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19 Nov 2008 : Column 92WH—continued

The Minister for the Armed Forces replied:

It took me three minutes last night to go on to the RAF’s website and discover that 4 Squadron was deployed on Op Telic from February to May 2003. So, what is going on when the MOD is churning out answers that are incorrect when compared with its own website? It took me three minutes to discover that the information I was given was wrong and that Harriers have been on
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Op Telic. If that is the quality of information that the MOD is churning out, what sort of information is the Minister getting? It is outrageous.

I have outlined the reduction in capability that the introduction of the Tornado will bring to the theatre. Will the Minister tell me, with particular reference to the technical ground abort rates that I have given him, why, if the MOD is prepared to accept the risk of one in 10 Tornadoes not getting off the ground, it is not prepared to accept a reduction in the number of the considerably more reliable Harriers? That is a moot point, however, because we are already meeting harmony guidelines.

It is bizarre that after spending so much money upgrading the Harrier force to the standards required for Afghanistan, so that it is now relatively cheap to operate, we are not fully funding it. Why is the RAF doing that? Will the Minister explain? Ironically, and perhaps crucially, the money being spent on getting the Tornado up to theatre-entry standards and keeping it there could maintain a Harrier force that fully meets harmony guidelines in Afghanistan indefinitely, but the RAF chooses not to do that.

The RAF claims that because the Tornado fleet is bigger it will be easier to maintain harmony, but that is rubbish. The Tornado fleet is, in fact, two fleets—the GR4 and the F3. We have discovered, from the answer to a parliamentary question that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked, that only 60 per cent. of the Tornado forward GR4 fleet are fit for purpose. How many of those will have met the theatre-entry standard by 1 April? Not many I fear.

On harmony, according to parliamentary answers, we have 11 air crew and 86 ground crew for the Harrier, giving a total of 97. When we replace the eight Harriers with eight Tornadoes, the numbers will be 24 air crew and 122 ground crew, so a like-for-like replacement equates to a 50 per cent. increase in manpower on the ground. The key argument seems to be the need to meet harmony guidelines, but we are about to send 50 per cent. more ground staff just to support those eight aircraft.

If anything requires an operational pause, it is the Tornado, because it has been on operations constantly for 18 years, since 16 January 1991. We are deploying it at enormous risk. If the Minister does not believe me, let me refer him to the Tornado GR4 integrated project team joint business agreement, which will be available to him. I refer him particularly to the risk log on page 3, which highlights 14 risks, 10 of which are high-impact, and all of which have a medium or high likelihood of occurring over our current problems within the Tornado fleet. It is outrageous that all that information simply is not being given to the Minister.

There is also an argument about the life span of the Harrier. As the Minister is probably aware, the prime factor that controls the Harrier out-of-service date is the original airframe flying hour life, which is a conservative estimate of 6,000 flying hours. When working out whether an out-of-service date for an aircraft type may be extended, one must first consider the residual airframe life that is available on each of the aircraft in the fleet and add them together to give a bucket of flying hours. The bucket of flying hours remaining for the Harrier would
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enable a two or three-year out-of-service date extension beyond 2018 to 2020 or 2021. The full five-year out-of-service date extension to 2023 that is so desperately needed by the Royal Navy is achieved by a small, 10 per cent. extension to the airframe flying hour life. That is more an engineering paperwork exercise than anything else. Ironically, the type of flying on Operation Herrick is less demanding on the airframe than the normal UK-based training flying, which tends to involve more aggressive flying, from an airframe perspective. Any arguments on that ground are therefore ridiculous.

Having discussed why we are pulling the Harrier out, and having given the Minister some information as to why the reasons are fictitious, I must ask why the RAF is so keen to withdraw it. I believe that the key lies, again, in an unanswered parliamentary question. I have asked the Secretary of State for Defence

What does that actually mean? I am not going to draw the Minister into debates on Treasury cuts and the fact that the RAF is having to find ways to save money next year. A lot of money seems to be splashing around, but if the MOD needs more money, that is a point for him to argue with the Treasury. It is pretty clear that, if the Harrier stays in Afghanistan, it will not be subjected to the programme review. If, however, the Tornado is pulled out of Iraq—it soon will be, hopefully—what exactly is it going to do? It will not be on operations, and it will not have an operational role. I am assured that the RAF is concerned that, all of a sudden, the Tornado fleet is beginning to look exposed. It believes that, by ensuring that it has a role in Afghanistan, we can give the Tornado fleet and its future a degree of protection.

If we are potentially accepting all the capability loss that I have explained and coming up with arguments about harmony, simply because the RAF is concerned that it may take cuts to its Tornado fleet, that is outrageous. I shall not overplay my concerns, as I have limited experience of serving as a soldier in Afghanistan, but it is outrageous if we are prepared to take all the risks that I have outlined for that reason.

