HC Deb 09 March 1989 vol 148 cc1054-126

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

4.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to open the first RAF debate since my appointment as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces. In my relatively brief time of acquaintance with the RAF, I have attempted to see as much of the service as possible and to talk to senior colleagues at the Ministry of Defence about the aims and aspirations of the services. During the past three months, I have visited Headquarters RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe and the RAF bases at Coningsby and Leeming.

I have found that the service is in good heart and have been enormously impressed by the professionalism of the men and women serving in it. I believe that the RAF is confident—as it should be—that the Government will continue to accord it the priority that it requires. Since 1979 we have allocated very consierable extra resources to the RAF, amounting to some £9.2 billion, over and above inflation and this demonstrates the Government's commitment to the service.

I intend this afternoon—as is normal on these occasions —to give an account of the role, work and activities of the Royal Air Force, and I will, in addition, address three matters which I know are of special concern to the House —flight safety, low-flying training and manning in the service. I do not propose, however, to attempt to catalogue all the major improvements that have been made in equipment. The details will be set out in the annual statement on the defence estimates to be published in a couple of months' time, and if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement succeeds in catching your eye later this evening, Mr. Speaker, he will be able to deal with any point of interest that may have arisen concerning equipment.

The House is well aware of the vital contribution that the RAF continues to make to our main defence roles in NATO. The RAF contributes to all four roles—nuclear forces, defence of the United Kingdom, forward defence of the European mainland, and maritime forces. I shall not rehearse the details of those roles now as they do not change fundamentally from year to year, but in the past 13 months the outline of the RAF of the future has become clearer. What is certain is that, even with the welcome improvements in East-West relations, it is essential that we maintain a policy of deterrence, which includes the maintenance of a strong Royal Air Force.

The role that most people associate with the RAF is, I imagine, the air defence of the United Kingdom. To this, the RAF contributes interceptor aircraft, of which I will say more in a moment, Bloodhound and Rapier missiles and Skyguard radar-controlled guns.

In the past year the second and third squadrons of the Tornado air defence variant have been declared operational, and a fourth squadron has been formed and will become operational later this year. To sustain the ADV force into the future, we have ordered an additional 15 aircraft for delivery in the early 1990s. As new aircraft enter the stage, so old ones exit and since our last debate the Lightning has been finally withdrawn after nearly 30 years' service.

For the longer term, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced last April that the Government had decided to proceed with the full development of the European fighter aircraft in collaboration with the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy and Spain. EFA will be a major project, costing the United Kingdom about £7 billion, and will provide the RAF with an agile, high performance air defence aircraft. It will replace the Phantom and, using its secondary ground attack role, the Jaguar at the end of their service lives, and will complement the Tornado ADV. As my right hon. Friend said, the specification for EFA has been rigorously and realistically examined in comparison with a number of alternatives. Moreover, its development will benefit from the exacting procurement disciplines which have been introduced over the past few years, and of which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement may speak further, later this evening.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I thank my hon. Friend for his obvious interest in the Royal Air Force and for the work that he has been doing. On the subject of EFA, I guess that we are now beginning to approach the crucial decision about the radar sensor system. Can my hon. Friend tell us what progress has been made in that regard? My hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that it appears that MSD 2000 radar sensor system has a slight edge in terms of its putative attributes. Will he tell us the latest state of play and assure us that the crucial choice between the two systems on offer will be made as soon as possible?

Mr. Neubert

My hon. Friend will understand if, at this early stage in my late-flowering career, I do not immediately answer him, but direct him instead to the answer given on Tuesday by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement, who may be able to answer him in more detail later.

We are confident that EFA will benefit from those exacting procurement disciplines, and that EFA will prove the best and most cost-effective option to meet this essential military role.

Behind the scenes, work is progressing well on the seven Boeing E3 airborne early-warning aircraft which the Government have ordered to replace the redoubtable Shackleton from the early 1990s. We should salute the Shackleton on the 40th anniversary of its inaugural flight.

Let us consider the other roles of the RAF. The service contributes strike-attack and offensive support and air transport forces to the defence of the European mainland. The mainstay of our strike-attack forces is the Tornado GR1. Those aircraft would carry out long-range interdiction against enemy airfields and lines of communication to prevent them from applying their full weight to our forces in the central region. To do that, the Tornado would have to penetrate increasingly comprehensive and sophisticated air defences, and it is that requirement which gives rise to the need for low-flying training of which I shall say more later.

I am pleased to tell the House that, subject to the satisfactory resolution of contractual and other issues, we intend to proceed with a mid-life improvement for the Tornado GR1 strike-attack aircraft. The programme will contain a package of measures to provide the Tornado with an improved night and all-weather capability and so maintain the effectiveness of this highly successful aircraft as we move into the next century. Much of the work done under the programme will be placed in the United Kingdom and so should help sustain procurement opportunities in the United Kingdom aerospace industries.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

On the question of the usefulness of the Tornado, my hon. Friend will be aware of its value in respect of its strike capability and in terms of arms control talks on how far we should reduce our strength in the central region, but can he add anything to the statements that have already been issued about the future of the stand-off missiles that may be equipped in the future for use by the Tornado aircraft?

Mr. Neubert

No, I cannot do so, but perhaps my hon. Friend will turn to that point when he replies to the debate.

To sustain the Tornado GR1 force in the future, we have ordered an additional 26 aircraft for delivery from the early 1990s. After the inevitable delay caused by the unfortunate accident in October 1987, the first squadron of Harrier GR5 offensive support aircraft is now forming and will be declared operational later this year. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement announced last May that we intended to order a further 34 GR5s to sustain the force in the future.

This is a debate about the RAF rather than air systems, but it would be appropriate to record here a further significant milestone in the modernisation of our armed forces, namely the successful launch of the Skynet 4B satellite on 11 December 1988 by an Ariane 4 rocket from Kouron in French Guiana. The satellite is now on station. The first super high frequency channel became operational on 1 February 1989, and we expect the whole satellite to be operational by the end of this month.

Turning to the question of exercises and deployments, I am pleased to tell the House that the RAF consistently earns high marks during the regular exercises held under the direction of the NATO commanders to test the operational readiness and proficiency of our defences. Indeed, the ratings scored by the RAF during those exercises—the so-called "tacevals"—are second to none throughout the Alliance.

Outside the NATO area, I have been impressed to learn about the recent deployment by the RAF in Exercise Golden Eagle, designed to demonstrate the capability of the Royal Air Force to operate worldwide when appropriate. The exercise was mounted by four Tornado F3s—our latest air defence aircraft—with other supporting aircraft including TriStars, a VC10 tanker and a Hercules, with their equipment and personnel. The exercise was designed to enable the Tornados to take part in the five-power defence arrangements—FPDA—air defence exercise under a long-standing agreement with the Government of Malaysia, codenamed Lima Bersatu 88.

I should like to apologise at this point for all the code names, initials and acronyms. I seem to have exchanged the anonymity of the Government Whips Office for the acronymity of the Ministry of Defence.

The exercise provides opportunities for the aircraft to carry out some joint training with other nations in that area.

The deployment encompassed visits to Malaysia; to Thailand to conduct joint training with the Royal Thai air force; and to Singapore where further training was undertaken and where the opportunity was taken to exhibit the aircraft to potential customers. The aircraft then spent 10 days in Australia taking part in the celebrations marking the Australian bicentennial, followed by participation by the Tornados in two air displays in the United States.

That global deployment drew favourable comments from all of the many nations that were involved. It was indicative of some of the attractions still available to the young men choosing a career in the modern Royal Air Force and was a splendid testimony to the safety and reliability of the Tornado F3 aircraft.

That leads me to mention the safety of the aircraft of the RAF, which is a high priority for us, and is an area in which the RAF can be justifiably proud of its record.

It is perhaps all too easy to forget just how recent is man's conquest of the air. The RAF has only just reached its three score years and 10. However, we should never forget that safety in the air, just as at sea, can never be guaranteed even with the most sophisticated of aircraft.

The RAF suffered a number of tragic losses in 1988. Each loss is, of course, investigated thoroughly in an effort to ascertain just what went wrong and to try to prevent a recurrence. Unfortunately, the very nature of military flying means that it is impossible to guarantee that there will never be any accidents. What we can and must do is to ensure that our aircrew are fully trained and our aircraft designed, built and maintained to the highest standards possible. Only then can the risks inherent in military flying be reduced to the minimum possible. I can assure the House that the RAF is taking all these steps, with the full support of the Government.

Progress in flight safety can sometimes seem painfully slow, and when we get down to the current relatively low level of accidents statistical fluctuations from one year to another can assume disproportionate significance. Over the longer term, however, the record can be ascertained more realistically and the trend is clear and encouraging. Thus, in 1957—which was then the best year on record for RAF flight safety—149 lives and 157 RAF aircraft were lost in accidents. Last year, by comparison, 17 aircrew died in 18 accidents, resulting in the loss of 19 aircraft.

Even though the service has reduced in size over the past 30 years, it is clear that the major accident rate has been cut dramatically, so that in recent years it is down to only one aircraft being lost for every 30,000 hours flown. I hope that hon. Members will join me in congratulating the RAF on the outstandingly professional way in which it carries out on our behalf the difficult flying operations that are so essential to our nation's defences.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

If it is absolutely essential to lose all those lives and the hundreds of millions pounds-worth of planes, including the 12 Tornado aircraft that fell out of the sky, why does West Germany not adopt the same criteria? Because of its losses, including Tornado aircraft, West Germany has cut its low flying and reviewed the necessity for it. As West Germany is a member of NATO, surely we can follow its example rather than continue with assertions that low flying is absolutely essential when it costs so much money and so many lives.

Mr. Neubert

The hon. Gentleman is not correct. The amount of low flying in this country is broadly comparable with that in West Germany. The hon. Gentleman knows that this matter is under review at the moment and that no decisions have been taken or announced.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a great problem facing us today in Europe is that the morale of the West German air force, especially its aircrew and specifically its pilots, is low because they are aware that they cannot carry out the tasks that they have been assigned because they do not train properly or effectively enough to do so?

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

West Germany has too many men like the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) in its Parliament.

Mr. Neubert

The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) must be one of the most important factors to be taken into account.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will the Leader of the House give way on that point?

Mr. Neubert

Well, I am not yet the Leader of the House, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Perhaps the Minister will point out to his hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that Conservatives in the West German Government have also complained strenuously about such matters.

Will the Minister tell me why, when I have three witnesses, each half a mile apart, who reported a near-miss on the boundary of Keswick a few months ago and when I submitted all the evidence from those independent persons to him in written statements, he has refused to accept that there was such a near-collision?

Why was he willing to accept the statements of the pilots who had not even reported the fact that a near-miss had taken place? Does he not understand that pilots have an interest in telling lies—[Hors. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] Oh yes, they have an interest in telling lies, not the truth —when they know that they have been involved in near-misses such as the one that was reported by my three independent witnesses?

Mr. Neubert

I refute that assertion. As the hon. Gentleman knows, every pilot in the air has a direct and personal interest in the matter of air misses——

Mr. Campbell-Savours

They have been telling lies.

Mr. Neubert

The hon. Gentleman has no evidence for his assertion. He will have to contain himself until we reach a more appropriate point for deaing with his concerns.

While on the subject of flight safety, I draw the attention of the House to the fact that we have now conducted a thorough review of our arrangements for military participation in flying displays and for air shows held at military establishments. Full account has been taken of the Civil Aviation Authority's recently announced guidelines for civil aircraft and displays. I am pleased to observe that the review confirmed that existing MOD regulations were generally very satisfactory. A number of relatively minor modifications are, however, being introduced and these should improve safety still further.

Particular attention was, of course, paid to the Red Arrows, the nation's premier flying display team. Changes are being made to the Red Arrows' routine, primarily to eliminate formation changes while aircraft are pointing towards spectators. To allow the team to be seen properly by spectators, a few over-flights of crowds will still be permitted. However, these will be at a minimum height of 1,000 ft rather than 500 ft as previously. In addition, no aerobatics or manoeuvres will be performed above crowds.

The chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority will accept Ministry of Defence assurances as to the safety of performances by the Red Arrows at any United Kingdom civil displays to which the team may be invited. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence review, together with the steps taken by the Department of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority, will lead to a successful 1989 flying display season, with millions of spectators being entertained safely and professionally.

I know that low-flying training is of particular interest to hon. Members. The letters that I receive leave me in no doubt that some people question this intrusion into their daily lives. I can assure them that the Government and the Royal Air Force recognise the inconvenience that this training can cause and are keenly aware of the need to minimise it.

To maintain a credible capability to penetrate today's sophisticated enemy radar and defensive systems, our pilots must be able to fly as close to the ground and as fast as possible, using the terrain to screen their aircraft. Such a capability can be maintained only by realistic training and practice in peacetime. The procurement of modern and capable aircraft is not sufficient on is own.

Since assuming my appointment, I have taken a close interest in low-flying training and its effect on those on the ground. The sudden noise of a low-flying aircraft can be alarming. The recent air accidents, even if unconnected with military low-flying training, have heightened public awareness of all air activities.

It is 10 years since a restructured system was introduced in 1979. Previously, the United Kingdom had some small areas for low flying that were linked by connecting routes. But they were inadequate. As the then Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force in the previous Labour Government explained to the House at the time, the old system channelled flying into particular areas, impeded training and led to undesirable concentrations of flying in some districts, mainly resulting from the many detailed restrictions that were introduced in an attempt to minimise the disturbance to particular places. But those restrictions simply aggravated problems elsewhere.

The new system was designed to distribute flying training over a wide geographic area, spreading the burden more equitably across the country as a whole. Aircrew plan their sorties to give them the widest practice and experience of flying, and to reduce routine patterns of activity. Unfortunately, the distribution is not perfect for everyone. The location of operating bases and weapons ranges produces limitations.

I recognise that, in some areas, the need to avoid major conurbations, controlled air space and other features such as nuclear power stations can still cause some concentration of traffic, but within these constraints we make every effort in our management of the system to achieve the original aim of spreading the training more fairly.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Could the Minister define what he means by "major conurbations"?

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)


Mr. Neubert

Yes, that is the simplest answer to give the hon. Gentleman. Major conurbations are dense concentrations of the population. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Mans

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a result of that change in training 10 years ago to spread low flying throughout the country, areas such as Cumbria have a smaller percentage of low flying over them than in the years to 1979 and that hon. Members with constituencies in such areas should be very pleased at the change?

Mr. Neubert

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

I welcome the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) to his new, dual-capable role. As I believe that he will open and close the debate for the Opposition, I shall ensure that he receives the reply that he seeks during the course of one of his speeches.

Mr. Rogers

I shall not congratulate the Minister yet on his appointment. But to stay with the point about major conurbations, would he consider that the city of Swansea was a "major conurbation"?

Mr. Neubert

Of course it is a major conurbation. That is why the greatest care is taken when over-flying that particular area, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Mr. Rogers

Then can the Minister tell me why RAF' planes over-fly the city of Swansea, and will he now define what he means by "major conurbations" instead of listening to the inane cackling of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence?

Mr. Neubert

I suspect that further discussion now would be sterile. The incident to which the hon. Member for Rhondda may well be referring was an operation over Swansea airfield. That is a different matter altogether from over-flying the city itself.

I ask hon. Members to bear in mind what I have said about spreading training more fairly when they consider concerns within their constituencies. Each restriction on the system merely forces training into somebody else's backyard. Our objective is to balance individual concerns against the wider impact on the population as a whole.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Has the Minister heard of a Soviet missile called the SA-10B? If he has heard of that missile, to what extent does he believe that it prevents those pilots who have been trained in low-flying exercises from penetrating Soviet air space? Has the hon. Gentleman been influenced in his judgment about the value of the whole programme by the existence of that missile system?

Mr. Neubert

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to question the whole principle of our forward defences, he is entitled to do so, but I do not believe that he will carry many people with him in such a suggestion.

Mr. Mans

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Neubert

My predecessor in this role last year gave way 22 times, and I do not seek to challenge that record.

The need to reduce disturbance to the public is also taken into account in other ways. The techniques of low flying over land demand particular skills, which cannot be developed by low flying over sea or by training at higher levels. In war, aircraft would need to fly below 100 ft and at speeds of over 600 knots. In peacetime, to minimise the nuisance caused by noise, most low-flying training in the United Kingdom is carried out at speeds under 450 knots and not below 250 ft.

Training in operational low flying at lower altitudes is mainly carried out overseas, in parts of the United States and Canada that are virtually unpopulated, apart from the occasional moose. Only very little operational low flying is undertaken in the United Kingdom, in three sparsely populated areas in Northern Scotland, in the Scottish borders and in central Wales. Such flying is infrequent and represents less than 1 per cent. of the total of low-flying activity in the United Kingdom. As hon. Members will be aware, special efforts are made to keep them informed of this activity.

Night and weekend flying is kept to a minimum. I am particularly conscious of the disturbance that is caused by night flying, but pilots must be capable of operating after dark, so strictly limited night flying is needed. No more activity is authorised than is absolutely necessary. We end flying at 11 pm whenever possible.

One of the questions raised with me by hon. Members is the possibility of carrying out more training abroad. While there is no substitute for training in Europe, across terrain that the aircrew would fly over in the event of conflict, we will certainly continue to look at opportunities for training abroad. But there are limits to the extent to which such training makes sense. It is expensive in resources which have to be found or deployed away from where they are needed operationally, and it is expensive in wasteful transit flying. But such deployments provide valuable training at very low levels which cannot be provided in Europe.

Some Members of the public suspect that pilots are irresponsible in carrying out their flying training. The image of the Spitfire pilot doing a victory roll over the aerodrome lingers, and it may mislead. It is a far cry from the professional, disciplined approach of today's RAF and from that required to fly a modern high-speed jet aircraft at low level. Pilots are fully aware of their responsibilities to the general public, and they plan and conduct their sorties as considerately as possible. As hon. Members are aware, the RAF police carry out surveys from time to time to establish whether height and other rules are being observed, and those surveys clearly show that there is a healthy respect for the regulations.

I have been very impressed with the thorough nature of investigations of individual complaints associated with low flying. I have been impressed also with the work of the RAF police. I can assure the House that any pilot found to be disregarding regulations will be severely dealt with.

Hon. Members should be aware also that, as a means of augmenting the existing system, we have been considering the use of a Skyguard fire control radar system to monitor the heights of low-flying aircraft. The system has been subjected to a series of trials, and I am pleased to announce that we have decided to deploy the system in this role. Although further work will be required before it is fully operational, in the meantime it will give us a limited capability to monitor low-flying training activities. This will provide a very valuable aid and, I hope, will be seen as an indication of our concern to ensure that the highest standards are maintained. I am confident that the results shown by the system will be yet further evidence of the service's professionalism.

The past 10 years have seen an increase in the level of low-flying activity in the United Kingdom, largely because of the introduction into service of the Tornado GRI aircraft. The level of activity has reached a plateau in recent years, and we expect that it will remain fairly constant in the future. The new low-flying system has proved itself successful in accommodating this increase, in providing enhanced training value and in distributing this training more equitably.

I am satisfied that the basic structure of the system is correct, although there will always be a need to monitor its operation and adapt it as necessary to changing circumstances. The last thing that the RAF wants to do is to antagonise the people on whose support and forbearance it relies. Within the current system, I can assure hon. Members that it will continue to do all in its power to ensure that this essential training produces the minimum disturbance to those on the ground.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

My hon. Friend has referred to low flying by fixed-wing aircraft. Do the restrictions to which he has referred relate in any way to helicopters operated by the Royal Air Force? Helicopters often fly at low altitudes in my constituency, and one wonders why they find that piece of terrain so attractive.

Mr. Neubert

There are different provisions for helicopter low-flying, but the principles remain the same as those for fixed-wing aircraft.

So far, I have spoken about the role of the RAF and some of its recent achievements. None would have been possible without the dedicated and professional personnel who make up the service. The trained strength of the RAF over the past year has been maintained at a level which has enabled it fully to discharge its operational commitments. There are some shortfalls in the officer branches and in ground engineering and support trades, but they are containable.

Interest in RAF manning generally centres on the aircrew branch and, in particular, on pilots. Manning strengths in this branch are broadly in line with requirements, although some ground and flying appointments are vacant. Both recruiting and retention have become more difficult over the past 12 months, largely because of increased competition from civil airlines, but I would not wish to over-estimate those difficulties, and I can confirm that it is forecast that the aircrew branch will continue to see strengths and requirements broadly in balance over the next 10 years, although there may be a shortage of junior officer pilots in the shorter term.

Mr. Dykes

My hon. Friend has already given way a few times, and I thank him for doing so again. The RAF involves not only pilots, aircraft and flying but physical buildings, sites and bases. My hon. Friend will know of our strong RAF presence, of which we are intensely proud, in the borough of Harrow, and the putative longer-term plans for the eventual closure of RAF Stanmore Park, near RAF Bentley Priory. Incidentally, the local borough council will shortly be offering the freedom of the borough to the Royal Air Force.

