put before Parliament in a written statement. That was surely an abuse of process. I am also disappointed
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that the Secretary of State himself is not here. I have seen a calling notice from the Ministry of Defence press office indicating that the Secretary of State will hold an off-camera briefing for journalists at 1.30 p.m. If he can brief journalists, surely he should brief this House first.
The news that the Minister brings with regard to RAF Saxa Vord is very bleak for Unst, which is one of the remotest and most economically fragile communities in the country. In a community of 700 people, the loss of 100 jobs and incomes is a devastating blow. Will the Minister assure me that, after almost 60 years, the Ministry of Defence will not simply turn the key in the door and walk away from RAF Saxa Vord? What will he do to ensure that the community is not left to sink? Consultation with trade unions is all very well, but surely there must be consultation with the people most directly affectedthe people of Unst themselves.
Will the Minister meet a delegation from my constituency of representatives from the local economic development agencies and the community to ensure that the withdrawal of the RAF from Unst, if it is to go ahead, is done with some sensitivity to the needs and wishes of the local community?
Mr. Touhig: I fully appreciate that it is a bleak statement for the hon. Gentleman's constituents on Unst. I recognise that it will have an impact on the community of 700 people. As I said, we are happy to work with the local authority, the Scottish Executive and the hon. Gentleman to see what can be done to mitigate any decisions arising from the announcement. At present it is for consultation. I assure him that I will happily meet him and any colleagues whom he would like to bring to a meeting, so that we can explore how to co-operate to give assistance to his constituents.
I apologise to the House for my failure in my opening remarks to refer to the fact that I am responding this morning, not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen should wait and be patient. We have time. We do not have to rush this. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in a meeting discussing responses following the bombings in London in recent weeks. The meeting has priority and has long been scheduled. He means no disrespect to you, Mr. Speaker, or the House. He has other Ministers because he has other duties which are also important. It does not in any way minimise the importance of what I have said. Notice of the written statements has been on the Order Paper since early this morning and the statements have been made available.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con):
First, on behalf of the whole House, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) the opportunity of bringing the Minister to the House so that he can answer on these important matters. Like the hon. Gentleman, I regard it as a gross discourtesy to Parliament that these important announcements about defence contracts and the restructuring of the Royal Air Force are being sneaked out by way of six ministerial written statements on the last day before the long summer recess. As we have heard, they affect constituencies across the land, from Orkney and Shetland to Cornwall and Gosport. Few Members in the House will not be affected. The Minister's response, which lasted more than 10 minutes,
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shows how serious and wide-ranging these announcements are and what a grave discourtesy it is to the House that he has been forced to come here and did not offer a statement in the first place. I am rather sorry for the Minister, who is a courteous gentleman. He has been sent here to do the Secretary of State's dirty work, when the Secretary of State himself should have come to the House to answer these points.
As the hon. Orkney and Shetland said, the discourtesy is compounded by the fact that the Secretary of State has time this afternoon to hold a press conference, at which journalists will be afforded the privilege of cross-examining hima privilege denied to elected Members of this House. It is unacceptable that we will not have that privilege for a further three months.
Furthermore, although this is not one of a number of ministerial statements today, I understand that there is a proposal to scrap nearly all the instructual flying at our 14 university air squadrons, which have been in existence since 1925. My understanding is that the proposal will take effect from 5 Octoberfive days before the House returnsand that there is to be a briefing at RAF Cranwell next Wednesday when the university air squadron officers commanding will be briefed. I challenge the Minister to tell us whether that is true. What are his plans for the university air squadrons? It would be unacceptable if this decision, which affects about 1,000 students across the land, 60 per cent. of whom go on as pilots to join the RAF, were presented to us as a fait accompli when we return in October.
This is part of the steady war of attrition on the RAF, whose number will soon be reduced to 41,000, half of what it was 12 years ago. There is a shortage of pilots, weapons systems operators and technicians. Although the new Typhoon is slowly entering service, morale is low and the entire Jaguar fleet is being scrapped. Yet in the strategic defence review, which was the brainchild of the present Secretary of State, the Government acknowledged,
"Since SDR, our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions".
Last week in the other place, Ministers were subjected to an unprecedented combined assault from six former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, many of whom the Prime Minister appointed. As Sir Max Hastings says in today's Daily Mail:
Britain's armed forces have been poorly repaid for the magnificent service that they have given to the Government. It is time that Ministers repaid the honour that our armed forces bestow upon them.
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Mr. Touhig: Let me say again that the Secretary of State meant no discourtesy to hon. Members. I made an error in not explaining at the beginning that the Secretary of State had another commitment and that that was why I am here.
There was no attempt to sneak out the information. Several statements are tabled today, two of which relate to the subject of the urgent question. Clearly, we have sought to ensure that hon. Members have all the appropriate information about the announcements. Hon. Members who remember that the announcements were made last year will know that today's statements today effectively put the meat on the bone of information that had already been given to them to a large extent. There has been no attempt on the Government's part to prevent everyone from having the appropriate and required information.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I felt that it was my duty to call a Minister to come to the House. The Minister is here, answering the points that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) wanted to raise. We should not labour the point about which Minister comes before us. The important thing is that we are questioning a Minister of the Crown.
Mr. Touhig: The right hon. Gentleman says that I am here reluctantly. Answering to the House for my responsibilities as a Minister is a paramount duty. It is one of my top responsibilities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State shares that view. It is what I am paid to do and that is why I am here today.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) asked about university air squadrons. I have no knowledge of the matter that he raised. I shall look into it the moment I return to the Ministry of Defence and if there is anything that I should communicate to him, I will do that as quickly as possible.
Under the Labour Government, our forces have been valued and supported. We have had the longest sustained increase in public expenditure for more than 20 years. I can find no better words than those of the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who said last year on 16 December:
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