I ask the Minister to ask some detailed questions of his officials. I am convinced that he has not been given all the information that he needs to take an informed decision. If he were to say, “I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I give him my assurance that I will go away now and ask those questions, to ensure that the decision is being made for the right reasons”, I would be happy with that. I have given him considerable detail about the matter. I am deeply concerned that there seems to be a culture in the MOD of not only giving inaccurate answers, but refusing to answer questions because the answers would not necessarily support the RAF’s decision to remove the fleet from Afghanistan.

We have only nine minutes left, so I shall finish. I ask the Minister to refer directly and specifically to the points that I have made.

11.22 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I, too, would like to say what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship,
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Mr. Atkinson. I add my tribute to Colour Sergeant Krishnabahadur Dura, who was killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. I know that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) is very close to the Gurkha regiments, and if he speaks to them, will he pass on my heartfelt condolences and my pride at the job that the Gurkhas are doing in Afghanistan?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It gives me an opportunity, in the limited time left to me, to pay tribute to the role of the RAF and the other forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I understand that he wishes to concentrate on Afghanistan. We ask a lot of our armed forces, and the tempo of the RAF’s operations is constantly under review. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways. They can hardly argue that we should reduce the tempo of operations and the pressure that we put on personnel, and then argue, as I think he did, that we should keep people in theatre for long periods.

The RAF’s contribution in Afghanistan is everything from heavy lift to the close air support that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That support has been of great effect to UK and coalition forces. He has left me little time, and I shall not respond now to the document that he has passed to me, but I shall certainly respond to the specific points in it afterwards. I need to touch on some of the issues that he raised.

We cannot get away from the fact that we ask the RAF and our other armed forces to do a lot. There is pressure not just on them but on their families. It is easy to blame the MOD or the ministerial team, but the decisions in question are made by the RAF for clear operational reasons. Hon. Members need to be careful in such debates not to try to be armchair generals—or in this case an armchair air marshal—by second-guessing what commanders on the ground need. I wish to make it clear that the decision has not been taken because of anything to do with finance. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the future of the Harrier force, and I can only say that, like everything else in the MOD, it is under review. Decisions have not been taken on financial grounds; they were operational decisions on the ground.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Tornado being of less capability than the Harrier. I have asked questions about that in preparation for the debate, which he was kind to give me an opportunity to do. In some ways the Tornado brings capabilities that the Harrier does not, such as the 27 mm cannon and the new RAPTOR imaging system—the reconnaissance airborne pod Tornado—which has been used very effectively in Iraq and, I am told, will be in Afghanistan as well. I accept that the two aircraft are different, but it is wrong to give the impression that we are somehow not providing our armed forces with the support that they need by putting Tornado there.

Mr. Lancaster: Since the Minister has decided to mention the capabilities that Tornado has and Harrier has not, for the sake of balance he should now state the capabilities that Harrier has and Tornado has not.

Mr. Jones: I am not going to get into a technical debate—

Mr. Lancaster: You cannot have it both ways.

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Mr. Jones: I can have it both ways, because I and other Ministers have to ensure that we provide what commanders on the ground ask for. It is wrong to suggest that Tornado is a poorer or cheaper option that will not provide the capability that is needed, or that it is somehow a cost-saving measure. It is not; I think that Harrier costs £30 million a year and Tornado will cost £31 million.

Mr. Lancaster: It is more expensive.

Mr. Jones: It is, but that shows the Government’s commitment to providing our armed forces with the equipment that they need. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the money that has been spent on Harrier, but again, Conservative Members cannot have it both ways. They can hardly criticise the Government for not supporting our armed forces given that, in this case and others, urgent operational requirements have brought from Treasury reserves—not from the MOD budget—the capabilities that our commanders on the ground have asked for. He cannot say that Harrier is not needed, and it would be wrong of Ministers or of him to second-guess what commanders on the ground want.

The hon. Gentleman clearly has a good source of information—be it from a constituent or someone else. I am quite prepared to answer the points raised in the document that he has passed to me, but I find it sad that, if there are concerns among serving personnel, they cannot be articulated through the chain of command. I emphasise again that these are operational matters, and the MOD, the ministerial team and the Government more widely are committed to ensuring that our people on the ground have the support that they need. May I finally nail the point about the possibility of the Treasury asking for cuts? It is not about cuts; it is about providing what is actually needed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the effects of withdrawing Harrier on the airframe and on the individuals involved. We must recognise that we have been asking the Harrier to do a lot in Afghanistan, and that needs to be taken into account. We have also been asking a lot of the people there, and we must allow them recuperation with their families and home bases and recognise that they need to continue training. They cannot do that on operations.

Mr. Lancaster: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jones: I will not. I am about to finish, as I am running out of time.

That need was another factor that led to the RAF’s decision. We need to keep the training, and the quality of the people who fly the Harrier, up to date.