If my hon. Friend cannot answer my question now, will he add it to the growing list of answers which our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will give when replying to the debate? What is the latest outlook for the proposed eventual closure of RAF Stanmore Park? Although we are deeply proud of the role which that station has played over many years for the Royal Air Force and the defence of this country in its particular specialist requirements, we know that it is now becoming gradually superfluous to present and future activities. Although the next matter is not directly within my hon. Friend's province, Stanmore Park would therefore be a useful area for the future development of housing in the borough of Harrow. What is the latest state of play on RAF Stanmore Park and its proposed future programme?

Mr. Neubert

I am happy to answer what must be the last intervention. We are currently considering the position at Stanmore Park. I assure my hon. Friend that, should there be any proposals, we shall consult closely with the local authority, the London borough of Harrow.

The RAF is adopting several measures to improve current recruitment and retention. The training of fast jet pilots is particularly lengthy, rigorous and costly, and the service seeks constantly to improve the efficiency and economy of the training given, while preserving the high standards required. It is for that reason that retention of aircrew, especially pilots, remains of great importance. The RAF continues to encourage our trained and experienced aircrew to remain in service, through measures such as those aimed at reducing the turbulence to their home lives which can be sometimes caused by their service, and through improvements to terms and conditions. Moreover, the RAF is alert to the future demographic trend and, in addition to seeking better retention rates, is considering a wide range of measures, including the possibility of widening opportunities for the employment of women as aircrew, and attracting more members of ethnic minorities into the service than we have been able to do so far. There will also be a higher profile campaign of recruiting for the RAF.

The role of women is currently under review in each of the services. We are examining the scope for increasing employment opportunities for them. Within our agreed policy, which I reaffirm, that women should not undertake direct combatant duties, women are already employed, unless physical limitations dictate otherwise, in the full range of officer specialisations and ground trades. In addition, it is planned that female fighter controllers will fly as aircrew in the Sentry AEW aircraft in 1991. I hope that wider opportunities for women will result from the present study, although I would not wish to pre-judge its outcome.

On the ground, the RAF has decided to increase the number of ground airwomen over the next five years from 5,000 to 7,000 personnel, some 10 per cent. of the ground trades' trained strength.

Hon. Members will be aware of the results of the first year of the exercise to monitor the ethnic origin of applicants and recruits to the armed forces. They have shown that only 1.5 per cent. of applicants for service in the RAF are black or Asian, and this is a disappointing figure, given that it compares with 5.7 per cent. of blacks and Asians aged 15 to 24 in the United Kingdom as a whole.

We would like to attract more recruits from these groups, and, on a tri-service basis, we are considering a number of measures to achieve this aim. As a first step, we have commissioned from independent consultants a study to investigate the reasons for the current low rate of application and to consider how we can best attract more young blacks and Asians into the armed forces.

Given the demographic trends over the next few years, it will be particularly important that we make life in the RAF attractive to all young men and women entering the employment market. In this connection, I am pleased to say that the armed services youth training scheme continues to receive full support from the RAF; 750 training places have again been allocated for the coming financial year. So far this year, 73 per cent. of the overall vacancies have been filled or booked. Over 70 per cent. of the young people who enter the RAF subsequently transfer to a regular engagement.

In addition to this, the Air Training Corps is a thriving youth organisation which enjoys widespread support both within the Ministry of Defence and in the community. There are some 38,500 cadets, including around 7,500 girls, in a total of 920 squadrons throughout the United Kingdom. The corps provides a large number of recruits to the Royal Air Force and aims to develop worthwhile interests and the values of good citizenship in the cadets.

My review of the manning scene would be incomplete without reference to the RAF Reserve. The regular Reserve which comprises former officers and airmen, together with RAF pensioners, continues to grow in strength. So too do the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the RAF Volunteer Reserve, for which there is no shortage of recruits at the moment; their strengths have increased over the past year despite a higher turnover of airmen than we would have wished.

Royal Auxiliary Air Force and RAF volunteer reservists are highly motivated. highly trained and, should the need arise, are ready to take their places alongside the regular forces in a variety of roles, often in the front line. I pay tribute to their competence and commitment which are second to none. It is wholly appropriate that later this year the Royal Auxiliary Air Force will be honoured by the presentation of a royal colour by Her Majesty the Queen.

We will continue to consider the roles which our reserve forces play, and trials of reservists in certain flying roles are continuing. In addition, the trial of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force support force has demonstrated the viability of the concept and it is planned to become a permanent and expanding part of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

I am grateful to have had the chance to speak about a service which is so well equipped and well motivated. The RAF, through its dedication, skill and courage, performs a vital task in the defence of the realm; we should all be thankful for that. It also provides the chance for young men and women to build a career which offers unique challenges and opportunities, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. I shall be doing all I can over the coming months to ensure that that message is heard in the House and in the wider world.

5.21 pm
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

May I first congratulate the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State on his appointment? It is a pleasure to see his non-mute status.

Opposition Members wish to express our sincere appreciation to all the service men and women who have given such dedicated commitment to the defence of our country. This dedication has, alas, meant, as the Minister said, 17 Royal Air Force personnel giving their lives in the past year. We convey our sympathy and support to the bereaved families. I am sure that the Minister is giving them all the support they need in the very difficult circumstances of a young life being taken away from a family, especially when, as is often the case in the services, it is the life of the only breadwinner. The dedication and unselfish attitude of RAF personnel is an example to us all.

While I hesitate to pick out one individual, I should like to mention Squadron Leader Stephen Fox who was awarded the Air Force Cross last year. Squadron Leader Fox successfully landed a severely damaged Harrier in West Germany. The citation praised his high degree of courage, professionalism and coolness in deciding to remain with his aircraft when the simplest option would have been to eject and possibly risk many civilian lives. Squadron Leader Fox is a brave man and certainly deserves the highest decoration that can be awarded in peacetime.

I also congratulate Air Chief Marshal Sir David Craig on his assumption of the post of Chief of the Defence Staff. He is a person of great integrity, and I am sure that he will be outstanding in his new role. I am also sure of his political impartiality and I know that my hon. Friends are looking forward to working with him in the early 1990s when we assume government.

Mr. Mates

I just saw a pig fly by.

Mr. Rogers

And I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman will still be Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence.

I am not happy, however, about the Government's politicisation of the post in the new system of appointing. Sir David Craig's appointment confirms the end of the old informal system of appointing chiefs of the defence staff from each service in rotation. There is now no discernible system in operation and it has been reported—I am sure that there is no truth in it—that Sir Nigel Bagnell was passed over because his views were embarrassing to the Government. I trust that that is not the case, but I should welcome before the debate is over an explanation from the Minister of why the old system of rotating appointments has been abandoned.

It is always difficult to speak from the Opposition Benches in a service debate. Criticism of the Government is always distorted by them and their Back Benchers into the idea that the Opposition are not supportive of the armed forces.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Rogers

The Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary says, "Hear, hear." That shows his complete ignorance of the matter. It is patent nonsense to imply that we do not support the armed forces. The Labour party is committed to the defence of this country, and its record in government since the war shows that this is so. There may be individual Opposition Members who do not support all the policies of the Labour party. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] A substantial number of hon. Members who were on the Government Benches did not support Mr. Churchill in the 1930s and spent their holidays with the Nazis in Germany and with the Fascists in Italy. But never mind about that. We accept that sometimes, when a Conservative Government are in power, there may be some Tory Members who will not agree with them. But what was pretty awful about that period was that there were Ministers who were happy to consort with the fascists of Europe.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

The hon. Member suggests that there may be Labour Members who do not agree with the Labour party's policy. But surely three unilateralists out of five Labour Members present is a 60 per cent. record. That is an overall majority who do not agree with Labour party policy.

Mr. Rogers

That is absolutely right. It is just that my colleagues reckon that I can manage and do not need much support.

It is important to remember in this debate that all of us in the Labour party represent constituents who come, in the main, from working-class backgrounds. We live in our constituencies. Our homes, our jobs, our savings and our future are in this country. We have no other place to go, unlike many Conservative Members who belong to and sometimes work as consultants for companies who have been expatriating their funds over recent years and may well expatriate themselves in times of difficulty. We on the Opposition side have nowhere to go. We and our families have nowhere to go and that is why we are completely dedicated to the defence of our traditions and our values. I find it gratuitously insulting for Conservative Members to suggest otherwise.

I say that at the outset simply to emphasise that we are committed to the defence of this country and that any Tory Member who suggests otherwise is wrong. My right hon. and hon. Friends do not need lessons in patriotism from anyone on the Government Benches.

In three successive debates I have referred to the Government's mismanagement of the defence economy. This Government of big business have shown themselves to be just that. At the same time, however, they have also shown themselves to be incompetent or unwilling to manage defence procurement for the benefit of the nation. The Under-Secretary said that he would leave procurement issues to his hon. Friend who will wind up the debate. That is a great pity, because I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends would have liked to put some questions to the Under-Secretary. The sorry saga of defence procurement is one of delays and overruns of time, with an accompanying and staggering escalation of costs reaching into billions of dollars.

Two notable events took place last week. One was the throwing out from GCHQ of Mr. Gareth Morris, the last trade unionist there. The other was the charging by the Director of Public Prosecutions of Major-General Sturge, who until recently was head of military communications responsible for GCHQ. He was charged with fraud, theft, deception and false accounting. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will not allow me to comment on that case because it is sub judice, but it is interesting to note the manner in which people leave Government service and GCHQ, what happens to them afterwards and the double standards that Tory Members are presumably happy to support.

Mr. Morris, a trade unionist, was deemed to be unworthy of his nation's trust because of his membership of a trade union. That is a shabby and baseless judgment by a shabby and baseless Government who are prepared to allow the country to be ripped off through gargantuan frauds at the same time as they persecute the civil liberties of individuals. The Government victimise people for combining in trade unions. At the same time they are happy to allow another combination to be rampant—a freemasonry of generals, civil servants, industrialists and Tory politicians. [Interruption.] I can see that Tory Members are getting agitated. I understand why; they are hearing some of the truth.

Mr. Bill Walke


Mr. Rogers

The hon. Gentleman is wearing his RAF kilt for the debate. I will give way to him so that he can display his all to the House.

Mr. Walker

I thank the hon. Gentleman who, in his usual courteous fashion, has given way. Is he aware that nearly 30 years ago I represented GCHQ as a trade unionist? I was responsible for negotiations for the largest group of members. At that time we all knew that if ever the individuals working at GCHQ, or the Air Ministry where I worked at that time, became involved in industrial action, the Government of the day—the Government then were Labour—would change the rules. There was an unwritten agreement. That agreement was broken, and the fact was promoted and advertised.

Mr. Rogers

It is nice to know that the hon. Gentleman represented trade unionists 30 years ago. He has gone downhill since and is still going downhill.

The hon. Gentleman forgets that when the country has been involved in conflict we have had Labour Governments, but we never had the trouble that he suggested. He knows as well as I do that the reason the trade unions were kicked out of GCHQ was that the Americans said that they had to go. It was a shabby act, with the Prime Minister being pushed around by the former President of the United States. This hurts Tory Members, and I can understand them being agitated. As I was saying, they are happy to allow another combination to go rampant—a freemasonry of generals, civil servants, industrialists, Tory politicians and even failed lieutenants-colonel. In 1983, at about the same time as the retired General Sturge became managing director of Meccano, sorry, Marconi secure radio systems—it is a bit like Meccano these days—Sir Brian Tovey, former head of GCHQ, became a consultant to Plessey, the manufacturer of electronic equipment for GCHQ, and General Sir Henry Tuzo, an ex-deputy commander of NATO, became chairman of Marconi space and defence systems.

Mr. Mates

That has nothing to do with the RAF.

Mr. Rogers

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence says that that has nothing to do with the RAF. We all know that the companies are not buying in the generals for their ability to shoot straight, or the civil servants for their ability to write memos. These people are bought in because of their contacts in the Ministry of Defence and because they are in the know. The revolving door syndrome is well known to the Government. It has been brought to their attention on many occasions, perhaps most forcibly in 1984 by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service, which urged them to tighten the rules for civil servants leaving to take up jobs with companies that were in receipt of Government contracts. The Select Committee said: The traditional independence … of the civil service is in danger of becoming eroded or compromised in the eyes of the public. The Select Committee suggested that there should be a time lapse between Government employment and related industrial employment—a recommendation which the Government seemed strangely reluctant to implement and operate.

Perhaps the truth lies in what was said by Sir Frank Cooper, ex-Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence—we cannot go higher and he can hardly be called a raving lefty—who also travelled the golden road 10 Westland: Why criticise the civil servants—look at James Prior arid other politicians. Indeed, let us look at the Tory politicians. What about Lord Prior, ex-Cabinet Minister, now managing director of GEC?

Mr. Mates


Mr. Rogers

Chairman or managing director, whatever he is. GEC has contracts from the Government worth almost £1,000 million. Lord Prior stepped out of the Government into that job.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is it not significant that Lord Prior was appointed just some months before the Secretary of State for Defence had to take a decision on Nimrod? Many hon. Members believe that Weinstock appointed him only to ensure influence among his former Cabinet colleagues. [HoN. MEMBERS: "It did not work."] I said "former" Cabinet colleagues.

Mr. Rogers

My hon. Friend is right. As Tory Members, who are far more in the know, say, it did not do the company much good. Those of us who were here when Lord Prior was in the Cabinet know that he did not have much influence with the Government then either.

Some other Tory Members are also involved. I had the courtesy to let them know that I would mention their names in the debate. The hon. Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) is a parliamentary adviser to British Aerospace which received Government contracts in the past year worth £930 million.

Mr. Barry Field

He has done well.

Mr. Rogers

The hon. Gentleman says that he has done well. That is how Tory Members measure their value as Members of Parliament; they wonder how they can represent big business in the House. The Conservative party is the party of big business. If we look at the Register of Members' Interests, we see that it is riddled with the industrial connections of Tory Members with companies that receive Government contracts. The hon. Gentleman had better be careful because he is stepping into a rather dangerous minefield, even for him.

The right hon.Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), another ex-Cabinet Minister, has a most peculiar entry in the Register of Members' Interests. He is the honorary adviser to the chairman of British Aerospace—not to the company but to the chairman. As he is called an honorary adviser presumably he does not receive payment. If he does not receive payment, why is he declaring the interest? He does not have to declare it unless there is financial benefit, so it would be interesting to find out what his connection is with British Aerospace. As I have already said, the contracts received by British Aerospace from the Government in the last year are worth £930 million.

The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) is a consultatant to GEC, which had contracts worth £850 million from the Government in the last year. There is no point in mentioning the many others who are in the pay of defence companies, but it makes interesting reading.

Mr. Mates

The hon. Gentleman came close to making some insulting remarks about one or two senior officers who have gone into industry. He seems to be implying, first, that there is something intrinsically wrong with that, and, secondly, that the monopoly of people leaving this place to take appointments outside are Conservative Members. I shall reel off the names of six Labour Members who also left the House: Mr. Roy Jenkins, Mr. Stanley Clinton Davis, Mr. Bruce Millan, Mr. Edmund Dell, the chairman of a bank, Mr. Brian Walden and Mr. Marquand. I know that my right hon. Friend could tell me some more.

The serious point I wish to make is that, before the hon. Gentleman produces names as distinguished as that of Sir Harry Tuzo, I would point out that he was hired not just because he had contacts with people—every general has those—but because in a 30-year career he has probably had more experience of high-class management than any of his civilian counterparts. That is one of the great assets of life in the services.

Mr. Rogers

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman can reel off what appears to be the European Commission. I was not intending to be insulting but, if I was, I shall not apologise for it. All I was, in fact, doing was reading from the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee report of 1984. That Committee has a majority of Conservative Members. It says that there should be a time period between people leaving Government employment and taking up related industrial employment.

If the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence feels that that is not so—I am glad that he has put it on record—we shall look at what his Committee does in future years to see whether it is impartial in its approach. [Interruption.] Did the hon. Gentleman say that he was under inquiry or undertaking an inquiry? I would not know.

To show how impartial I am, my next quote will be again from a Conservative Member. I say to Sir Frank Cooper that those examples of right hon. and hon. Members should not be used to justify civil servants taking jobs. It should not be said that civil servants can take such jobs because politicians do. The examples should be used to highlight what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) described as "subliminal corruption". Indeed, the potential for corruption in this revolving door practice is immense. I am sure that the recent arrests of people intimately or recently associated with Marconi in connection with corruption, fraud and national pilfering on a huge scale are only the tip of the iceberg.

Mr. Cryer

The argument is that Sir Harry Tuzo went into Marconi because of his extraordinarily fine qualities of management, but will my hon. Friend accept that he was a signal failure? When he went to Marconi the costs of the production of Sting Ray torpedoes escalated from under £100 million to more than £1 billion during the reign of the allegedly wonderful Sir Harry even before production had started.

Mr. Mates

Absolutely wrong. He put it right.

Mr. Rogers

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) for bringing that to my attention. As the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) knows, the fraud, the pilfering and corruption went on in Marconi under Sir Harry Tuzo. If Sir Harry is such a good manager—such a good friend of the hon. Gentleman—why did he not lay that particular nest of vipers to rest when he was there as chairman?

Mr. Brazier

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's allegation about fraud and Sir Harry Tuzo. The point must be, however, that the bulk of the expansion in the cost of the Sting Ray programme occurred under the last Labour Government. It was a Conservative Government who eventually put it on a fixed priced contract. The hon. Gentleman has now been on his feet for more than a quarter of an hour. It really is time that he touched on the Royal Air Force, as that is the subject of the debate.

Mr. Rogers

I have given way a number of times to Conservative Members. If they were to shut up and take their medicine, we could get through it a lot quicker. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) should not display his ignorance in the Chamber. Before he goes any further, the best thing that he could do would be to go to the Vote Office and obtain a copy of the relatively recent Public Accounts Committee report on torpedoes. He could then speak with some authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South was right. I should have thought that Marconi was the last company that should be used as a symbol of efficiency.

The revolving door syndrome is not confined to this country. Recent events in America have also been quite dramatic. I am sure that the danger of subliminal corruption led to the rejection by the Senate of John Tower's appointment as Secretary of State for Defence. I can hardly imagine Senator Edward Kennedy passing a judgment on other grounds.

The procurement scandals of the Pentagon and Senator Tower's close connections with the defence industry, as a consultant and an adviser, must surely have been a great factor in that decision. Incidentally, those scandals have reached this country through the connection with Lord Chalfont, who the Prime Minister chose to be deputy chairman of IBA. Some of those practices are being investigated. For the sake of the nation, I hope that they will be pursued as assiduously as petty social security dodging.

Incidentally, it might be a gesture of good faith if the Conservative party refused to accept political donations from companies receiving Government contracts during the period that those companies are under investigation for fraud and corruption—perhaps is should eschew their political donations for good.

If those symbiotic or perhaps parasitic relationships were of benefit to the host body—the nation—one could perhaps justify them, however flimsy, but they are not. No benefit to the nation is to be gained from the relationship between generals, civil servants, Tory politicians and the defence industry.

Procurement irregularities are increasing; procurement fraud is mounting; there are long delays and overruns of time; and staggering escalation of costs amounting to billions of pounds.

The Minister mentioned earlier the question of my having a double header. I can, therefore, save further points on those issues until later.

The European fighter aircraft is potentially the greatest procurement disaster. It is difficult not to make political capital out of the Government's incompetence. However, what the Opposition find difficult to swallow is the fact that our armed forces will not have the right equipment to do the job on time and where and when it is needed. The Government refuse to learn lessons. They believe that, if there is not a quick identifiable return or profit, the project is not worth while. Funds are restricted at the feasibility study and project definition stages, often leading to cost and time overruns at later stages. That is why we want to keep a close eye on the progress of the EFA programme. By choking funds at this stage, as they are doing at the early stages of so many other projects, the Government are in grave danger of prejudicing the entire scheme.

While we welcomed the signing of the development contracts for the EFA last November, we were very much aware of the crisis in the associated radar project. On 10 November 1987 the House was told that a decision would be made on the EFA radar in early 1988. By 17 March 1988 the decision was expected in the summer of that year. The latest position is anyone's guess. Obviously, there are difficulties when there are four Ministries of Defence involved—although I cannot believe that the four are as bad as ours. However, it appears that the Ministry of Defence has not given the project the priority that it deserves.

Many thousands of jobs are involved. If the radar does not work, the plane cannot operate. Unless the Government are to produce planes and put them in storage, in exactly the same way that Tornados are put into storage, the whole project—plane and radar— founders. The Tornado is foundering because Marconi cannot produce the radar in an agreed and proper form.

The choice for EFA radar is either the Ferranti-led,, all-European radar—the ECR90—or the Marconi-led MSD-2000 which will be developed from the American APG-65. [Interruption.] If it is not to be the Marconi-led MSD-2000, will the Minister tell us who is leading the project? Will he tell the managing director and the chairman of Marconi not to bother hon. Members with circulars describing how Marconi is leading the project?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

It might he helpful if the hon. Gentleman got something right in his speech. The German company is leading the alternative radar bid for EFA.

Mr. Rogers

Let us be quite clear. The Germans are leading on the MSD-2000?

Mr. Sainsbury


Mr. Rogers

Will the Minister therefore write to Marconi—I will provide a letter later—and tell the company not to print lies and send them to Members of Parliament?

The MSD-2000 is being promoted by Marconi as a low-risk project. If hon. Members received a copy of the Marconi letter this morning, they will know that that is so. It is promoted as a low-risk project which uses old technologies. That seems to be a very sad, if not pathetic, position to be taken by what is supposed to be Britain's leading electronics company which is led by Sir Henry Tuzo, the friend of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence.

Marconi has clearly lost faith in its ability to research, design and develop products. That is not surprising in view of the long list of procurement fiascos in which it has been involved over the past few years. It is alarming to learn that Marconi intends to use components in the MSD-2000 which are used on the upgraded Foxhunter radar. What confidence can we place in the radar equipment to be used in the next generation of fighter aircraft when its components do not even fulfil the requirements for the current generation of fighter aircraft?

Of course the Opposition recognise the technical challenge posed by the development of the ECR90. However, we also recognise that much of the blame falls on the MOD for continually changing specifications throughout the development phase. We should remember that the EFA is intended to operate primarily as an air defence aircraft and that the system must be tailored to that role and not be emasculated to fulfil some vague, grand strategic concept of the MOD.

One lesson that the Government, with their Thatcherite short-term approach, seem incapable of learning is that money cannot be saved by cutting expenditure in the development stages of a project. The long-term result is a botched job costing much more than intended with long time overruns.

If the decision of the EFA radar is postponed much longer, at best we may find ourselves storing planes that might fly with concrete ballast instead of radar. That is the present fate of the Tornado. At worst, the whole project might be cancelled and the defence of this country imperilled.

I want briefly to consider the Foxhunter radar which is another long-running saga. That radar was originally to have been in service in 1983, but it did not enter service until 1985 and then only to an agreed interim standard and after a 63 per cent. increase in development costs. That standard has been so interim that it is not fully or properly in service today.

At the end of last year, 32 Tornado ADV F3 fighters were in store at RAF St. Athan in south Wales. Those sophisticated, new fighters, which cost more than £500 million, were tucked away in hangars at a storage cost of more than £60,000 a year. I wonder who will be surcharged for that. If a Labour council had been responsible, the council members would be slung into gaol. I presume that the Minister will not insult the intelligence of the House by claiming that the planes are in storage for reasons of economy.

Opposition Members are most concerned that the Foxhunter radars now in service with the RAF are not performing to the standards which the RAF requires. I want to quote from a "World in Action" programme——

Mr. Mates

Well, it must be true.

Mr. Rogers

Again, Conservative Members may scoff. However, Sir Keith Williamson, a former Chief of the Air Staff, appeared on that programme. No doubt the public schoolboys on the Conservative Benches will praise Sir Keith Williamson as one of theirs. Let us quote one of "theirs". According to my transcript, the narrator in the "World in Action" programme said: One difficulty is this: 'Foxhunter' has to track up to 20 planes simultaneously. It can manage all right when the aircraft are travelling in predictable courses but if they twist and turn, as in dog-fighting air battle, the computer cannot keep tabs on them all. 'The fighter', one senior RAF man told us, 'had a peace-time capability only. It would have difficulties in the extreme conditions of war.' I am not sure why those planes are being built, but the ex-Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Keith Williamson, responded: And this is really a disastrous situation because, without the radar, the fighter version of the tornado is absolutely useless. That is the story of Foxhunter and of procurement under this Government. That is why I have devoted so much time to procurement. Conservative Members have said that this is an RAF debate. We may have the bravest men in the world in the RAF—and I accept that, because I am not chauvinistic—but they are no good unless they have the right equipment to do the job. The Government stand indicted on one charge, if only one charge. Procurement fraud, overruns and fiascos are jeopardising the lives and futures of the service men who give so much commitment to this country.

5.57 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Having listened to the catalogue of despicable slurs against my right hon. and hon. Friends which were masquerading as Labour party policy on the Royal Air Force, I want to bring the House back down to earth and consider what is happening in the RAF at the moment, particularly as it affects personnel and training.

This debate marks the culmination of a year's association between myself and the RAF. At the beginning of last year my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) asked me if I would like to take part in a pilot experimental scheme—no pun intended—for the armed forces because I have three RAF stations in my constituency. This scheme was to be similar to the very successful industry and Parliament scheme which benefited many hon. Members. I readily agreed to take part and enjoyed a most fascinating and illuminating year. I was able to participate in many flying exercises, so much so that I have been suffering withdrawal symptoms for some weeks because I am missing my flying experience.

I want to place on record my gratitude for the positive and welcoming reception which I received throughout my tour at several RAF stations. I want to convey my thanks to the RAF and MOD personnel who allowed me to take part in the scheme.

All my many visits were extremely valuable and pointed to matters which we should really consider in this debate, to some of which my hon. Friend the Minister referred in his opening address, and which I hope to bring out by reflecting on the stations which I visited during my year.

The major theme of my year with the Air Force was the training of officers and aircrew, and we began by visiting the officer and aircrew selection centre at Biggin Hill. From that visit a number of conclusions are possible.

First, my hon. Friend is right to conclude that at the present time recruitment is not a major problem. There appear to be many very capable, eager young men and women who want to join the Royal Air Force. But the demographic change which we all know is coming in the future will cause problems if there continues to be a haemorrhage of trained officer aircrew into civil airlines. Indeed, there is civil airline competition in recruitment at the present time.

The selection procedures are extremely good. There is a very tough assessment lasting two and a half to three days, and to choose someone who will be capable of reacting to the pressure and demands of fast jet flying is not easy in such a short time.

The Royal Air Force has an enormous investment in a huge training machine, but the steady flow of a sausage machine of new recruits—that is the only way that one can describe it—is not easy to keep in balance. The Biggin Hill centre is to move to Cranwell. I cannot see from my visit that this will present a problem. There may, indeed, be some benefits of familiarisation of those seeking entry from going to Cranwell, as anyone who visits Cranwell will not escape an immediate impression of the atmosphere of discipline. It was very similar to that which I experienced when I was recruited to the Metropolitan police in 1965, and it was most impressive.

At Cranwell, new officers undertake what is only an 18-week course. It is very intensive, tough, physical and mentally demanding. It is to the credit of the recruits and of the instructors that, after that 18-week course, some three quarters of the recruits leave Cranwell as officers. One has to comment, however, that of late there has been a higher failure rate of some females following a purple patch. I will return to the question of the role of women in the RAF later.

The quality of training of fast jet pilots was first demonstrated at Linton-on-Ouse, which is an officer aircrew training station within my constituency. As is well known, the present Jet Provost is soon to be replaced by the Tucano, and both instructors and students are very much looking forward to flying the new aircraft. The Jet Provost has served the RAF very well for many years and it is something of a tragedy and a cause of great sadness that yesterday, unfortunately, a Jet Provost crashed in my constituency. Obviously, it is too early to say what the outcome of the board of inquiry's investigations will be but, having spoken to the station commander last evening on the telephone, my impression is that the advice given to young trainee officers has been carried out.

The question of how we should instruct young pilots was brought home very forcefully at the Linton visit. A very clear balance between new pilot officers—which hon. Members who have been in the Royal Air Force will know are nicknamed "creamies"—and ex-front line pilots and specialist aircrew seems to work extremely well.

Similarly, the station at Finningley, near Doncaster, like that at Linton-on-Ouse, is very well run, but there is more mixed training. Navigation training particularly appears to be moving forward briskly into the modern era, and there is a mood of enthusiasm, but resources are needed if we are to train navigators to get used to low flying in the fast jet world of the future.

I particularly recall a training sortie in one of the Dominies which brought home how physically demanding flying, even in such an aged aircraft, can be. There is some sadness that the Dominie cannot be replaced, but with refurbishment and an avionics update, which I think will come in the months ahead, it should be capable of many more years of service.

A question arises between Linton and Finningley about contractorisation. Contractorisation has been very successfully implemented at Linton. There is a suggestion that it be brought in at Finningley, but it is my impression that there will be difficulties in this. This is, first, because of the wide diversity of tasks and types of aircraft used at Finningley, as opposed to the single aircraft use of Provost at Linton, but, secondly, because of the availability of engineers to carry out the contractorisation tasks.

There is contractorisation at Shawbury. My impression was that this was not quite so successful as at Linton. I feel sure that we have the right approach in attempting to contractorise training stations, but there is no formal programme for the training of civilian engineers. Generally the service is good but that is the problem— training civil engineers in the future who are used to these planes. The majority of the staff recruited are, of course, former Air Force personnel.

There is also an increasing problem of loss of flexibility on stations caused by reducing the number of airmen available for such duties as ensuring the security of the station. This is a particular problem at the present time because of the prospect of terrorist attack, and certainly at some RAF stations we have seen this. It is important for us to bear in mind the problems which the reduction in the number of airmen on some of these stations causes for the station commander.

At Shawbury, which is another mixed training station, the number of women being attracted into the officer grade came home very forcefully. particularly in the air traffic section. The training officers have developed a host of desk-top training aids to improve the training of air traffic controllers, but most of the male traffic control officers are not pursuing their first choice and because of this some of the trainees tend to struggle towards the end of their course. The girls seem to make extremely good traffic controllers, but there is a problem here too in that many of them take only a five-year contract and there are potential losses to civilian life and civilian air traffic control in the future.

Before leaving Shawbury, I must also mention the initial helicopter training carried out there. I found a very enthusiastic team. Many of the helicopter pilots are not following their first choice either, yet they seem to have responded very enthusiastically and favourably to helicopter flying. I must say that, of the several hours of flying with the RAF that I was able to enjoy last year, I particularly enjoyed those spent helicopter flying. I will leave for a moment the question of the aircraft we use, except to say that the Wessex is getting old and that the question of replacement will have to be addressed at some stage.

We then moved to Valley in Anglesey, which is a very active station embracing both training and the strike command role. It was at Valley that a number of features of life in the Royal Air Force caine across very strongly. First, there are the social pressures on officers and airmen serving in such a remote part of the British Isles and on their wives and families. There are problems with housing and schooling. If parents choose to send their children to school off camp, they find that 50 per cent. of the teaching locally is in Welsh. Compared with some of the issues that we have been discussing in this debate, these are minor problems, but they are very important to the personnel, and solving them contributes to morale. At Valley I had an opportunity to fly in the Hawk, which, of course, is the aircraft used by the Red Arrows. This is a much better aeroplane, and by this stage students are beginning to look like real pilots.

That experience brought home to me the other side of the problem of low flying. In addition to the person sitting in the cockpit, there are those on the ground who have to put up with the noise and the experience generally. Low flying is a particular problem in my constituency, as my hon. Friends know. The accident yesterday to which I referred did not involve low flying, yet the immediate reaction locally related to the problem that low flying creates and to the feeling of danger of many local residents. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. He handled the matter with great sensitivity. I hope that his comments about the way in which the Ministry is trying to keep the amount of low flying across these islands to the absolute minimum will be much publicised.

My hon. Friend referred to the low-flying exercises that take place in north America—the red flag and maple flag exercises. Also, there is now increased weapons training in Sardinia and Cyprus, as well as three to four weeks' operational low-flying training—down to 100 ft—at Goose Bay in Canada. I must ask my hon. Friend to do everything he can to ensure that these exercises overseas are exploited to the maximum extent so that we may keep to the absolute minimum the amount of low flying over rural areas in the north of England and over other parts of the United Kingdom.

On flight safety, the fact that for quite some years no civilian has been killed as a result of an RAF accident is significant. However, I hope that in his reply my hon. Friend will be able to refer to that matter. The opportunity of this debate should be taken to show that people's worry about flight safety is not just ignored but that proper attention is being paid to their genuine concern.

I want to move from the fast jet world, which I experienced at Valley, back to the helicopter world. At Valley we have rescue helicopters, and the rescue helicopter training takes place there. I will not go into detail about the excitement that I enjoyed in one of these helicopters. Certainly, any hon. Member visiting RAF Valley and experiencing helicopter flight for the first time would enjoy it. The helicopter rescue service of the RAF provides considerable aid to civilian life, not just in the event of tragedies such as happened at Lockerbie and on the Ml, but also in mountain rescue and sometimes, sadly, in the event of industrial disputes. We ask a lot of the crew concerned, and a debate such as this gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to them for the work that they do.

The main helicopter base is at Odiham, where the Chinooks and Pumas are based. They have a major role in troop support with the British Army of the Rhine. Increasingly, troop movements have to take place at night, and the development of night vision goggles is helping to create a strong tactical capability in helicopter night flying. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Chinook helicopter is 20 years old. Of course, not all the Chinooks that the Royal Air Force possesses are actually that age, but a number are showing signs of wear, and the cost of keeping them fully serviceable is substantial.

The engineering workshops at Odiham are most impressive. The quality of the work, the painstaking way in which these aircraft are serviced,—the most minor blemishes being put right—is most impressive. The helicopter pilots at Odiham are very much in love with the Chinook as a flexible work horse which is very enjoyable to fly.

The next visit I made was to several of our stations in West Germany. It was at this point that the whole purpose, the whole raison d'etre, of the year came home very strongly. It was important in two major respects: first, it gave a complete picture of what RAF life and training are about; secondly, it changed my perspective of the strategic role of the Royal Air Force in Europe.

Let me turn to the complete picture on training. We invest £3 million or so in every fast jet pilot. The fruits of that investment are clearly visible in the competence, enthusiastic, very dedicated and professional approach of the young officers. The transition from the raw recruits I had seen at Biggin Hill to the pilots in the front line—many of them on their first tour—was quite remarkable. I began to appreciate the RAF's role in providing about one fifth of one of the two Tactical Air Command resources in West Germany, and in providing air support for the Northern Army Group and its defence of the northern half of the Federal Republic.

It is important to remember the United Kingdom's joint role, with France and the United States, in policing West German air space in peacetime—to which, actually, the French no longer contribute actively. These first-tour young officer pilots were fully prepared to meet all the challenges thrown at them. Both mentally and physically, what we ask of them is very demanding, yet what I saw was a very tightly knit, disciplined unit.

What I really want to get across to the House, and place on record, is that, having spent many hours in the air trying to come to terms with the physical demands of fast jet flying, I realised in West Germany that that is only half of the story, that if ever these young officers are required to take part in active warfare they will face the problems of chemical attack. From what I saw there, I believe that we must have the best protective clothing and the best available protection arrangements against chemical warfare of any air force in the western world. It is difficult to describe because of its physically demanding nature, but the thought of having to fly in a cockpit in a rubber suit with one's helmet, "G" kit and all the rest on top is not attractive. However, the way in which the young men have been trained is most commendable, as is their willingness and enthusiasm to fulfil their task.

I detected some elements of public opinion in West Germany that do not completely welcome our presence there. Issues such as national sovereignty, the threat of foreign troops and noisy and dirty activity, particularly that associated with the Tornado, are becoming increasingly unpopular.

In the light of recent statements by President Gorbachev and a clear willingness to take part in serious discussions about reductions in defence expenditure and capability at all levels, it is far too early for us to think of major changes in our role in the defence of western Europe or, more particularly, scaling down our Air Force operations.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said recently that he did not want any reductions in aircraft at present. Our numbers are not that great and we must ask how far we can depend upon others. We must also bear in mind our other responsibilities throughout the world which can arise at any time, as we saw only a few years ago in the Falklands.

It is vital to maintain the best trained and equipped Air Force. I welcome my hon. Friend's statement today about the European fighter aircraft. Having seen the Phantoms and Jaguars in West Germany, I know how much pilots there will welcome the new aircraft in years to come. New weapons and aircraft have given the RAF a real cutting edge, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's announcement today will help to ensure that that continues to be the case.

One or two other problems were highlighted during my German visit, which may not be referred to in much detail today. First, there are problems for the Rapier squadrons of the air defence regiment. The four-month requirement means that many of those men are having to serve four months out of twelve in the Falklands and that is placing great strain on them and their families. No one has a solution to that, but today's debate provides an opportunity for their voice to be heard.

There is also concern throughout the Air Force at the general gradual erosion of the quality of service life. As the financial quest for efficiency and value for money is pursued, for which clear support exists within the Air Force, morale, motivation and an esprit de corps remain vital. The removal of perceived benefits and the imposition of what appear to be penny-pinching changes, such as a reduction in the number of leave warrants, charging for food on detachments, the abolition of home-to-duty travel allowances, are not popular. It would be regrettable if, in pursuit of efficiency, there was a reduction in effectiveness.

My hon. Friend referred to the future role of women in the RAF. The studies into whether we can have women pilots are extremely worthwhile. I have already mentioned the potential future problem of demographic change. I detected within the officer aircrew a willingness to see women piloting multi-engined aircraft, if not our fast jets.

There has been over 40 years of peace in Europe, the longest period of peace for six centuries. To maintain that peace in the future, we need a properly equipped Air Force as well as other armed forces. We also need young men and women who are committed to their task. My experience of the past year shows that the RAF hierarchy has confidence in its young men and women, many of whom were left to brief me in their own way, without relying on their superiors. That is a tribute to them, their training and their managers.

I place on record my thanks to those who helped me to take part in the year. Any hon. Member who has an opportunity to take part in the scheme should do so. I do not usually find defence matters easy to grasp, but I hope that in my few remarks I have demonstrated the worth of the scheme, and I commend it to other hon. Members.

6.25 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

In a way, the main point that I wanted to make has already been made. Listening to the speeches so far I have heard no reference to the enemy. The debate has been about important questions such as uniforms, allowances and low flying. As an old RAF man I enjoyed the latter very much, but it was dangerous when I learned it. But we must not forget that what we are discussing today is part of a defence budget of nearly £20 billion, which comes out of taxpayers' money. That is £344 per person, and for a family of four more than £1,000 a year. That runs at the rate of £37,000 a minute. During my speech, however brief it is, a substantial sum of public money will be spent. That money must be justified in terms of its absolute necessity.

Strangely enough, my mind goes back 52 years ago this week when, as a boy of 12, I sat in the Gallery and heard the then Mr. Churchill speak on the Service Estimates. I looked it up, and found that he said: It is admitted and well known that we are in times of great danger—grievous danger. Our Air Force is far from giving us security; our small Army is more of an Imperial police than a military force; munitions factories are almost in their infancy of reconstruction".—[Official Report, 11 March 1937; Vol. 321, c. 1398] When I heard that, Winston Churchill was sitting where the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) usually sits. There was a sense of urgency. In Churchill's view—not a view shared by the then Government—those estimates were needed because there was a danger of attack.

Thirty-two years ago this week I made my maiden speech from the Opposition Front Bench as the number two Opposition spokesman on the Air Force. I looked up that speech and at that time all the debate was about a Soviet attack—whether there would be one and whether we would use the deterrent. I shall not do as Harold Wilson used to do and quote my own speeches, but I asked the Minister what would happen if there was a Soviet attack with conventional weapons. I asked whether we would use nuclear weapons and whether the deterrent would be used. At that time Duncan Sandys was talking about massive retaliation. I have forgotten the exact phrase that reflected the current view.

Now we have to ask ourselves, how many hon. Members believe that there is a military threat? What is happening? Although the Minister said as an aside that we must keep the deterrent, he did not think it necessary to elaborate. I am not complaining, quite the opposite; I am almost congratulating him for not warning the nation of the military threat.

I speak today not because I claim any special knowledge of the modern Royal Air Force, or anything of the kind, but because what has happened to the public's perception of defence is hardly ever alluded to in the House. People do not believe that there is a Soviet military threat. I know that the Prime Minister says that the Russians have changed because they have decided to adopt her philosophy of market forces and because they are frightened by Polaris.

I never believed—although I must confess that I was struck by the anxiety at the time—the idea that, 40 years ago, the Red army was planning to move into western Europe. It lost 20 million people in the war, and at that time we were allies. If hon. Members want to read powerful speeches in support of the Soviet Union, they should read Churchill's speeches during the war. At that time we were pouring weapons into Russia, which lost a large number of people. Until the day I die, I shall never forget that the liberties we enjoy today were in part won by Russian blood shed in defence of their own territory.