Mr. Lancaster: On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. May I simply ask that the Minister go away and correct the parliamentary record in the case of the answers that I have been given that I have said are wrong? I have demonstrated one of them to him, on 4 Squadron serving on Op Telic. Will he also write to me with answers to the questions that he has not answered?

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. It is a point for the Minister.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Continental Rail Links

2.31 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to debate this important subject under your watchful eye and careful consideration for our well-being, Mr. Atkinson. I am pleased to extend my congratulations to the Minister on his position in the Department for Transport. He is a hard-working and decent Member of Parliament, and he thoroughly deserves his position.

I did not take part in the debates in the main Chamber last week about Heathrow airport, but I noticed that many of the hon. Members who did so referred to rail travel as the alternative to air travel, particularly for short-haul journeys. This debate is an important part of getting the detail right, so that we can genuinely say to people that the better alternative is to take a train rather than a plane.

By way of introduction, I would like to describe my experiences in the time that I have been an MP travelling between my Stafford constituency and London. In the 11 years in which I have been here, I have always done that journey by rail. Each time I travel from my constituency to London, I am interested in seeing how services are developing. I recall that back in 1997, when I was elected, several times my journey was seriously disrupted by things going wrong with the network. The top speed of the train was 110 mph, and a typical journey time was two and a quarter hours. Then came the £8 billion public investment to upgrade the west coast main line, and Virgin Trains invested in a new fleet of Pendolino tilting trains. For the past few years, I have experienced top speeds on the line of 125 mph and a journey time as short as 90 minutes.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Kidney: I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend and near neighbour from Burton.

Mrs. Dean: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He will know that as I live at Uttoxeter, I have a choice of going to Stoke-on-Trent, Stafford or Derby. He is right in saying that travel via Stoke-on-Trent is much quicker than it used to be, but sometimes the trains on that route are overcrowded. Perhaps he would address that point. On the service from Derby to St. Pancras, we must try to improve the time if people are to reach London and beyond in a speedy fashion, but it is also important to ensure that connections from towns such as Burton-on-Trent to the Derby-to-London line are improved.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are still gains to be made by tackling the last few bottlenecks on the network and by improving things such as signalling but, fundamentally, as we face the future from a position of success and growth in the railways, I shall argue that the problem is one of capacity and that we need to develop more lines, particularly high-speed lines. I hope that my hon. Friend will be with me when I make that argument.

From next month, the story of the journey from Stafford to London will get better still. With the new December timetable, which is a result of the great investment in the west coast main line, journeys will be even quicker. From December, many of my journeys
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will take one hour and 18 minutes, with no stops at all between Stafford and London. More trains will make the journey each day, and the first direct service of the day from Stafford will reach Euston 36 minutes earlier. In a remarkable stride forward, from 14 December, the weekend service will be as good as the improved standard weekday service in terms of frequency and journey times. We have not experienced that on the west coast main line in modern times.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about the weekend service improving, but that may not happen for at least another year. I believe that there will be blockades on the line for at least 35 of the 52 weekends post- 14 December. Does he see that as a problem for the introduction of the new service?

Mr. Kidney: I would ask the hon. Gentleman to be a little cautious in speaking so generally. I specifically mentioned the route from Stafford to London. Many of the blockades that he is talking about will be well north of Stafford. It is true that we have taken a lot of pain in the past 12 months, as preparations are made for the new timetable in December, and we have witnessed considerable disruption and inconvenience for travellers at weekends. We will be glad to see the back of those problems after 14 December.

Alongside the improvements in rail services between Stafford and London, there has been an improvement in rail travel between London and the continent in the past 11 years. We have moved on a long way since the time that train travellers had to cross the channel on a boat, having built a tunnel to connect ourselves to the continent, but I still regard my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who was then the Deputy Prime Minister, as a great hero for saving the channel tunnel rail link project. I remember that evening when he came to the House of Commons Chamber at 10 o’clock at night to make a statement about saving the private-sector project from financial oblivion with a helping hand from the Government. The new public-private partnership secured the link and gave us what we have today. At that time, the terminus in this country for those services was Waterloo, but at this time last year there was a move to St. Pancras station, when the line became known as High Speed 1.

High Speed 1 is a success as far as passenger traffic is concerned. The figures from Eurostar show that, in the first nine months of this year, Eurostar carried a total of 7 million travellers, up nearly 14 per cent. on last year. Ticket sales were up more than 17 per cent., at more than £521 million. That is the advert for Eurostar, but let us be practical and admit what a marvellous travel experience the journey from St. Pancras is. We begin at a station that has been brilliantly restored and modernised. The journey by high-speed rail service links St. Pancras with Ebbsfleet, Ashford, Paris, Brussels, Lille, Calais, Disneyland Paris, Avignon and the French Alps. Some journeys are incredibly good value. I checked the Eurostar website yesterday. A return to Paris or Brussels is possible for as little as £59 for adults and £49 for people under the age of 26.

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