The Soviet threat is a central question in all defence debates. Of course, if one believes that there is a Soviet threat, one must retain military hardware. During my election campaign in Chesterfield I met a woman who was possibly the only woman who has totally silenced me. She said "I shall vote for you, Mr. Benn, because of your policy on nuclear weapons." I asked her why she felt as she did. She said, "We had to fight the Russians in the last war and we may have to fight them in the next." My God, there has been some successful propaganda if a woman of my age— in her mid-60s—who has been through it all as I have does not know who were our allies and who our enemits in the last war.

I have never followed the details of disarmament negotiations—one would have to be an armchair military expert to do so, and I have never aspired to that—but I tell the House, and hon. Members may read this in the pages of Hansard, that the reason for Gorbachev's credibility is not that he has come up with a few disarmament proposals but that he has said to the world, "I want to disarm to improve the living standards of Russians." People everywhere in the world said, "He is right. That is what we want to do. We do not want to be bankrupted by this enormous defence burden in America or Britain; we want to improve standards of living for our people."

I do not usually go by polls, but it is undoubtedly true that over the years Gorbachev's policies have been much more popular than those of Reagan or Bush because, in a strange way, he speaks for an overwhelming majority of people in the world who want less spent on weapons. They want that first because weapons are dangerous and secondly because more people will die of AIDS, cancer and heart disease in the next few years than from the Red army landing and taking over the Speaker's job.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's eulogy about Mr. Gorbachev, but was it not Mr. Gromyko who said that, although Mr. Gobachev had a kindly face, he had iron teeth? Do not those words mean something?

Mr. Benn

If we are going to look back, we should look at the American eagle which has a bunch of arrows in one claw and an olive branch—the symbol of peace—in the other. Every super-power has armed forces and diplomatic policies, and so have we. However, does the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) believe that there is a Soviet military threat and that, had we not had nuclear weapons, the Red army would have taken over West Germany and Italy, come to Britain, dealt with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), and taken on the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in Northern Ireland? I do not think that people believe that any more.

I do not wish to take too long—although there does not seem to be such a strong sense of military danger that the Benches are crowded with people waiting to speak.

We cannot afford the level of defence expenditure that we are carrying—it is too heavy a burden. For example, Japan's expenditure on defence is 1 or 2 per cent. of its GDP, whereas ours is 5 or 6 per cent. No wonder the world's shops are full of Japanese videos, cameras and motor bikes. Japan spends its money on civil development, whereas we sell missiles to any sheikh who will buy them and to both sides of the Iran-Iraq war.

The majority of our research and development goes into military weapons, which is damaging to the British economy and explains why we have not been able to keep abreast of other countries. As a percentage of GDP, we spend about six times as much as West Germany on military R and D. That military budget diverts resources from civil to military production. It also diverts resources from the Third world.

We are all much moved by Band Aid and Comic Relief but we should remember that 15 million babies die from diarrhoea every year, which could be cured for the cost of just one day's expenditure of our defence budget. That is not justifiable and it is no wonder that the Churches have begun to come out in a political way. On such a simple moral issue they understand the choice involved.

If we want to deal with super-powers, nuclear weapons are unnecessary. The Vietnamese did not have nuclear weapons but they managed to get the Americans out. The Afghans did not have nuclear weapons but they got the Russians out. It is strange that those countries with nuclear weapons are rendered impotent by them. The Americans could not use them in Korea or Vietnam and the Russians could not use them in Afghanistan. Therefore, the old argument that we must have the bomb and then no one will attack, and that there is no other way to get rid of enemies, is no longer true.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) made a powerful speech which explored the military and industrial complex. If I read The Observer correctly, 1,400 civil servants moved from Government Ministries into defence industries during the course of five years. I am not suggesting that there was corruption, but I think it is unhealthy that someone can work in a Department with a contractual relationship with a company and then retire into it. He could be tempted to assist the company in the hope that it will later employ him. That is an unhealthy relationship.

The people who continue to persuade us that there is a Soviet military threat are those making a huge profit out of the arms budget. One of the earliest demands of the Labour movement was to nationalise the arms industry because it made a lot of money out of weapons and therefore had a vested interest in maintaining that the threat existed. Of all the contracts for aerospace, 45 per cent. are for the military and 20 per cent. of all electronics business is for defence. Many people would be absolutely lost if sufficient fear of the Soviet Union was not built up to justify the weapons programme.

The same is true of the media. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda referred to Lord Chalfont, who has been appointed to the Independent Broadcasting Authority. He has defence connections.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

It was the Abingdon Corporation.

Mr. Bean

My hon. Friend is more knowledgeable than me. People in the media—not just defence correspondents —should not have one foot in both camps. Some of the figures that we are given are totally fraudulent. I shall never forget that, when I was in the Cabinet, one year we were given the balance of forces in the draft defence White Paper by Fred Mulley. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) pointed out that the French were not included, as if we did not know which side, in the event of a war, the French would be on. The defence Department did not want us to include the French and said they were not part of the military wing of NATO. The balance-of-force argument was used to maintain the fear of attacks and thus justify the large defence budget.

The cold war presupposes the presence of permanent American forces in Britain. Mr. Attlee invited the Americans to this country saying that they were on a training mission. He did not inform the House that they were coming on a permanent basis. They live here, for example, at RAF Greenham common, which is not described as an American base but is covered by the RAF.

Has the House ever discussed or considered whether it wants a foreign nation—however friendly—to have permanent bases here? I do not. I am not hostile to the United States—I have many links with it and much admiration for it. However, I do not believe that America should have troops here which are commanded by a President whom we do not elect and cannot remove.

I watched the funny exchanges between Dukakis and Bush during the presidential elections because I knew that one of them would command the biggest assembly of United States nuclear weapons outside the United States— there may be a comparable arsenal maintained in Japan. Do we want that? Would we not rather look forward to the day when Russian troops will move out of eastern Europe, the American troops will move out of Britain, and the British troops will move out of West Germany?

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said that we must retain the deterrent, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants to keep nuclear weapons and does not envisage a time when they will be given up. That is particularly relevant and important to the Labour party at present, because we are engaged in a policy review. What attitude should we adopt? I have no inside knowledge and cannot say what will be the outcome, although I read The Guardian to find out what is going on. All that I would say to those who yearn for nuclear weapons is this. It used to be said that they bought a place at the top table, but they do not. That has never been the case at Soviet-American disarmament negotiations. It has been said that nuclear weapons will buy a place on the hot line, but it is not necessary to have a bomb to make a telephone call to the White House or to Red square.

My old permanent secretary—now dead; a kindly man —once said that we might need them if the French had them, as if a nuclear threat might come from some new Napoleon in Paris. But Chernobyl changed everything. Everyone is very slow to take account of what has happened. Chernobyl showed that if we dropped a nuclear weapon on the Soviet Union the radioactive clouds would drift back and damage us. Likewise, if the Soviets dropped nuclear weapons here the cloud would drift back to them.

Nuclear weapons are unusable. If the Labour party said that it wanted to keep them, the next question would be "Are you going to use them?" Saying that we will keep nuclear weapons opens up far more questions than adopting the line of consistent policy on which all Labour Members were elected in the last general election. One of the reasons why there has been such a good response to Gorbachev is that he has said that the Soviets want to get rid of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Like it or not, people believe him. I believe him, because it cannot be in anyone's interest to have weapons that would destroy us.

A pro-nuclear defence policy also presupposes the permanent division of Europe. As I said in a recent debate on the Common Market, I have lived through many different types of Europe. I did not live through the period before the first world war, when all the heads of state were related to Queen Victoria, but I remember the inter-war Europe, the wartime Europe and the post-war Europe. Now Europe is changing again, and people want a peaceful Europe. The question that is then posed is what would be the role of the defence forces in such circumstances.

The time has come to open up for public examination a different defence and foreign policy for Britain, I hope without personal animosity or the normal vulgarity of exchange between political parties. I say that because I believe that many people are feeling their way towards such a move. They do not particularly like the argument based on whether, if we have the bomb, we will use it, because they know that we have not really got an independent bomb. No one honestly believes that if the Prime Minister pressed a button the bomb would go anywhere, because they know that it would go nowhere without being guided to its target by the American satellite intelligence system. We have had about nine general elections about whether we should retain what we have never had.

In any serious defence debate that does not consist simply of point-scoring, one of the options on the agenda —which I should like to be an option from our Front Bench when the policy review is over—is a non-nuclear defence policy: a policy wholly committed to the idea that nuclear weapons are unusable, that we cannot afford them, that we do not need them, that others are giving them up and that we should do the same.

Another option is that we should move away from a bloc system towards a more non-aligned policy. I remember raising that at the Labour party national executive some time ago, and I can tell the House that it was not very popular. Then I went to Moscow a year ago and discovered that the Vatican goes to the non-aligned conference. If the Pope can go, I see no reason why we should not at least send an observer. Papandreou, a member of NATO, goes to those conferences as well. I believe that non-alignment is the way forward—a move away from the military blocs in Europe and with all foreign troops removed, including the Russian troops in eastern Europe. I am sure that the eastern countries would like that, and that the Russians will have to do it because they cannot afford to keep their troops there.

We must move towards a European security pact, which would be a better guarantee of peace in Europe than our aircraft doing their low-flying exercises, losing pilots and preparing to fight a war that is inconceivable. We must divert the resources from military to civil use. The Prime Minister has said that she is a Green, and I am not one of those who have laughed at that, because what interests me is not what she says she is but why she feels that she has to say it. She feels that she has to say it because she knows that the majority of opinion in Britain is now taking environmental questions seriously. The pollsters, Bernard Ingham, and everyone who is in touch with real life tell her that she must he a Green, and I consider it central to the Green argument that we should not have nuclear weapons and should not build on the idea that one day we might use them.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to the debate. I hope that, without a vote or the normal exchanges between the Front Benches and others, we may at least be able to explore the option that I have described. It is no more absurd than any other argument that has been put forward. They laughed at Churchill for saying that Hitler would attack. People have always laughed at those who are that little bit ahead of the argument. The world has changed completely since the days of the formation of NATO and the Warsaw pact, the Berlin airlift, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet troops going into Hungary. This is a new world, and if we are seriously to justify taxing our constituents such an enormous sum we must explain our assessment of the threat.

I do not believe that a military threat exists. I think that the real threat is different, and is posed by the neglect of our environment, the pressing dangers to the planet and people dying of starvation in the Third world for the lack of simple things that we could easily provide with five minutes' worth of our military budget. That is what we should be discussing in defence debates. The RAF, which flies so many aircraft and carries so many people, is just as capable of conducting relief missions as of carrying nuclear weapons that would lead to the destruction of humanity.

6.46 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. It will not surprise the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to hear that I do not agree with much of what he said. Perhaps my experience as a young airman in the years immediately after the war, when squadrons were instructed by the then Labour Government to fly in combat zones unarmed, taught me lessons that I shall never forget. I did not think that I would live to hear people suggest again that our military should be put into a position in which it could not defend itself.

Having listened to what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said, I should declare an interest. I have been a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve for many years, and I am also secretary of the Royal Air Force parliamentary group. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Chesterfield wearing his RAF parliamentary group tie.

Let me say for the benefit of the hon. Member for Rhondda that after the squeeze of the Labour Budgets in 1974 and early 1975 I have never taken a penny in pay from the RAF Volunteer Reserve budget. The only remittance that I receive—because I have been unable to stop it—is the cheque sent to me annually for the upkeep of my uniform. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that that compromises me. It is less than £10.

Mr. Rogers

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his military experience. I am sorry that he does not have a pension that extends to buying him a pair of trousers. As another ex-service man, I am extremely concerned about defence, and the hon. Gentleman and I have many interests in common.

Mr. Walker

Let me make it clear at the outset that I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's integrity. I may disagree with him on matters of policy and detail, but I have never doubted the integrity and loyalty of the British working class. Contrary to what is often said by Opposition Members, the working classes are well represented on the Government Benches. We are not all part of the public school, old boy network. One of the great advantages of being in the Royal Air Force is that it recruits from all socio-economic groups. The only requirement is the ability to do the job. That has always been the RAF's great strength.

The kilt I am wearing is not my normal one, but it has a history. RAF Edzell asked a kilt manufacturer in my constituency to design and manufacture a tartan for the Royal Air Force. I am wearing the result. Anyone who has studied the history of the RAF, and particularly of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, knows that just before the 1939 war the then monarch gave the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in Scotland the right to wear the Douglas tartan kilt with their mess kits and as part of the uniform of their pipe bands.

As you, Mr. Speaker, witness the way in which the Scots behave in this House, you will have realised that we are rather sectional, with our clans. Because of the history of the Douglas and other clans, few Scots who are not members of the Douglas clan are willing to wear its tartan. It is to do not with the Douglas clan being one thing or another but with our being tribal in our allegiances. It goes back a long way. If we did not have common hates—and I shall not say what those are—our clans would probably go on hating each other even today. The people of my constituency, for example, think that they have little in common with those living in the west central industrial belt of Scotland.

The idea of a tartan that would not contravene Scotland's historical tartans is a good one. It is interesting to note that the Scotsman who designed the tartan and had it manufactured is himself an ex-wartime RAF pilot—so the tartan has all the right connections. That is why I wear it. I hope that the Royal Air Force will at some future date encourage, if not authorise, those who wish to wear the Air Force tartan to do so.

Much has been said in the debate about low-flying aircraft, and I recall what was said during defence questions on one occasion by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), when he reminded the House that if Reichmarschall Goering, who was in charge of the Luftwaffe, had known about radar and of the advantages of flying low and fast, his Lufftwaffe would never have operated in the way that it did in the Battle of Britain. Its planes assembled in great numbers at high altitudes, where our radar was able to identify them and to position our fighter aircraft at critical points, at critical times. If Goering had known about radar and about the advantages of flying low and fast, the probability is that the Battle of Britain would have ended very differently.

It is also worth remembering the experience of 1940, when the Royal Air Force's bomber squadrons were required to go into battle, having been brought up on the kind of doctrine about which we heard earlier—that the world is peaceful, nobody wants to attack, and that it does not matter if one is not prepared for war. We were most unprepared for war, and our bomber crews went into battle flying Fairey-Battle and Bristol Blenheim aircraft. I remind the House that those gallant young men attacked heavily defended targets. I emphasise also that the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross is no substitute for the ability to attack and destroy heavily defended targets, survive, and return to one's base. That is why today's air crews, whose responsibility is to strike and attack, are required to fly low and fast.

My constituents are well aware of my views. As long as there is a perceived threat—and I believe that there is—it is essential that our pilots are capable of flying low and fast, so that they will survive in the hostile environment of heavily defended targets. They must reach those targets, take them out, and then return to base.

As I have mentioned during Question Time, on seven occasions the West German Government have asked the Royal Air Force to reduce the number of its low-flying sorties—so much so, I believe, that any further reduction would jeopardise our crews' ability to undertake their allotted tasks. The West Germans may be prepared to accept the reduction in morale and the problems that West Germany's air force currently faces, but I hope that our Government will never accept a similar situation. If the West Germans cannot be reminded of the reasons why the RAF operates in their country, serious consideration should be given to moving those forces elsewhere.

It is also important to emphasise that modern attack aircraft must be capable of attacking targets that are a long distance ahead of them—a stand-off capability. It is important to uprate that capability so that Tornado aircraft, which will be at the forefront of our attack aircraft well into the next century, have the ability to destroy targets yet not have to overfly them. Again, that is important for their survival.

I turn to another area of activity that is linked in an odd way to low flying in my constituency. It is also directly linked to activities in the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). It will not surprise Ministers if I talk about search and rescue helicopters. When my constituents complain about noisy or fast jets interrupting their lives, I remind them that the yellow helicopters we welcome to my constituency in most weekends come from the same Air Force, and that they are there to support fast jet operations and other RAF activities. More than 80 per cent. of rescues are of civilians.

We have every reason to be thankful for the presence of those yellow helicopters. I was very pleased to help the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East in battling to retain the Leuchars search and rescue helicopter flight. The courage, professionalism and splendid example shown by the crews of those helicopters does more for RAF public relations than any other activity, and substantially offsets the constituency problems I encounter because of low-flying aircraft. I look forward to the day, in the not-too-distant future, when Wessex helicopters stationed throughout the United Kingdom, which have done a splendid job and are marvellous aircraft, are replaced by Sea Kings, with their greater capability.

Can Ministers tell us about the current position of the Tucano and when we can expect to see it in service at the flying training units? Although the Jet Provost is doing a splendid job, it is getting rather long in the tooth and we need the Tucano as soon as possible. I have no doubt that when it comes into service the Tucano will be welcomed by the pilots and the instructors who have to fly it as well as by the students. It is a fine aeroplane and I have always believed that it was good to train pilots ab initio on propellor-driven aircraft. Hon. Members who are pilots will understand why I said that. The co-ordination required and the torque one has with propellors means that, at a very early stage, one can sort out those who will become pilots from those who will not make it.

There have been comments about the radar on the Tornado F3, but I do not associate myself with the view that our Tornados, even with their present radar, cannot do their job. Anyone who has had anything to do with service aircraft knows that it is remarkable if one can ever get everything working 100 per cent. I hope that Ministers will be able to tell me that the F3 radar is capable of carrying out the bulk of its duties and activities.

What progress has been made in getting another airborne warning and communications system aircraft? Although we have ordered the minimum number, there is a need for an additional one, if not two, and I should like to think that there has been some budgeting to achieve that. I am pleased that the Harrier GR5 Royal Air Force close ground support aircraft in western Europe is now moving into operational effectiveness, because there is no doubt that that aircraft will improve substantially the capabilities of the squadrons operating Harriers.

I do not take the gloomy view that we have heard from the Opposition about the European fighter aircraft. I am often astonished that we can get agreement among nation states on joint projects because there is no doubt that there is much arm twisting among those with various interests. As we are leading on two of the major components for EFA, I would have been surprised if others had not made an issue of the fact that we also want to lead on radar. That does not mean that I support radar that is not made in the United Kingdom. With Ferranti being in Scotland, it would be astonishing if I were not supporting it. However, I believe that what is more important is that EFA must have the equipment that does the job. That aircraft was designed to fly in a hostile environment where it must be an air superiority aircraft and the last RAF air superiority aircraft was the Hunter. That was a long time ago. We need an air superiority aircraft that can survive in a hostile environment on the western front, if hostilities ever take place there.

I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who is an honorary air commodore of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and a former Spitfire pilot in that force, that I would mention his absence and give his apologies. He does not like to miss Royal Air Force debates and, because of his interest, he would like to have been here to defend his Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The air defence units of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force are a credit to the individuals who serve in them and have shown clearly and positively what Conservative Members have always believed, which is that given, the opportunities, there are young men and women who are delighted to offer their services to the nation especially in activities involving the Royal Air Force. I suggest that the comments made about having Volunteer Reserve pilots and aircrew in a much wider range of activities will be welcomed. The Royal Air Force has other activities in the Volunteer Reserve including a public relations flight. I congratulate that flight on the way in which it operates and on the professionalism of the individuals who form the flight. Many are involved in careers in the media, often at a high level, and they do a good job.

It will not surprise Ministers that I want to make some comments about the air cadets. I have been asked by those involved in the air cadets to thank Ministers for their support. They want me to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) for his interest and support when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, and I have also been asked to thank my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for his support over many years. Defence Ministers know that the air cadets are an important investment for the nation. Being a member of the air cadets helps young people to take an active interest in demanding and rewarding activities and. more important, it turns them into good citizens and prevents them from becoming involved in activities that we would normally read about in the lurid Sunday papers. The air cadets not only supply the Royal Air Force with recruits, but assist the nation in developing good citizens.

I thank Ministers for the splendid conventional glider fleet that we have. It is the pride of the air cadets and the envy of the world. We look forward to the delivery of the new winches that will make it possible for the conventional glider fleet to operate more effectively and efficiently. We also welcome the introduction of control caravans because it means that we shall have vehicles that can be used effectively on gliding sites.

I cannot, of course, mention gliders without dwelling on the problems of airfields. As the Royal Air Force has shrunk, there have been fewer and fewer airfields from which glider units can operate the volunteer glider schools. This has meant that conventional gliders have fewer airfields out of which they can operate effectively. However, as Ministers know, we also have motor gliders that can operate off hard runways and alongside pilot aircraft, and that has given a flexibility that was missing in the past. The present fleet of motor gliders is over 20 years old and we look forward to the replacements that I have been assured are coming this year. As I have air-tested the preferred option, I can say that we can look forward to many happy years of flying those machines.

The Royal Air Force presentation team does a good job, going round the country telling the general public about the Royal Air Force. We had the good fortune to have it in the House on 15 February and those of us who attended the talk found it instructive and worthwhile. I am planning to bring the team back at a later date so that hon. Members who did not attend the first time will have another opportunity.

One hears much in the media about crowded skies. That is interesting because I have calculated—and this has been confirmed from other sources—that the number of aircraft available to move around United Kingdom skies today is roughly one eighth of the number 30 years ago, so if our skies are crowded today, what were they like 30 years ago? What has happened is that civil aviation has grown because the size of aircraft has grown and they can carry many more passengers. It requires only one accident for many people to be badly hurt or killed. That is why the media talk about crowded skies. Their answer is to control more and more of the airspace. Controlled airspace may be part of the answer, but it is not the whole answer. The more one controls airspace, the more likely one is to increase the hazards for the aircraft in that controlled airspace.

Part of the problem lies in the way in which we run our National Air Traffic Services—as a joint civil and RAF operation. Nothing that I have to say is a criticism of those who operate the service, but effectively it is controlled by the Civil Aviation Authority which is a regulatory body. That is an odd arrangement, because the regulatory body in effect controls itself.

I should like responsibility for the National Air Traffic Services to be removed from the Civil Aviation Authority. That would leave the CAA free to do its job as a regulatory body well and properly. What I have to say may not be popular with some of my friends in the Royal Air Force, but I think that National Air Traffic Services should be managed and run by the RAF, which is well equipped to do the job. The civil employees could easily be transferred to the Ministery of Defence, and would lose nothing of their present position. We should then have a better managed and better run National Air Traffic Services, which would be to the benefit of all the users.

One of the greatest innovations in the RAF recently has been the way in which financial controls and budgets have been dealt with at station level. We hear much from the Opposition about the misuse of funds, but in recent years massive savings have been achieved because so many of the stations have been given responsibility for their budgets.

The RAF is very dear to my heart. I have worn a light blue uniform for about 43 years. I am proud of the privilege that I have enjoyed. I shall remain as long as the Royal Air Force is prepared to have me, and, as long as I am a Member of the House, I shall certainly defend the interests of the RAF against wholly unfounded attacks.

7.13 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I hope that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) will forgive me for saying that my feelings are always ambivalent when I see him wearing his kilt in the House. I admire his enthusaism for the tartan of the Royal Air Force, but I was brought up in the belief that no gentleman should ever wear a kilt south of Perth. I am also a little concerned to know how far he would seek to promote the wearing of the garment. If it were universally worn, it would give rise to operational difficulties—not least for flying crew called upon to make a rapid response in an emergency.

This is an occasion on which it is customary to acknowledge the dedication of those who serve in the Royal Air Force, to recognise their professionalism and to pay proper and generous tribute to their courage. But general expressions of goodwill are not enough for the dependants of those who die while serving in the Royal Air Force. I have given the Minister advance notice of the case that I mention, which I raise with the permission of my constituent Mrs. Jan Nelson. I do not expect a detailed response this evening, because I propose to write to the Minister in due course, but Mrs. Nelson's case raises a number of issues of general significance and it is proper that the House should consider them on an occasion such as this.

Mrs. Nelson's husband, Squadron Leader David Nelson, died on 9 January this year over the North sea, while piloting a Phantom aircraft from RAF Leuchars. So integrated into the community of north-east Fife are the families of airmen such as Squadron Leader Nelson that such tragedies are felt throughout the whole community. Squadron Leader Nelson was performing a difficult and demanding task involving split-second judgments and the highest degree of skill. The cause of the accident has not yet been established, but what is certain is that Squadron Leader Nelson worked for long hours, that he was frequently away from home, that he and his family were required to move frequently in response to his postings within the RAF and that he gave 20 years of dedicated, loyal and expert service to the RAF.

I shall not cite specific figures because as far as possible I wish to preserve Mrs. Nelson's privacy. The amount of the gratuity and pension that she and her family will receive depends on a decision as to whether Squadron Leader Nelson's death was attributable to—that is to say arising out of—his service. If his death is deemed attributable, the amounts will be greater. I understand that the question whether a death is attributable can raise difficult issues, and that it is sometimes difficult to reach a firm and valid conclusion. I think that the House will accept that it makes no difference to the requirements of the dependants whether a death is attributable or non-attributable.

I hope that the House and the Minister will respond sympathetically to the proposition that whether a death is attributable or non-attributable the consequences, in terms of the benefits paid to the dependants of the deceased, should be precisely the same.

The pension received by the dependants of Squadron Leader Nelson is based not upon his flying pay—that is to say his total remuneration—but upon his basic pay. Why should that be? If his income included flying pay in recognition of the difficult and demanding tasks that he had to perform, why should not his pension similarly reflect that?

Mrs. Nelson's concern is not for herself but for others. She drew my attention in particular to the position of non-commissioned airmen flying search and rescue operations. If the benefits for Mrs. Nelson and her family are modest, how much less advantageous will be the benefits for the dependants of non-commissioned airmen who may perish?

I hope that the Minister will undertake to reconsider the question of payments in the case of fatalities—the basis on which such payments are made, the amounts that are paid, and particularly the circumstances in which a death may be regarded as attributable or non-attributable.

The hon. Member for Tayside, North mentioned search and rescue operations. As he said, he and I were both engaged, over a fairly lengthy period, in seeking to persuade the Ministry of Defence that the existing search and rescue facilities available at RAF Leuchars should be retained. It should be put on record once again that the success of that campaign owed much to the fact that the community in and around RAF Leuchars—I do not simply mean within the immediate local government boundaries—was completely behind the campaign to retain search and rescue at RAF Leuchars. All the local authorities whose boundaries are adjacent to RAF Leuchars were extremely supportive. The extent of the support within the community had much to do with the decision that was ultimately made.

As we now know the review of search and rescue resulted in the retention at RAF Leuchars—but, from the autumn of this year, only during daylight hours. We know, because the Minister has told us, however, that operations begun in daylight will continue into darkness. It follows therefore that operational training will be required in the hours of darkness. I ask the Government yet again—I have already asked this in correspondence—if it is necessary to train for operations in darkness when the operations commence in daylight, should not the facility that is available at RAF Leuchars be a 24-hour facility and not be restricted to the daylight hours as is currently proposed?

The unfortunate and unhappy tragedy at Lockerbie has already been referred to. It is a fact that a search and rescue helicopter from RAF Leuchars was summoned in the hours of darkness to fly to Edinburgh to pick up and transport a medical team to Lockerbie to give such assistance as might be appropriate. It is also a fact that the accident involving Squadron Leader Nelson occurred at or about ten past four in the afternoon of 9 January and that the helicopter was scrambled at or about that time. It may or may not have been in darkness, but darkness must have been close at that time on 9 January. When that operation commenced, it must have been clear that it could not be completed in daylight. It was a fortunate operation in that, while Squadron Leader Nelson could not be recovered alive, the navigator of the aircraft was.

Some of us are left with the distinct impression that the redeployment of the search and rescue facilities has more to do with financial considerations than with effective and continuing cover. The Minister still has an opportunity to recant. Confessed sinners are always welcome to return to the bosom of the family. As the hon. Member for Tayside, North pointed out, the contribution made in public relations terms by the operations conducted at RAF Leuchars is absolutely enormous—indeed, it is incalculable. I am referring not only to Fife. North-East but to the whole area in which the aircraft operate. I hope that not only will there be a commitment to maintain the search and rescue facility and that after this autumn it will not be restricted to daylight hours only, but that the nature of the equipment with which the facility is provided will be kept constantly under review so that the brave pilots, navigators and winchmen who operate it will have the best possible and most up-to-date equipment available.

I should like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, who is not in his place at present— doubtless for entirely understandable reasons—for his decision to allow a further noise survey in my constituency this spring to meet the concerns of a number of residents of the St. Michaels area. He has done so without prejudice to a further survey that will be carried out after the arrival of the Phantom squadrons next year. I hope that he will ensure that the testing sites will be selected not only in consultation with the environmental health department of the North-East Fife district council, but with some of the residents.

The issues on which I have concentrated thus far are more than parochial—they have a degree of general application, as well as constituency interest. However, I turn now to a matter of possibly broader interest—nuclear modernisation. We know that within the NATO Alliance there is a considerable debate about the modernisation of short-range nuclear weapons, and especially about the replacement of Lance. Such modernisation has significance for the Royal Air Force because the replacement of the free-fall nuclear bomb, which is currently carried by the Tornado and Buccaneer aircraft, is under consideration.

There has been some suggestion that the Government have already reached a decision to purchase the SRAM 2 air launch missile to be armed with a new British-designed warhead and to be carried by Tornado and ultimately by the European fighter aircraft. It is incumbent on all of us —of whatever party—to ask ourselves whether it is justifiable at the moment to proceed with the course upon which the Government appear to have decided to embark.

I ask that question because the seventh report of the Select Committee on Defence, which was ordered to be printed on 28 June 1988, concluded in paragraph 3.28: We think it likely, however, that decisions on a stand-off missile will be taken in conjunction with decisions on the other elements of the NATO modernisation package". Although that conclusion is somewhat Delphic, I associate myself with it because, as I interpret it, if decisions are being taken in relation to other elements of the NATO modernisation package to the effect that it is not necessary to proceed apace with modernisation, decisions of a like nature should be taken on the stand-off missile.

We know that the West German position is increasingly being recognised in NATO and understood both on this side of the Atlantic and the other. We also know—because the Minister of State for the Armed Forces told the House on 10 January 1989 at column 677 of Hansard—that our present free-fall bomb will be effective until the end of the century.

We also know that events are moving with great speed in relation to disarmament. The opening discussions in Vienna this week have been interpreted by The Daily Telegraph today in a leader as demonstrating that: Although much hard bargaining clearly lies ahead, it is hard not to agree that a quantum leap has taken place in Soviet Strategic thinking. In the light of those favourably changing circumstances, we must ask ourselves why we should embark on the modernisation of a particular element of our nuclear capability in that atmosphere. We must also ask ourselves whether the United Kingdom needs to possess a full range of all nuclear options itself. Is it not the case that the range of the stand-off missile, plus the range of the aircraft that will carry it, is similar to the range of weapons eliminated by the INF treaty? Are we not. circumventing the terms of that treaty?

Mention of the European fighter aircraft brings me to the issue of the radar contract for that aircraft, which has already been referred to. Page 24 of the fifth report of the Select Committee on Defence noted that the radar was one of the most important elements of the European fighter aircraft project and one upon which the whole success of the project could depend.

It is clear from some of the speeches that have been made this evening that the delay in placing the contract is causing apprehension to hon. Members of all parties, not least because the development of a radar system necessarily requires a long lead-in time. It appears—I use that phrase because those who are not directly involved can never know the full story—that the United Kingdom's share of the development work will be the same whether the ECR90 or the MSD 2000 is chosen. I confess to a national if not a nationalist bias in favour of the ECR90 because of its location in Edinburgh and because Ferranti is apparently taking the leading part in the project.

The Secretary of State had recently been reported as being in favour of the ECR90. If he is satisfied that it meets the necessary technical criteria, I urge him to press hard for it. It is easy to argue that to have it is the only way of ensuring a continuing European radar technology.

Finally, I turn to the issue of low flying. As a Member of Parliament for a constituency that contains an RAF base, I accept that low flying is necessary. I do not believe that in the prevailing climate of concern about low flying the Royal Air Force is likely to institute a deliberate or provocative programme of low flying, not least because of the keen interest that the public is taking in the topic and because of the political repercussions.

At the presentation by the Royal Air Force team to which the hon. Member for Tayside, North referred, those of us who attended were given some literature. In a booklet, which curiously does not have an obvious title, there is an article entitled "Low Flying—Case for the Defence." There is no doubt that it makes a persuasive case, but notwithstanding that case great public concern remains. Hon. Members still receive many complaints from members of the public. They cannot all be unfounded and regarded as unreasonable.

The civilian air accident at Lockerbie showed in a stark and possibly alarming way the consequences that may occur in an accident involving an aircraft. I hope that Ministers will accept that there is a duty to ensure that public confidence is maintained.

I hope that the Minister will answer my questions this evening, or at a later stage. I do not expect detailed answers, but these questions will give us a useful point of focus for our consideration of this topic in the debate.

Can the Minister tell us how often in recent years Royal Air Force police have discovered breaches of low-flying regulations? How many Royal Air Force police are engaged in surveillance and what is the allocation of resources for this purpose? What are the consequences for those found to have breached the regulations?

I welcome the deployment of the Skyguard radar system to monitor low flying. I hope that the Minister will tell us precisely when it will be fully operational.

As almost all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have acknowledged, the Royal Air Force plays a difficult and frequently dangerous role in the defence of the United Kingdom and in the fulfilment of our obligations under NATO. There is little doubt that it deserves the support of us all. The debate may highlight differing views of how that role should be fulfilled, but it should also underline that for the most part the House is grateful to the brave men and women who serve in the Royal Air Force. The House salutes them and wishes them well.

7.39 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) mentioned search and rescue operations carried out by the RAF. Although I wish to endorse all that he said about them, I shall direct the attention of the Minister to the problem of the aging Wessex helicopters. Before I do so, I put on record the admiration of my constituency for the excellent search and rescue work of the privatised service operated by Bristow. There were many critics of the decision of the Fleet Air Arm to move out of Lee-on-Solent and to redeploy at Portland. Many had misgivings about the efficiency of such a service being operated by free enterprise.

In one rescue last summer, the winch man had broken a limb and was in agony but nevertheless carried on to rescue a stricken yachtsman before telling the pilot of the helicopter that he was badly injured. I am sure, from that case, that the House will realise that the service is being conducted in the highest traditions of search and rescue. Indeed, my local inshore rescue services all tell me that because of the improved technical capability of that service they have a more efficient search and rescue service than was possible with the aging Wessex helicopters.

There have been two examples recently of rescues where the Wessex could not have reached ships and where the Sea King has been deployed. On 22 February, the Secil Angola was in distress 350 milies west of Isla. That was well outside the range of the Wessex helicopter. The Sea King was deployed. On 27 February, in heavy seas, 200 miles off Land's End, a Russian factory ship, the Salantay, had an injured crewman. A helicopter was deployed from RAF Brawdy, as on the previous occasion, to take the injured seaman to hospital in Truro. Those sorties could not have been achieved by a Wessex helicopter. Although more than half the search and rescue helicopters are Sikorsky S 61s or Sea Kings, more than 40 per cent. continue to be Wessex helicopters.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

While I understand the hon. Gentleman's preference for an aircraft other than the Wessex in the circumstances that he has outlined, is he aware that Mr. Hamish McInnes of Glencoe, who is probably responsible for more mountain rescues than anyone else in the United Kingdom, is of the view that the Wessex is to be preferred for certain operations in the mountains, because of its greater manoeuvrability?

Mr. Field

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, as I was not aware of that fact. But I am aware of some technical capabilities of the Sea King, to which I shall be alluding.

Although I do not tend to be technically proficient with regard to helicopters, I know that some of those arguments were considered when the Bristow contract was in the offing for the replacement of the Lee-on-Solent service, in my constituency. The Solent is the busiest stretch of water, and has more problems with pleasure craft in distress than anywhere in the European Community. There have been no operational difficulties. I know that a much larger helicopter has taken over from the Wessex in mountain rescue. That was probably more manoeuvrable for getting near cliffs and working under them. But that problem has not arisen with the Bristow service in the Solent area.

Since the end of the war the responsibility for meeting the United Kingdom's commitment for civil search and rescue has rested variously with the Ministries of Transport, Civil Aviation, Trade, and Trade and Industry, and is now with the Department of Transport. The RAF is responsible for the provision of fixed-wing aircraft, while rotary-winged aircraft are provided by the RAF, the Royal Navy and Her Majesty's Coastguard. These helicopters operate from 12 bases around the United Kingdom. Search and rescue authorities can also rely on support from three helicopters maintained by oil companies on the North sea oilfields, and Norwegian and Belgian Sea Kings, as well as the French navy's Super-Freloms, the Irish army air corps search and rescue helicopters and the United States Air Force's long range HH-55C helicopters, operated from Woodbridge in Suffolk. These helicopters provide support for incidents in the North sea, the strait of Dover and to a lesser extent the south-western approaches to the English channel and the Irish sea. There is no equivalent support in the north-western approaches and waters of north-west Scotland or in the central English channel.

The report of the civil rescue helicopter coverage working group, which was presented to the United Kingdom search and rescue committee on 1 December 1986, highlighted those areas of helicopter shortfall. Those have been largely overcome by redeployment of helicopters. However, other weaknesses include the reduced capability of the Wessex at night or in low visibility. In addition to this shortcoming, the aging Wessex has other deficiencies when compared with the Sea King, in a lack of automatic flying control systems that are capable of providing an automatic let-down, to bring the aircraft to hover at a safe height. This practice could be dangerous because of variable weather. The Sea King has a fully automatic let-down capability that can put the aircraft to hover safely over a known point without any visual reference by the pilot.

The Wessex has no radar and must rely on another aircraft to detect targets, whereas the Sea King can act autonomously. The endurance of the Wessex is less than half that of the Sea King. The Wessex hull is not designed for water landings, whereas the Sea King has a hull-type lower fuselage. The Sea King could take on board twice as many survivors as the Wessex, and the Wessex is more vulnerable than the Sea King to effects of icing. About 12 Wessex helicopters are currently associated with the search and rescue wing. In view of their age and shortcomings, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at their replacement as soon as possible.

In my opening remarks, I mentioned the private search and rescue service operating in my constituency. I hope that nothing that I have said will detract from the bravery and courage of the men who operate our search and rescue service in the RAF. They fly in some of the most arduous and difficult conditions. Both rescues that I mentioned were at the limits of the helicopters' endurance. They took considerable determination and skill, particularly when the men knew that they had just minutes to return before running out of fuel. Having flown to the northernmost part of the Brent Delta oilfield in a helicopter in a full gale, I know just how unpleasant the experience can be.

I conclude my first contribution to an RAF debate by mentioning an organisation which, although perhaps not specifically under ministerial control or in the jurisdiction of my hon. Friend, does sterling work on behalf of those who have served our country well. I refer to the Royal Air Force Association. As a councillor, I had the pleasure and the privilege of representing Sussex down. I was delighted that, every year, the Dutch air force bombed it with Gouda cheese, in commemoration of the Battle of Britain and getting RAF pilots back to this country.

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that we have a most active association branch in the Isle of Wight. We have many historical connections with the RAF, and that is a great pleasure to me. I wrote to the Minister's predecessor, asking whether we could have one of the defunct aircraft, which stand outside RAF establishments in this country and are gradually being withdrawn, for display on the Isle of Wight. I hope that, in due course, he will be able to accede to our request.

7.42 pm
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) about nuclear weapons deployment. He made the important point that the justification that is traditionally used, certainly by the Prime Minister and other Ministers, that by retaining nuclear weapons we would remain at the international arms negotiation table is hollow. I wholeheartedly accept what he said.

If I am not mistaken, it is now about 26 or 27 years since Britain sat in on international arms negotiations on the deployment of, at that time, atomic weapons. Those negotiations led to the test ban treaty of 1961. Since that time, we have never been involved in negotiations on nuclear weapons. We were not even present at Reykjavik. It was only when former President Reagan decided to take on himself responsibility, in effect, to negotiate away the commitment of western Europe and America to the Trident programme that the Prime Minister hurried to Washington to rectify the position and make her representations. That can never be a justification.

I also share my right hon. Friend's view that the Chernobyl incident has transformed western public opinion on the deployment of nuclear weapons. I would go further and I believe that there is much evidence to prove my case. Within the Labour electorate there may be those who feel strongly about the need to retain nuclear weapons and yet still retain their commitment to the Labour party at election times, but there is a strong unilateralist streak within Conservative Britain. Many people—I am sure that it is millions—who vote not Labour but Conservative have severe reservations about Britain being a nuclear weapons power. They may not express that view publicly, but they certainly express it privately. Many people whom I know socially and who are not of my political persuasion often say that to me. My view is that it would be a grave mistake for my party to change its position on nuclear weapons, if only because of my belief that, in Conservative Britain, there is strong support for the position that the Labour party has historically taken.

I now refer more specifically to matters relating to the RAF procurement and the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) about Marconi. Through my membership of the Public Accounts Committee over the past two and a half or three years, I have been most persistent in pressing for investigations to be made by Ministry of Defence police, and certainly by the National Audit Office, into aspects of Marconi's activities relating to RAF, naval and Army procurement. I have tabled innumerable motions drawing attention to leaks that I have received from former and, surprisingly, present employees of Marconi about irregularities in the way that that company handles defence contracts. Over that time, I have tabled innumerable questions, both written and oral, to the Under-Secretary of State about fraud in that company. I know that I cannot breach our Standing Orders by discussing sub judice matters, but the four persons who were arrested last week were but the tip of the iceberg in that company. There will inevitably be more arrests. Other contracts are under investigation by Ministry of Defence police, and other authorities will inevitably become involved. On several occasions, I have drawn the attention of the National Audit Office to irregularities in other contracts, over and above those which were referred to in the details of prosecution, as set out in the statement made by the authorities last week. Other prosecutions are utterly inevitable.

Mr. Sainsbury

On reflection, the hon. Gentleman will realise that he should be talking about alleged irregularities and alleged fraud.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The hon. Gentleman may make that statement about those persons who have been charged. It would be only for the courts to decide whether irregularities have taken place in those cases. I am saying what the hon. Gentleman knows to be true, which is that there are irregularities and there have been irregularities in aspects of Marconi's activities. We are not able to say whether those matters have yet resulted in persons being arrested or brought before the courts.

Mr. Rogers

The Minister is absolutely right to say that they are alleged frauds and irregularities. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will remember that, when we both were members of the Public Accounts Committee, it found that frauds and irregularities were going on, and they were specifically referred to. They were not alleged; they were picked up by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I cannot quite go down the road that my hon. Friend takes, though he is absolutely right. In the appendices to our most recent report on procurement, we drew the attention of the House of Commons and those who read our reports to 21 cases detailing allegations of fraud and, indeed, of company prosecutions that have taken place, only four of which were identified in our report and which have been the subject of Ministry of Defence police or National Audit Office investigations.

One of those items listed in our Public Accounts Committee report was the Dowty Rotol case. Dowty Rotol committed a fraud. Everyone who knows the detail of that case knows that it happened. Mr. Burgess Cooper, the whistleblower, has never been recompensed. The company paid back £400,000 to the Ministry of Defence. That fact is published in the appendices of our last report on defence procurement. Yet the authorities have chosen not to bring an action against that company.

When Ministers finally decided to release that information to me—the Attorney-General informed me in a written reply—I felt so angry about it that I contemplated going outside the House and libelling the company so that it would bring a legal action against me and therefore enable me to test my case in the courts. But I was not given the opportunity to do so as it might have endangered the financial position of whatever medium I chose to publish my remarks. I repeat that Dowty Rotol committed a fraud and should be prosecuted. Everybody who works in the factory in Cheltenham knows it. It is talked about on the shop floor. I will not rest until that company is brought before the courts.

I want to deal in greater depth with Britain's low-flying programme. I have never been against low flying despite my persistent attacks on the Royal Air Force, accusing it of all sorts of irresponsible activities in this regard. I accept the need for a low-flying programme. I have always accepted the need for a greater part of the programme to take place in the United Kingdom. I have always accepted that there would be low-flying training over my constituency, over Keswick and my own home, where it currently takes place. If ever there was a witness to irregularities in low flying, it is I, when I stand in my garden and watch these people breaking the regulations. When I had a witness to it some 12 or 18 months ago—my secretary—and I reported it to the MOD, I had the usual officer who attends. He gives one the bumf and the glossies that one has grown to expect and nothing happens because these matters are all covered over.

The Minister may suggest that these people are disciplined, but when I tabled a question about that some 18 months ago I found that of thousands of cases of alleged irregularity—pilots who had breached RAF flying regulations—only a handful of people had been disciplined. There may have been one prosecution. I cannot quite remember the figure, but I recall that the very few who were disciplined received a slap on the back of the hand, were told not to do it again and that was the end of the matter.

Most RAF pilots act responsibly in the air. They are doing their job and I accept that they have responsibilities placed on them which they invariably carry out properly. What I do not like is when they tell lies, as they did about the incident outside Keswick last year. Three separate persons, approximately a quarter of a mile apart, witnessed the same incident when two RAF Tornados were flying at right angles to each other and took evasive action. Two of those persons rang me within hours at my office in Keswick and I located and interviewed the third. They all submitted statements. They were in no way connected: they did not even know each other. Yet when I put the matter to a Minister in an attempt to secure an inquiry to find out what happened—if those planes had met, there would have been a major disaster over the town of Keswick with the loss of hundreds of lives—and when it was then put to the authorities I was informed that it had not been reported. We cannot go on like that. They told lies—and those pilots know exactly what I am talking about. They know what happened on that day. The problem is that Ministers believe pilots, not witnesses. In those circumstances, we will never get to the truth.

Many incidents have been reported to me. My office has become a clearing house for people who write to me by the hundred from all over the country, objecting to what is happening in their area. I invariably tell them to write to their own Members of Parliament and ask them to make representations to the Ministry and to Ministers. I hope that most of them do, but I know that before I even advise them to do so that they will get the same old glossies back, justifying the programme and paying no attention to the complaints.

The effect of all this shows up in the statistics. When we ask about the number of people who have made complaints, we find that in certain conditions the number will decrease because if people realise that it is futile to complain they will not report incidents. In my constituency, people have concluded that nothing will happen if they report an incident. Visitors come in the tourist season to the Lake District. They ring my home and speak in anger to my wife about incidents that they have witnessed. My wife has to advise them to report the incidents to their own Member of Parliament or to the MOD. Very often they write later and say that it is a waste of time to report incidents because it means only that some man will come out from an airbase to interview them and nothing more will happen. People are beginning to lose faith. They feel that complaints are not properly addressed by those who are in a position to deal with them.

For fear that there are those who may think that the Labour party equivocates on these matters and may want to undennine the low-flying programme, I make it clear that I have assurances, and I know, that the next Labour Government will maintain a proper programme, but it will address the real needs of the nation, not the exaggerated requirements of pilots who demand to go in the air with the threat that if they are not given the opportunity to do so they will go to the civil airline companies who are always seeking pilots.

Last year, the whole matter of low-flying took a turn of which many people—certainly those who write to their Member of Parliament—are unaware. One of the things that has struck me, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee and as I have taken a greater interest in low flying, is that while Ministers have been quick after a crash to go on television and refer to the loss of pilot lives, they have never been willing to address the cost to the Exchequer of the loss of a military aircraft. We are not talking about tens of thousands of pounds or even a few millions. When a Tornado goes down we are talking about anything between £16 million and £21 million, depending on how well equipped the aircraft is.

I made representations to the National Audit Office for an inquiry into the cost-effectiveness of the low-flying programme on the basis of information given to me by researchers outside the House which showed that over a period of years we have lost not a few dozen aircraft but hundreds. Much of that information had not come into the public domain. The research evidence that I provided to the National Audit Office subsequently formed the basis on which the NAO decided to carry out an inquiry. The inquiry, announced last year, is still going on. I look forward to the report from that office setting out its views on the programme.

We want to know whether economies can be made, whether the programme is too large and whether it can be done more cheaply with simulators. The public want answers to many questions and they need to know, because it is their money that is being spent. Every time an aircraft goes down it costs the Exchequer money.

In addition to the loss of pilot lives, every time a Tornado drops out of the sky it costs every man, woman and child in Britain 40p. Very high and increasing losses over the last 10 years resulting from low flying have at last become the subject of a full-scale inquiry and investigation by the National Audit Office.

The cost of the losses is staggering. In 10 years in excess of £1,000 million worth of equipment has been lost. Perhaps the Minister will question my figures; I would welcome an intervention. That £1,000 million is the equivalent of £20 per man, woman and child in Britain over the last 10 years.

Within just a 25-mile radius of my home in the Lake District, over £60 million worth of equipment has been lost in the last 19 months. That is a staggering figure. Judging from the response of Ministers, it seems that they are most embarrassed.

Mr. Rogers

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the matter. I am not sure whether he knows it, but at the end of December Jane's Defence Weekly carried a small article which said: The cost of air crashes to NATO is illustrated by recent UK Ministry of Defence orders, for 41 additional Tornados to cover Royal Air Force attrition losses. The cost of the purchase totalled £740 million, the equivalent of five new type 23 frigates.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

That intervention will indicate to those who follow our proceedings the amount of taxpayers' money that is being squandered on the present programme.

There was an interesting article in the RAF air safety journal Air Clues last September. I want to read it because in many ways it addresses the point that was made by the Minister. It said: On too many occasions recently, aircraft have been lost due to some sort of distraction or loss of concentration near the ground. More importantly., these accidents cause tragic losses of life because it appears the crews were unaware of their predicament". That suggests to me that pilot error near the ground has been much responsible for the losses that have been experienced by the RAF recently. I understand that that comment was made by a journalist who had interviewed a number of pilots, and that he was reflecting their views.

We hear a lot from the MOD about spreading the load of low flying by opening up new areas for training. The Minister alluded to that when he talked about how the programme was being dispersed throughout the United Kingdom to reduce concentration on areas such as mine. However, in December 1987, again in Air Clues, the head of RAF public relations, who, I presume, is within the precincts of the House tonight, wrote: We make great play of the fact that low flying is spread evenly throughout all the available air space in the country. But I really wonder if that is so in practice. I live in Area 12 and it does not take long for the onlooker to realise that there are well trodden paths in the skies above Northumberland. There the RAF public relations head is telling us that he doubts what the Minister is saying at the Dispatch Box. His experience may be no different from mine. It seems that there are areas of heavy concentration. It might only derive from the fact that while the Minister was talking about a programme of dispersal, at the same time he was doubling the number of sorties. In answers to questions the former Minister, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), admitted that the programme had doubled since 1979. From memory, I think it went up from 75,000 to 160,000 sorties a year. In my language that means that the programme doubled. I understand that that is justified because of the need to prepare a greater number of pilots to use Tornados. One can never justify a dispersal policy if, at the same time, the number of sorties is doubled, especially when the chief RAF public relations officer is making statements such as I have read out.

Let us examine the figures. Despite the fact that I have computer runs a couple of metres long detailing every reported accident since 1980, I believe that many accidents are not reported. With the help of researchers outside the House I have submitted to the National Audit Office information about unreported accidents. All major accidents to aircraft of the three services are supposed to be listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" each year. The official definition of a major accident to a. military aircraft is that the damage is not repairable on site. The aircraft must be removed to an established depot or civilian repair organisation or the aircraft is damaged beyond repair or is missing, or, in accordance with current Ministry of Defence policy, is not worth repairing."—[Official Report, 23 May 1988; Vol. 134, c. 39.] I have details of 31 accidents since 1980 that were not listed in the relevant edition of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates", despite evidence that they were not repairable on site and-or were scrapped, or were removed to repair depots or returned to the manufacturers.

What is the current policy of the Ministry of Defence on defining what level of damage is not worth repairing? I give two examples. An RAF Lightning, which crashed on 27 March 1981, took three years to rebuild; a Tornado which crashed on 8 November 1983 was under repair at RAF Honington for four years before it was sent back to the manufacturers. How much did those repairs cost? What level of damage does the MOD regard as uneconomic to repair? An aircraft might cost £5 million, £10 million or £12 million to repair. Who knows what the costs are?

What about accidents to MOD Procurement Executive aircraft? They are not listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". The MOD always says that the RAF accident rate is falling but it refuses to give an accident rate for low flying, saying that it cannot be calculated. In reply to a written question the Minister said: Time spent at low level is not recorded precisely: it is not, therefore, possible to state the major accident rate for fast jets operating at low level."—[Official Report, 22 December 1988; Vol. 144, c.372.] On 26 January 1989 the Minister said that the average duration of a low-flying sortie in the United Kingdom— which the MOD has said is 42 minutes—was calculated from statistics on the use of the low flying system. In other words, the Ministry knows how long aircraft fly in the low flying system. If it can calculate an average, it stands to reason that it must know the total number of hours spent at low level; how else are averages calculated? Why, then, can the Ministry not publish an accident rate?

I want to go through the list of aircraft accidents that have not been reported in the annual defence estimates. On 17 April 1980 an RAF Bulldog was involved in a landing accident in Northern Ireland and it went back to the manufacturers for repair. On 18 August 1980 an RAF Hunter was damaged at Laarbruch in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was later written off. On 13 October 1980 a Navy Sea King helicopter was ditched off Falmouth. It was rebuilt at Culdrose. In October 1981 an RAF Buccaneer was damaged and was repaired at St. Athan. In November 1981 an RAF Buccaneer was damaged at Nevada in the United States of America. It was taken back to the United Kingdom and repairs took six months. On 13 November 1981 an RAF Vulcan was damaged at Goose Bay in Canada and was not repaired. On 30 November an RAF Canberra was damaged on landing at Bedford and it was not repaired. On 8 March 1982 an RAF Buccaneer made an emergency landing at Hopsten in the Federal Republic of Germany after an in flight fire. It was never flown again. In 1982 another RAF Bulldog was taken to RAF St. Athan for repair after a heavy landing in the east midlands. On 19 August 1982 a Navy Hunter was taken to Abingdon for repair after a landing accident at Yeovilton. On 24 October 1982 an RAF Phantom was damaged on landing at Port Stanley, but was shipped back to the RAF St. Athan for repair.

Why were those accidents not published in the annual defence estimates? The Minister has not come to the Dispatch Box with an explanation, so I shall continue my list.

Those accidents cost the taxpayers million of pounds. All we are trying to discover is why the public are not told about what has happened. On 18 January 1983 an Army Scout crashed in Hong Kong. It was repaired by a civilian repair depot. On 20 June 1983 a Navy Sea King was rebuilt at Culdrose after ditching near Portland. On 8 November 1983 an RAF Tornado was damaged on landing at Honington. It was under repair there for nearly four years and then returned to the manufacturers. On 29 February 1984 a Navy Sea King hit wires near Bardufoss in Norway. It was taken back to the United Kingdom for a two-year rebuild. On 5 July 1984 an RAF Jet Provost was damaged on landing at Leeming, but it was not repaired. On 14 September 1984 an RAF Jaguar—an expensive plane costing, I believe, between £12 million and £15 million— hit a tower while low flying. It made an emergency landing at Bedford and was taken from there by road to Shawbury for storage. It has not flown since. Why is that not in the annual defence estimates?

On 26 September 1984 a Navy Sea King was ditched off Falmouth and rebuilt at Fleetlands. In November 1984 an RAF Puma was in an accident at Gutersloh in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was rebuilt by the manufacturers. In July 1985 an RAF Phantom was withdrawn from use after a landing accident at Leuchars. On 14 October 1985 a Navy Sea King ditched off Portugal. It was rebuilt at Fleetlands. On 6 December 1985 an RAF Jet Provost was damaged on landing at Dishforth, but was not repaired. On 2 April 1986 an RAF Harrier was damaged on landing at Wittering and it was not repaired. I presume that it was written off. Those aircraft were paid for with taxpayers' money, so surely we are entitled to know what has happened to them. In order to evaluate the value of the low-flying programme in the United Kingdom the public should be aware of the number of air losses.

On 10 May 1986 a Navy Sea Harrier was damaged on landing in Florida. It was under repair at Yeovilton for a year and was then sent to St. Athan. On 15 July 1986 an RAF Harrier was damaged at Bergenhohne in the Federal Republic of Germany and went to Laarbruch for repair. In the autumn of 1986 a Navy Sea King helicopter was damaged on HMS Illustrious and it went to Fleetlands for repair. On 30 November 1986 a Navy Sea King had a fatal low-level crash in Oman. On 14 April 1987 an RAF Tornado—we are getting into big money now, it costs £16 million to £20 million—was damaged on landing at Wildenrath. After five months it was removed by road for repair. On 8 September 1987 an RAF Phantom was withdrawn from use after a landing accident. In late 1987 another RAF Bulldog went to St. Athan by road for repair after being overstressed during aerobatics. On 11 November 1987 an RAF Harrier was involved in a landing accident at Wittering and was not repaired.

Those are but some of the aircraft that we have been able to identify as being involved in accidents. They have cost the British taxpayer a lot of money but they have not appeared in the annual defence estimates. The public are entitled to know annually, first, how much money has been spent on repairing aircraft, secondly, what aircraft have been written off, and, thirdly, the total number of aircraft losses. We do not want to know of just the losses of aircraft in the United Kingdom but also those that have occurred abroad. I have received some interesting answers over the years that show that the Department always wants to narrow the information that it makes available on the number of admitted aircraft losses.

Is the programme really worth it? I intervened during the Minister's speech to refer to a particular Soviet missile system. There is now a whole new dimension to the low-flying debate that so far has not been considered. The rationale behind the low-flying programme is that it will teach pilots to fly fast and low, below enemy radar, deep into hostile territory to reach designated targets or stand-off launch sites. I understand that radical new developments in Soviet air defences seriously call into question whether they will be able to carry out that function effectively or at all.

I was recently tipped off by a leading defence analyst about the most recent deployment of a radically improved and highly sophisticated Soviet surface-to-air missile—the SA-10B that the Minister was unaware of when I intervened. I accept that the Minister is new to the job. I am sure that he is tackling his responsibility with great vigour and learning very fast, so perhaps it was unfair of me to draw attention to that fact.

That missile has been codenamed by NATO "Grumble". Perhaps now the Minister has heard of it. I was told that it is a mobile truck-launched system with its own co-located radar that operates as part of its highly sophisticated guidance system. I was informed that it was capable of destroying fast aircraft flying as low as 100 ft at a range of up to 60 miles. Further, being a mobile system, it is extremely difficult to detect and counter.

Recently I asked for confirmation of that system from the Ministry of Defence—admittedly before the Minister's time—because of the obvious and serious implications for the viability of the present low-flying programme. The Minister must have understood the implications because his reply was uncharacteristically detailed. In confirming the missile's deployment, he said: the SA-10B is not capable of tracking aircraft flying at a height of 100 feet for up to 60 miles. When we discuss these matters we are at the heart of the debate on the low-flying programme.

Mr. Mans

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that missile only has a limited head-on capability and has the sort of range that he has mentioned only when there is no terrain in between? That missile's radar actually has a poor response over rough terrain. In other words, a very large ground return is associated with it. On that basis, will the hon. Gentleman accept that low flying still has value despite the deployment of this system?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The hon. Gentleman's intervention was based on what he believes to be the capabilities of the Soviet system. His views are at variance with those of others who have studied these matters very closely—as, indeed, has the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Mans

It has not a head-on capability. The hon. Gentleman should read what he has there.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of those who have discussed those matters with me and we shall deal with them directly. It is not for me to measure the head-on capability or necessarily to accept the comments made by the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans). I will find out for him. However, everything that I have been told leads me to believe that that missile is quite capable of knocking out low-flying aircraft. It is significant that the hon. Member for Wyre intervened. The missile system has obviously been drawn to his attention and I am surprised that he has not wanted to draw it to the attention of the House.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Is my hon. Friend surprised to note that this is one of the few occasions when we have heard the inadequacies of a Soviet missile system described by Conservative Members?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

My hon. Friend's intervention is quite interesting. I am sure that it will have registered in the minds of those who read our proceedings.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Can the hon. Gentleman clarify this for us? Is this a heat-seeking missile or is it laser-aimed?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I understand that it is a heat-seeking missile—[Interruption.] Conservative Members may want to defend the low-flying programme and destroy the essence of my case in debate. However, the facts are obvious and those who assess these matters have made a different evaluation of the worth of this system from that of Conservative Members. I understand why Conservative Members want to defend the low-flying programme by trying to devalue this missile system.

Mr. Bill Walker

I apologise for not being in the Chamber throughout the hon. Gentleman's speech. but I was having a bite to eat. Does he understand that the objective of flying low and fast is to avoid being hit by less sophisticated missiles than the one he is talking about? If one ceases to fly low and fast, one becomes susceptible to other equipment and the chances of survival become very slim.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I did not quite follow the hon. Gentleman's logic. I have been told that this missile will track and destroy aircraft flying at low levels to penetrate Soviet territory. Until it is proven otherwise, I accept that that is the case.

Confirming the missile's deployment, the Minister told me that the SA-10B is not capable of tracking aircraft flying at a height of 100 ft for up to 60 miles. In other words, he accepted that it was capable of tracking low-flying aircraft.

The radius of the curvature of the earth limits the range at which a target can be seen. The Minister explained that the system had a maximum, and then only a theoretical, range of between only 20 and 27 miles. That is an admission which answers many of the interventions today.

I took up this crucial point with an expert in air defence systems from "Jane's Soviet Intelligence Review" who told me that the Minister's reply was entirely misleading. He told me that it was well known to all with any knowledge of air defence systems that surface-to-air missile batteries are designed to operate in an air defence corridor or loop together with other mutually dependent radar systems and missile batteries. We cannot judge a missile battery's effectiveness by trying to assess its stand-alone fighting capability. That would be rather like trying to judge NATO's defensive capability by looking at the effectiveness of each individual soldier fighting alone against a massed Warsaw pact invasion force. The missile battery's own co-located radar is used together with other independent, but often more sophisticated, radar systems to direct the missile to the projected area of the incoming low-flying aircraft. The missile then flies higher than the target's estimated altitude and uses its formidable on-board look-down capability to pinpoint the target. It then attacks using its heat-seeking devices to lock on to and destroy the target.

It is thought that Grumble would be effective even against cruise missiles and would, therefore, have much less difficulty against larger and slower manned aircraft. I was informed, entirely contrary to what has been suggested by the Minister, that the missile is considered by air defence experts—and I assume hon. Members who have intervened during my speech consider themselves to be experts—to be highly sophisticated. It is thought to be very effective against low-flying aircraft approaching at a height of 100 ft and at a range of up to 60 miles.

I cannot understand the reasons for the Minister's elusive responses. His responses were either naive or symptomatic of the Government's ludicrous policy towards matters of national security. While I appreciate that it is the Minister's duty to safeguard military intelligence, it may be sensible to remind him that Soviet intelligence is already aware of the capability of its own missiles. It also knows that the West is aware of that capability, presumably because information is available in any good bookshop.

The Government should be far more forthcoming about information with regard to the SA-10B missile system. I hope that the Minister will take some soundings on this matter. If he feels as convinced as some defence experts about this matter, he may want to consider the validity of the low-flying programme. In those circumstances he might consider that the programme should be cut quite drastically and the precious defence resources should be allocated to other areas of the defence budget.

The Government are also misleading us about accident rates. Despite the claims that the RAF accident record is second to none, international comparisons do not bear that out. The United States air force, which counts any accident as major if it involves loss of the aircraft, damage costing more than $500,000 to repair or a fatality—a definition at least as wide as that used by the RAF—had rates consistently less than 0.2 per 10,000 flying hours between 1983 and 1987. By comparison, the RAF had accident rates up to twice as high. Its rates only declined to less than 0.3 per 10,000 flying hours in 1987.

Comparisons of similar aircraft types in different air forces do not reflect well on the RAF. In the United States air force the F16 had a major accident rate of 0.44 per 10,000 flying hours in 1986. The Tornado in West German service had a major accident rate of about 0.5 per 10,000 flying hours. Those figures are taken from the aviation newsletter "Milavnews" of which I am sure the Minister is aware. In comparison, RAF Tornados had a major accident rate of 0.7 per 10,000 flying hours and that figure was revealed in a written answer to me on 22 December 1988. Why is our major accident rate so much higher?

With regard to airmisses, now that the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department of Transport have a policy of publishing airmiss reports involving commercial aircraft, the public can gain some idea of the nature of the problem and how it is dealt with. Why will the MOD not publish military airmiss reports?

In a written reply to me on 16 February 1989, the Minister said that he would not publish any other airmiss reports, to preserve the confidentiality of the airmiss investigation system. Hon. Members who have listened to my modest contribution will know why these matters must remain confidential. It seems that the more information is published, the more embarrassing the whole matter becomes. That policy does not apply to airmisses involving commercial aircraft, so why does it apply to other types of aircraft? Why does it apply to military aircraft? Why cannot those figures be published? Perhaps the Minister can tell me in his winding-up speech.

The figures given in the written answer on 16 February show that the number of military air missiles involving a definite risk of collision was higher in 1987 than in any previous recorded year since 1979. It also showed that military airmisses accounted for nearly two out of every three airmisses over the United Kingdom and that nearly half of the airmisses involving military aircraft were found to have involved a risk of collision. By contrast, only about 25 per cent. of airmisses involving commercial aircraft were risk-bearing. The total number of military airmisses in 1988—that is, 133—was 20 per cent. higher than in the previous year and higher than in any year since 1982.

The question is how many of those were at low level, such as the incident that took place on the Keswick boundary only last year, which was the subject of my previous comment. How many of the risk-bearing incidents involved civil aircraft, such as the incident that took place at Carlisle airport some year and a half ago when a near miss was reported with a civil aircraft coming in from Heathrow?

I think that Ministers are not being too open about the German experience. An hon. Member endeavoured to prove to the House that the Germans were sympathetic to the whole low-flying programme. That is not my information. The legal position, as I understand it, is determined by article 46 of the 1963 supplementary agreement to the status of forces agreement between West Germany and other NATO members. It establishes a structure for consultation between the allied air forces and the German authorities but leaves the ultimate authority for such matters with SACEUR and NATO bodies. However, it also stipulates that the exercise of the right to conduct training exercises in the air shall be governed by German regulations on the use of airspace. This enables Federal Defence Minister Scholz to claim that the West German Government have the power to authorise exercises under the Air Navigation Act. In practice, the West German Government accept that this is a matter for negotiation with NATO and the individual allies. That sets out the legal framework.

Pending such negotiations, the West German Government took steps last July to reduce low-flying by the Luftwaffe. This was to be done by transferring the particularly noisy F4 Phantom to air defence duties and reducing the total quota of flight training hours allocated to the Luftwaffe. It also called for a NATO decision on transferring some air exercises to Canada or Turkey.

Shortly afterwards there occurred the disaster at Ramstein, where 69 people died as the result of a crash during an aerobatic display. In December, at Remscheid, a United States jet crashed, killing the pilot and five civilians on the ground. On 13 January a British Tornado crashed and narrowly missed a village school. These successive accidents have brought the issue to a head in Germany and triggered off a public and political outcry. After the Remscheid incident, the Government suspended all low-level flying for three weeks and the NATO allies complied. However, since low-level flying resumed on 3 January this year the matter has acquired a very high political profile.

On 17 January Defence Minister Scholz announced that he would seek a substantial reduction in low-level flying hours in negotiation with NATO. However, he also said that the Government would resist the total ban for which some opposition politicians have called—not I; I have simply called for a reduction down to the level of 1979 in relation to the United Kingdom programme—but would make further efforts to get some training transferred to other countries. The Commander of the United States Air Force in Europe has already said that some United States training might be switched to Morocco, as reported by Associated Press on 5 January 1989. Doctor Scholz also announced that the NATO tactical leadership programme, which involves low-level flying, might be shifted away from Germany, possibly to Belgium, but there has been some confusion about when this decision could be taken.

Judging by reports of the public mood in West Germany, the reaction against low-level flights seems to be based partly on accumulated anger about the noise and nuisance, partly on fear of more serious accidents and partly on the perception that the Soviet threat has significantly diminished, as well as on the long-standing resentment about singularity—the feeling that West Germany is bearing a disproportionate share of the risks involved in defending the West.

West German politicians have adopted a wide range of attitudes regarding the problem. While Ministers have spoken only of the need for a substantial cut in low-level flights, and have asked for such a cut, the defence spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group—not of my political persuasion, but the German Tories—Mr. Volker Ruhe, has suggested that flights could be cut by half in the next two years. So it seems that I agree with the German Conservative defence spokesman that the programme should be cut in half in the next two years. That was reported in the Financial Times of 4 January this year.

Theo Waigel, the chairman of the CSU, has advocated a ban on all flights below 500 ft. That was reported in Jane's Defence Weekly on 28 January this year. The chairman of the FDP parliamentary group, Walter Doring, whose party is the junior partner in the governing coalition, has called for an indefinite suspension pending the elaboration of new defence concepts, so here we have the spokesman of a coalition partner in Government demanding an indefinite suspension of the whole low-flying programme in West Germany.

The opposition SPD has produced varied responses. Hans Apel, the former Defence Minister, has called for low-level flights to be reduced to the absolute minimum, while others want a complete ban. Several have implied that the present situation infringes German sovereignty and I have statements from many others in Germany objecting to the low-flying progamme.

I have gone on at length about low flying and I have done so for a reason. My office is now a postbox for nearly every low-flying complaint in the United Kingdom. People write to me from all over the country and I want them to know that we are pressing these matters at Westminster. We are not asking for an end to the programme. In a year we must get hundreds of, if not over 1,000, complaints. Certainly we did last year. I want those people to know that we are listening, that we are pressing the Government and that there are people in other countries who are also subjected to low flying, such as the West Germans; that they are equally concerned, but that it is this Government who refuse to be responsible and flexible and to publish all the information about low-flying losses and other aircraft losses because they are scared that the public will find out about the many hundreds of millions of pounds that are being lost and have been lost over these past years, all at the expense of the taxpayer.

8.38 pm
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

I am very pleased to be called in this debate, even at this late hour. I have a few brief remarks to make. I shall certainly not be going on for quite the length of time that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was on his feet.

This is a very appropriate day for a debate on the Royal Air Force. It is the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Shackleton, the oldest aircraft in service with the RAF today. I do not know which Government procured that aircraft, but it was in the late 1940s or early 1950s. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Royal Air Force has had, and is still having, value for money from that procurement. I sincerely hope that we shall gain equal value for money from the Shackleton's replacement, the AWACS that we are purchasing from the United States. 11 want to ask a couple of questions in relation to that purchase and, in the first instance, to the offset agreements

The offset agreements allow for 130 per cent. of the cost of that aircraft to be offset against contracts in this country. I hope that in his winding-up speech, or perhaps in the future, my hon. Friend will be able to indicate whether the rate at which these offset agreements are coming through is about what it should be in relation to the timetable that was worked out with Boeing.

Another matter about which I should like to have some clarification is the amount of technology transfer that is taking place in relation to this project. I have become aware that the Americans, Boeing and those who produced the radar for the aircraft may have not been as forthcoming as they might have been in giving the Royal Air Force exact information as to its capabilities. It would be a great pity if, in purchasing an aircraft, we were to pay for something that we could not use fully.

I want to turn briefly to what is probably this year's most significant event concerning the Air Force. I refer to the European fighter aircraft and the collaborative deal with other European countries, which I fully support. It will undoubtedly maintain Euro-technology in this area well into the next century. Indeed, I think that it goes beyond defence needs. Skills of the sort that are needed to build such an aircraft have significant spin-off benefits in other areas of industry, particularly those concerned with electronics and advanced metals. Clearly, as regards airframe and engine, the decisions have been taken, but, as has been said by other hon. Members, we have still to make a decision about the radar system. I am not going to suggest what that decision should be, but I hope sincerely that some points will be taken into account. First, the aircraft's export potential is important. It will be one of the few major aircraft projects we have running into the next century, so a decision on the radar must take into account future sales to other countries. It would be an awful pity if export potential were sacrificed by restrictions imposed by the manufacture of the radar chosen. The development potential of that radar should also be looked at closely. We should not buy a system that is reaching the end of its development life; we should buy the system that we feel has the greatest development potential.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning briefly the experience of Foxhunter. One of the reasons Foxhunter radar has not been as successful as we hoped it would be is that there was a gap of over 20 years in the technology after the production of the previous airborne radar system —the one for the Lightning. It was difficult for people in this country to get to grips with technology with which, for a number of years, they had been unfamiliar.

In the context of Foxhunter, I should like to mention one or two other points. I am thinking in particular of the situation in GEC, which, I believe, has not spent enough money on maintaining the technology lead in that area of avionics. It compares pretty unfavourably with other companies, such as Plessey, Rafale and, indeed, Ferranti, that have taken the lead in this sector. I sincerely hope that those deciding which radar should be selected will take full account of the export and development potential.

There is another point that we should consider very closely. Because the Foxhunter radar for the Tornado has been less than successful, despite the phase 1 update, there may well come a time, during the mid-life update of the Tornado F3, when another radar system has to be considered. The only one that can be considered is the one that we have selected for the European fighter aircraft— EFA. Therefore, the decision is doubly important. When we make the decision on the EFA radar we shall effectively be making the decision for the mid-life update of the Tornado F3.

Having spoken of the Tornado, I should like to mention also the mid-life update of the GR1, which is much closer than that of the F3. As has been mentioned by other hon. Members, the stand-off capability of that aircraft is very important indeed. Probably the only shortfall in the performance of the GR1 is in terms of range, and that is simply because of the compromise reached between the criteria set by the Royal Air Force and those set by the German air force when the aircraft was procured. It was certainly the right decision to compromise in that area in order to get the collaborative project off the ground. However, we have to recognise that, for operations from the United Kingdom, the range of the aircraft is limited, and therefore a stand-off capability will become more and more necessary as we go into the last decade of this century.

The fact is that if one spends £17 million on an aircraft, and perhaps £4 million on the training of the crew, survivability of the system is very important indeed. Because of Soviet defences of the sort mentioned by the hon. Member for Workington, it is going to be less and less easy to fly over a target and therefore more and more necessary to have a stand-off capability to increase the survivability of the weapons system.

Much of what I have said tonight about aircraft procurement will probably have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed many of the questions that have been asked in this Chamber over the last few weeks about progress towards deciding the radar contracts for EFA and the like have come from Labour Members. I therefore find it just a little surprising that those Members are very keen that we should procure a number of aircraft of this sort—indeed current Labour defence policy is one of unilateralism, and on that basis the party has made it clear that the money saved by scrapping nuclear weapons would be spent on conventional arms. The chances are that at least some of those conventional arms would be aircraft. The fact is that those hon. Members are suggesting that we procure more aircraft but at the same time seem to be denying the opportunity for the crews to train properly at low level so that they might make the best use of the systems that they want us to buy. There is a basic conflict in the Labour party's case for increasing our conventional defensive capability while being unwilling to give aircrews the opportunity to train properly. Indeed, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said that, even with the bravest men in the world, they will be no good if they are not given the right equipment to do the job. I wish he had added that it is no good if they are not given the right training, because that is precisely what Members of his party are suggesting in their remarks about low-level training.

I should like to deal briefly with the question of low-level training. It is an indication of the ignorance of many Opposition Members that they do not really understand what it is all about. The hon. Member for Rhondda in this debate last year said: but I cannot accept that there is any skill acquisition from flying at 500 miles an hour at 100 ft. All that happens are knee-jerk reactions."—[Official Report, 11 February 1988; Vol. 127, c. 588.] That remark has bounced around the crew rooms of the Royal Air Force for the past 12 months, much to the hilarity of many people. I suggest that in a very short time he speaks to my hon. Friend and is given the opportunity to fly in the back seat of a Tornado over his own constituency at 250 ft. Perhaps then he would like to come back to this House and tell us whether he still feels the same way.

Mr. Rogers

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Mans

No, I will not. I tried three times——

Mr. Rogers

The hon. Gentleman must accept that I was referring last year, as I shall do again a little later, to the fact that pilots of planes flying at 100 ft—not 250 ft —at 500 mph are only capable of knee-jerk reactions. I am pleased that my words are noticed and that they do bounce around the mess halls of the RAF. I had a nephew, a squadron leader, who, tragically, was killed in a Shackleton, having crashed into the side of a mountain. I have a brother who served in the Dam Busters during the war who was awarded the DFC. I have a nephew who is a wing commander in the RAF and another nephew who recently retired as director of air safety for the RAF at the rank of air commodore. Therefore, I am perfectly aware of the feelings of officers in the RAF. But the whole thrust of my argument is that when flying at 500 mph at 100 ft it is impossible to acquire a skill; there can only be a reaction. Control is possible only at a higher level. That is why so many accidents are taking place. There was an accident last year——

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. This is an intervention, not a speech. Mr. Mans.

Mr. Mans

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is still a great deal of skill acquisition when flying as low as 100 ft and as fast as 500 knots. If there were not, there would be no point in flying at that speed. If it were purely a matter of knee-jerk reactions, the accident rate would be many times higher than it is. The hon. Gentleman should take expert advice, not that of the hon. Member for Workington which is highly suspect.

The subject of low flying has been looked at in great detail tonight, but I just want to mention briefly the Federal Republic of Germany. There are more complaints about low flying there because of that country's failure to adopt the British system of spreading the load over the whole country rather than confining it to a few small areas. If a great amount of low-level activity is confined to a small area, it is not surprising that there should be a considerable number of extra complaints. My hon. Friend should continue to make representations to the Defence Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany to see whether it is possible to spread out low flying there. If that is done, the sort of concern suggested by the hon. Member for Workington will be reduced in the Federal Republic of Germany, as happened in Britain when that system was adopted 10 years ago.

I fully support the remarks made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) in relation to pensions, and, in particular, in relation to the tragic death of Squadron Leader David Nelson. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at that to see whether it is possible to rationalise and revise the type of awards, gratuities and pensions that are available.

Finally, I want to say a few words about RAF personnel and, more specifically, about our ability to retain and recruit sufficient numbers into the 1990s. A number of hon. Members have spoken about the demographic changes that are acting against RAF recruitment. There is now a problem in retaining sufficient numbers of staff in key grades and occupations. In that respect, I am pleased that a study is being carried out into the recruitment of women pilots. I made that point in the RAF debate last year. There did not seem to be much movement then, and I am pleased to see some now. There is a chance that women pilots will be recruited. I hope that that study will be speeded up as much as possible so that women can be recruited as pilots as soon as possible, because that is one area where there is clearly a shortfall.

One reason for the shortfall in pilots is the increase in the commercial activity of airlines in relation to the size of airports. As recently as 10 years ago a considerable number of the total number of pilots trained in Britain were trained by the RAF and they still had the ability when they left the service to supply most of the needs of the civilian airlines. Things are changing fast as a result of the increase in air travel. To mention just one statistic, the Royal Air Force now trains just under 200 pilots a year, but British Airways alone is taking on 100 pilots a year for the next eight years at the British Aerospace training facility at Prestwick. That excludes other airlines' requirements and British Airways' recruitment from inside the airline industry and from the RAF. That alone shows that the Air Force has a problem in recruiting and retaining sufficient pilots.

The other area for anxiety is the cost of pilots, or, more specifically, their remuneration. When someone finishes at Prestwick and goes into the right-hand seat of a 737, at the age of 22 or 23 they can earn as much as £28,000 a year, slightly more than many RAF pilots are earning at the age of 38, at one of the option dates for leaving the service. That focuses on one of the major problems. There is a growing discrepancy between the reward for flying for airlines and the financial benefits of staying in the Air Force. We should look at that closely. We should look at the conditions of service and at the comments and representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in relation to service men being able to buy their own homes, at least technically, so that they are better able to afford their own home when they leave the service.

That applies not only to pilots but to many senior NCOs in the Air Force. Many of the skills that they gain during their training in the Air Force have, over the decades, been of great use to British industry. Indeed, many of Britain's electronic industries were founded on the basis of people coming out of the RAF with electronic skills and using them productively. The RAF now trains rather fewer technicians than it did 10 years ago and, as a result, they are in even shorter supply to civilian industry. That, too, poses a threat to the technical expertise of the engineers who keep the aircraft flying in the first place.

Another area that needs to be looked at closely is the experience of the pilots who stay in the Air Force. Many take their options before they reach 38 and others leave prematurely. As a result, the experience level on many or the second-line aircraft—perhaps not the Tornado, but certainly the Phantom and to a lesser extent the Buccaneer —is getting low. There is a higher percentage of "first tourists" in those aircraft than there has been previously. That is where the problem begins to manifest itself. Unless something is done about it, it is liable to become considerably worse in the next few years.

Today the RAF has to make decisions that will affect the force well into the next century. Therefore, it is absolutely vital to maintain our technological ability on this side of the Atlantic to meet the equipment needs of the Air Force into the next century. At the same time, we must provide the training for aircrew to enable them to fly these highly complicated weapons systems. The professionalism of the Air Force has never been in doubt in the past and, provided that we provide proper equipment and training, it will not be in the future.

8.59 pm
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

I am glad to hear the tributes to the trained readiness of the men and women serving in the Royal Air Force. I was especially glad to hear the details of the year-long tour of our leading airfields taken by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). The beatific smile that lit up his face every time he recalled a trip he had made in a jet or helicopter was particularly warming. It proves that some Conservative Members are still able to indulge in simple pleasures rather than cheering as elements of our top military and Civil Service personnel try to pile through every revolving armaments door in sight.

I was less gladdened, however, by the unwillingness of certain Conservative Members to address themselves to the fact that the very same highly trained RAF personnel face the prospect of flying aircraft which are equipped with radar and missiles that do not work. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) has already referred to the scandal of the Foxhunter project. I wish that a scrutiny of the management of the Ministry of Defence of the procurement of RAF equipment would turn up nothing similar. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Numerous other scandals threaten the proper air defences of this country.

The air-launched anti-radiation missile—known, appropriately, as ALARM—has been identified by the Select Committee on Defence as a cause for great concern, owing to the enormous over-runs which are directly connected to the incompetence of the Ministry of Defence's procurement policy. At the last posting, the ALARM programme was £260 million over budget and several years behind schedule.

The reason for the delay and increased cost is that the original sub-contract for the rocket motor ran into trouble. It was awarded to an MOD research and development establishment, the propellants, explosives and rocket motor establishment, by another MOD section —the rocket motor executive. How separate were these two parts of the MOD? What has happened to the civil servants involved in the affair? Will the Minister assure me that none of the civil servants involved in this drastic and worrying incident will work for British Aerospace in the future? Other hon. Members asked similar questions, during the defence estimates debate, about the sale of Royal Ordnance plc. I understand that they have yet to receive adequate replies from the Minister.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has already drawn our attention to the vital question of the proper allocation of public funds. The Foxhunter and ALARM debacles are evidence either of plain misallocation or of Government managerial incompetence. Whichever option the House favours, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the failures and delays associated with both projects are selling short our Air Force.

The Government are failing to provide the nation with a wholly reliable air defence system. There may be Conservative Members who recall with some pleasure flying by the seat of their pants—or kilts, as the case may be. However, as the most junior Member of the House, may I suggest—with respect—that that is no way to run key elements of a £20 million defence budget.

The hon. Member for Ryedale compared discipline within the airfields that he visited on his grand tour with that which he remembered from his days in the Metropolitan police force. He would have made an even more significant contribution to this debate had he suggested that a little of that discipline might have been transferrred from the police beat into the offices of the Government's RAF procurement agencies.

9.4 pm

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), whom I have not heard speak in the House. He stood looking fit and well, as do new Members after they have fought an election. However, the House will soon put paid to that. I congratulate him on arriving here with the streets of Pontypridd still ingrained on his feet.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). It is the role of Back Benchers to hold Ministers accountable for the money which they obtain from the House, and in doing so the hon. Gentleman is worth a Benchful of Labour Members.

Defence debates such as this are full of acronyms, and I had to go and look up "MLRS". I found that it stood for multiple-launch rocket system. I think that in future I shall apply that acronym to the hon. Member for Workington, who launched plenty of rockets at Government spokesmen this evening.

An aspect of the Royal Air Force that has not been mentioned today is the role of helicopters in battlefield and support work. We have heard a good deal today about search and rescue, and I feel that the battlefield and support role also needs our attention. I am glad that both Ministers and senior officers are now beginning to realise the importance of helicopter-borne operations. They are also realising that not only is the number of both RAF and Army Air Corps helicopters inadequate for the job in hand, but there is a lack of balance in resources vis-a-vis the other teeth arms of armour, infantry and artillery.

At present, in what is largely peacetime, the RAF support helicopters are mainly programmed to meet Northern Ireland commitments and to perform a host of other operational and training tasks. I would argue that that leaves a shortage in the event of general hostilities. It is unrealistic to claim that the United Kingdom has an adequate helicopter force to cope with all the necessary tasks at one time, and I fear that support helicopters would be swamped with requests and would be unable to meet them all.

It has been suggested that the RAF, for its own logistic requirements alone, could probably mop up all the support Wessex and Puma helicopters. Why are those battlefield and support helicopters so important? In battle there is an increasing need for mobility and for better speed of reaction within NATO. Lateral movement of ground forces is difficult when enemy penetration is accepted in the design for battle. Only battleworthy helicopters can provide an adequate solution to the need for increased mobility, which is as important for out-of-area operations as in the central front. Flexibility is an important principle of war, and the helicopter in battle gives troops that flexibility.

In spite of what the Soviet Union has been saying about reducing its conventional forces, I think that that is highly unlikely to apply to its helicopters. All the evidence suggests that the Soviets are continuing to build up their rotary-winged force at least to reach a par with the United States. The USSR is believed to have at least 4,600 helicopters available to its armies—some reports have suggested as many as 7,000. Whatever the number, there is no doubt that it will continue to grow rapidly.

What can we put into battle in the NATO theatre in Europe against such a threat? I know that, with perestroika and glasnost prevailing, peace seems to be breaking out all over the world, but we must still keep our guard up and be able to respond to this most obvious threat, bearing in mind where it is most likely to come from. The United States has some 8,600 battlefield helicopters available to its armies. West Germany has 800, France 700 and Italy 330. In addition, Italy has a good many small light-fixed-winged aircraft.

In terms of battlefield helicopters, the United Kingdom has 320 allocated to the Army Air Corps, largely used for reconnaissance and anti-tank work. There are a further 63 in the Royal Air Force—32 Wessex and 31 Pumas—and 38 Chinooks are available for battlefield and support work. Of that total of 421 helicopters, 101 are under RAF command. I argue that, because of the multiplicity of roles that those helicopters have to undertake, that is not enough.

For example, in addition to their battlefield role, helicopters have to support our Northern Ireland operations and move men and materials all around central Europe and the United Kingdom. They also have to support the Harrier force in central Europe and perform all the RAF's logistic tasks. Those helicopters support our air mobile brigade, which is currently stationed in the United Kingdom but is allocated to the northern army group. Those helicopters also have many overseas commitments, particularly in the Falklands and in Belize. If hostilities broke out, there is no doubt that much of that work could not be done. Alternatively, the helicopters could not meet their battlefront commitments.

If there is to be a helicopter battlefield support force capable of fulfilling all those roles—and, in particular, of supporting the Air Mobile Brigade, which requires at least 50 support helicopters to move it around—the field army needs a further 150 helicopters as a bare necessity. I know that it is a case of priorities. When it comes to defence expenditure, it is always a question of deciding what one wants most. If I were Secretary of State for Defence, I would put my faith in more helicopters rather than in more tanks, because the helicopter offers more flexibility. If the Ministry of Defence does not get its house fully in order in respect of helicopters, in the event of war, the Army could become totally immobile.

We were pleased by the statement of my right hon. Frind the Secretary of State for Defence on 9 April 1987 about orders for support helicopters. On that occasion, my right hon. Friend announced that he was placing orders for 25 of the Anglo-Italian EH101. That good news was welcomed by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. However, I am sorry to report that that aircraft is still flight testing at Yeovil for its future development. I would like to know how soon the preliminary development contract for that aircraft will be placed. I understand that there are delays because the armed forces persist in increasing their specifications. That is typical of so many orders for the British armed forces.

The point about a support helicopter is that it is a truck that flies. We want airborne facilities that will move large quantities of troops and materials from one place to another. I cannot believe that it is necessary to go to such lengths at the development stage, which merely delays the aircraft's introduction into service.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

The hon. Gentleman should sit down now, or we shall take time off the Minister's speech.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. That is very discourteous to the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin).

Mr. Colvin

I had not appreciated that another hon. Member is to speak before my hon. Friend winds up. Now that I know that, I am happy to conclude my remarks.

We are extremely fortunate in the United Kingdom to have the Westland Group to manufacture our helicopters. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has been present during the debate because, although as a Whip he is muted in debate, I know how much he supports that company and lobbies for it. The manufactures at Yeovil are normally carried out in co-operation with the aerospace companies of our NATO allies. Under this Government, Westland can look forward to a good future, but it would be much better if the Ministry of Defence took my advice—not only my advice, because it comes from outside the House as well —and added more helicopters to battlefield and support inventories so that, if hostilities were to commence, they would be able to give our Army in the field the backup it required, without which our troops would he at a great tactical disadvantage.

9.15 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Having sat through all but about 15 minutes of the debate, I am pleased to have a few minutes at the end of it. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) took so long, because that has curtailed the time for other hon. Members. I am sure that he had much to say, but he might have said it more briefly.

Labour Members support the policy of an adequate defence force, of which the Royal Air Force is but one branch. We support a publicly owned and controlled defence system because we believe that that is the most effective. The Government believe that as well, because they have not yet brought forward proposals for privatising the Royal Air Force into British Airways, British Midland or any other private body, and they have not proposed selling off the armed forces to Securicor. that is true for our armed forces—and defence is all important according to the Government—it is also true for major services such as water, gas and electricity. If things are important—and water is important and essential to life —public ownership and control is an important concept for Labour Members.

Labour Members support unilateral nuclear disarmament and it is Labour party policy. It is currently under review, which is not tactically clever because it prevents us, for a couple of years, from arguing the overwhelming case for getting rid of nuclear weapons. The Government make little jokes about it, but as I keep saying—and the Government have no answer to this—nuclear weapons are potential mass murderers. As the Government know well, 133 non-nuclear nations have said that they will not manufacture or deploy nuclear weapons. By our "modernisation" of the Royal Air Force and our deployment of Trident, which I dealt with in the Navy debate, we are metaphorically kicking in the teeth those 133 nations which look to the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, the nuclear signatories of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to carry out article 6 and effectively negotiate the removal of nuclear weapons.

The United States and the Soviet Union have at least embarked on that programme. Only the United Kingdom retains nuclear weapons without any suggestion that it is prepared to negotiate with anybody to remove them. That is a scandal and a disgrace. The modernisation proposal is a betrayal and a calculated deceit towards the INF treaty, into which the United States and the USSR have entered. I have a letter from the Bradford Telegraph and Argus which encapsulates the plea to the Government not to cheat on the INF treaty. Headed: "Don't turn treaty into a mockery", it says: We were delighted to learn recently of the withdrawal of American forces from Molesworth RAF base and to hear that the public can now view the empty insides of the silos which had been built to house Cruise nuclear missiles. Let us hope that the INF Treaty is just the beginning of total world nuclear disarmament. It is disturbing to read, however, that ideas are being floated in the United States and within NATO on how best to 'compensate' for the loss of Cruise and Pershing by introducing either a new range of nuclear weapons or placing Cruise-type missiles on cruisers and destroyers operating out of British ports. We feel that the British public needs to be reassured that the INF treaty is not a mockery. That letter is signed by Jane Nuttall of Wyke women's peace group in my constituency. She and millions of others like her seek that assurance. They want to be sure that Tornado—the most expensive procurement programme in our history—will not be modernised to include nuclear missiles, and that nuclear bombs will be removed from those planes as part of our programme of honouring the INF treaty. We may not be signatories, but we should honour the treaty in spirit.

Labour's policy also involves the removal of the United States nuclear bases, which were allowed in this country under an agreement reached in October 1951. Why was the agreement reached then? A general election was taking place, so the Prime Minister of the day was not subject to the scrutiny of the House. The Conservative Government accepted the agreement when they were elected to replace the Labour Government.

That slip of paper says that there shall be joint decision-making on the use or RAF bases by the United States in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time. That means that a unilateral decision can be made to engage in nuclear war—despite the removal of cruise missiles—by using F111s at Lakenheath with nuclear weapons on board. It is the sane policy, and in the interests of our future safety, to get rid of American nuclear bases and to close down the American facility at Lakenheath, just as Molesworth and Greenham Common were closed as a result of negotiations to which our Government were not a party.

There is to be massive investment in the Tornado programme—£13 billion—while the European fighter aircraft project is to cost £7 billion. That £20 billion-worth of investment has warped our civilian aircraft programme. This country once led in the production of jet aircraft but now the nearest thing to a large-bodied jet that we produce is the modest BA 146, which is powered not by a Rolls-Royce engine but by an Avco Lycoming engine imported from the United States.

We are prepared to spend £20 billion on fighter aircraft that we cannot use in a conflict. People talk about flying aircraft low towards a target. The poor wretches who fly them to their targets in a nuclear war will find when they return that their base is no longer there. The whole notion of a conflict is out of date; it is antique.

We should invest in our civilian aircraft programme. British Airways now relies completely on Boeing; indeed, the replacement for Shackleton is to be provided not by the British aircraft industry but by Boeing, whose quality, as we know, is somewhat variable. We could be supplying British Airways ourselves if we had directed investment towards the civilian programme. Japan, which spends less than I per cent. of its gross national product in military expenditure, has managed to flood the world with services and goods because it has concentrated on things that people need and want rather than pouring money into military research and expenditure.

An enormous sum—£19,636 million—is being spent on defence in 1988–89. In the same year—on April 11—we are to cut pensions and a whole range of benefits on which the neediest and poorest people in our country depend. In that same year, we embarked on expenditure of £20 billion for military purposes. The Minister stated proudly that that was a real terms increase of 3 per cent.

I do not want to reiterate the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington—indeed, I could not, because my voice is not that strong—but I want to point out that in the current defence estimates, for the year I January 1987 to 31 December 1987, the cost of replacing aircraft that have crashed on low-flying exercises, which, in my view, are entirely unnecessary, was a total of £200 million. That expenditure was due to the mistaken policies on low flying. If the Government disagree with the policies of a local authority and regard them as mistaken, they surcharge and dismiss from office the Labour councillors involved. Because of the Government's policy of support for nuclear weapons, because of their careless use of aircraft and because of their low-flying policies, the Government should be dismissed from office also.

9.25 pm
Mr. Rogers

The Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces referred to AWACS and said that when his colleague replies he will mention it further. I should like to know how many such systems are available to the Royal Air Force. The Minister also referred to the flying displays and the changes that will be brought in to enhance safety, especially for spectators. We welcome that. The RAF's thrilling displays at various events are looked forward to with a great deal of pleasure by many people. Obviously, the more restrictions that can be introduced to increase safety the better so that people can enjoy the displays without the fearful accidents that sometimes occur.

The Minister also mentioned low flying—an issue to which some of my hon. Friends have also referred. I was pleased by the Minister's answer because it was much more positive and not as arrogant as some of the answers that we have received from his colleagues. The Minister seems to be applying himself to the issue instead of adopting—if I may use the expression—the knee-jerk reaction of saying, "The RAF says that it is good and necessary so we must carry on."

Although it is obvious that the Minister is looking at the problems, the restrictions on low flying are still gravely deficient. The problems are not fully appreciated. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces seems to find the matter humorous, but perhaps he will pay attention because if low flying were carried out over his constituency or even over constituencies in Kent, we should see a greater response from the Government. It seems that environmental problems must affect Kent before the Government will do anything. I should like to say to those on the Government Benches, "Come on, lads. Realise that there are other places outside the Tory-held south-east of England and realise that this is a serious problem."

The Minister recognised the problem, referring to the "sudden noise alarming people". That is putting it mildly. Anyone who has experienced a Tornado flying overhead at only 100 ft and at 500 mph knows that it is not just alarming; it is shudderingly frightful. People have no warning that exercises are going to take place. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that point. The Government's answer to a request that people be allowed to be told that the exercises are to take place was, "It is a matter of national security." I cannot see how it can be a matter of national security. Why cannot people be told that low flying will take place within certain hours?

Mr. Bill Walker


Mr. Rogers

No, I do not have enough time to give way and, in any case, I was asking the Minister for the answer, not someone who flew in the last century.

I detected in the Minister's opening speech a slight thawing in the Government's neanderthal attitude towards low flying. I ask him please to bend a little more and think of the people, especially in central Wales and the two areas of Scotland, who are subjected to this 500 mph bombardment from 100 ft. It is a very important issue for them. The quality of their life is important.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

On that very point, which is of great interest to the House, can my hon. Friend recall my question to the Minister on Tuesday regarding the £1 billion of Government funds that is wasted every year on the maintenance of fast jets? A report has come out saying that fast jets spend half their time being maintained. Will my hon. Friend bear that fact in mind? Are the fast jets going about the airways of Wales fully maintained? Can we have a reliable statement from the Minister that there will not be any air crashes like those in the public sector?

Mr. Rogers

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House's attention to the enormous sums of money being spent on repairing aircraft involved in accidents. As he is well aware, very close to his constituency at RAF St. Athan, there are 32 Tornado F2 and F3 aircraft in store, worth more than £500 million. In a Defence Committee report they were picturesquely described by witnesses from the Ministry of Defence as a small buffer stock of aircraft". The nation can do without a small buffer stock of aircraft worth well over £500 million.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made a very thoughtful speech. Perhaps we might not agree with his conclusions, but it is important to look constantly at the arguments. We are in a dynamic situation. I am sorry to use the word "neanderthal" again —perhaps it is a problem of a geologist—but because of the neanderthal attitude of Conservative Members, they do not recognise that we are in a dynamic situation. The way forward is to consider new situations that will arise from time to time.

The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) declared his well-known interest in the RAF. I am pleased that he still gets enormous pleasure from it, as I am sure he will to the end of his days. He remarked that the RAF needs the very best radar. I wish that he would take a little step further and have the courage to turn to his Front Bench and say to Minister that they are not doing a good job. The RAF should have the very best radar, but it is not up to the job. It has been in service for four years. It was introduced on an interim standard. It is still not up to the required standards and specifications of the RAF. The management of defence procurement by the Government is appalling.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) told us of his experiences in the RAF under a new scheme that has been introduced by the Secretary of State during the past year. Some service experience is indeed useful in understanding the problems. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on taking up that opportunity. I hope that other hon. Members will follow his example.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) paid tribute to Bristow. I began to wonder whether he, too, would take that little extra step and highlight some of the deficiencies in the air search and rescue service. The Opposition have drawn attention to those deficiencies in previous debates. There is a sore lack of equipment in that service. It ought to have more money and more resources.

In answer to a question by me on Tuesday, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that more than enough money is available to meet all the commitments of the services. Perhaps he should devote some of that money to the search and air rescue service so that it can update its equipment for the tremendous job that it does.

The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) referred to the loss of skilled personnel. He is absolutely right to draw our attention to that issue. As the effects of the fall in the birth rate become ever more apparent, it will become increasingly important to retain the right personnel. Each time the topic has been raised the Government have sought to assure us that there is nothing to worry about. The Minister at last acknowledged that there were severe shortfalls in the number of aircrew and engineers, but he said that such shortages are containable and exist only in the short term. At long last what we have been saying over the past few years has now been acknowledged by the Government. The Government's attitude to any criticism is, "No, no, there is nothing wrong." If Opposition Members dare to put forward constructive criticism, Conservative Back Benchers say that we are attacking our armed forces. That is not true. We are attacking the Government and the management of the Ministry of Defence, not the members of the armed forces, who are doing a good job for us in the difficult conditions that obtain under this Government.

RAF personnel are voting with their feet. The statistics are alarming. The number of fast jet pilots who have taken premature voluntary release has increased from 20 in 1979 to 31 in 1988. The number of trained engineers leaving the service is also a cause for concern. In 1980, the number of electronic engineers joining and leaving the RAF brought about an overall gain of 554. In the same year, there was a net increase of over 1,000 in the number of mechanical engineers. In 1988, the situation worsened. The RAF had an overall loss of 427 electronic engineers and 433 mechanical engineers. That loss of hundreds of highly skilled engineers is of great concern to the Opposition.

Opposition Members recognise the great importance of those people. Although the Minister mentioned some measures that the Government are taking to stop that flow of personnel, I wish that such steps had been taken before, when we referred to the loss of maintenance staff. We hope that the Minister's proposals will stem the flow.

I re-emphasise the Opposition's commitment to the defence of this country. If hon. Members would accept that there is a strong commitment to the defence of this country, and if our criticisms were accepted in the constructive way in which we attempt to put them, we would get a lot further in defence debates. The country is not served by yah-boo political debates. People do not have the peculiar views that the Government sometimes put forward. I hope that the Opposition's constructive suggestions will be taken on board by the Government.

9.38 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

We have had a very varied debate, varied in a number of ways, in general attitudes to defence and foreign policy, a nice variation among those on the Opposition Benches, and a variation between them and the Government Benches. There was a variation in the relevance of the speeches to the subject of the debate, which I thought on some occasions the House needed to be reminded was the Royal Air Force. There was quite a variation in the length of contributions. I am only sorry that the contribution of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) resulted in such a disturbance afterwards on his side of the House that we nearly had to call time-out while it was sorted out.

There was even a variety in the frequency of contributions. I realise now why on this occasion the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) needed to be dual-capable, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Armed Forces so nicely put it. He wanted to make one speech on a variety of what, if one stretched a point, could be called defence-related issues, and another to cover the RAF. Some of us were not so lucky to have the opportunity to make two speeches. I thank him and congratulate him on his second speech, however, and I recognise his personal and family commitment to the RAF and to the defence of the country.

On one issue, at least, I hope we were united—in recognising the dedication and commitment of the men and women of the RAF. That is something that we all know we can rely on. Reliability has been much in the news and it is relevant to the comments of several hon. Members in the debate. The interest in reliability has been brought to the fore by the report of the National Audit Office on the reliability and maintainability—R and M for short—of defence equipment.

I want to stress that I am in general sympathy with the report and grateful for the succinct way in which it sets out ideas, proposals and objectives. I particularly welcome its recognition of the marked interest and concern on the part of my Department and British contractors to make further progress. Nevertheless, good reliability is only one facet of the services' needs. Performance and availability on time are obviously important, and so are cost considerations, since there is obviously a trade-off between increased costs and improved reliability. These criteria frequently conflict and a judgment must be made on the correct compromises. The exercise is to ensure that reliability receives sufficient emphasis and is taken into account early enough.

I should not like it to be thought that we have been inactive in the area of reliability and maintainability. As the recent NAO report said, The need for good R and M has long been recognised by the Department. We have identified what is needed, in itself a task of some complexity. As a result, we have not only set in hand further work by consultants, such as the contracting for reliability study, but have also looked at our organisation and procedures.

For example, nearly five years ago we gave further momentum to the collection of quality assurance experts with the project management teams, and more recently we have been incorporating them into the project teams. We have also been putting more and more R and M and life-cycle information into the equipment policy committee. The project management teams, too, have been active in exploring new approaches so that, as we gain experience, we shall be well placed to identify those ideas which generally contribute to improved reliability. The most recent decision has been to appoint a director of reliability, charged with the central co-ordination of current and future R and M initiatives.

I should like the House to be aware of the influence of the long, in some cases incredibly long, time scales of procurement on the effectiveness of our policies. Everyone is agreed that the proper time to start to get R and M right is when a project is in its earliest design and specification stage; improvements can be made to R and M thereafter, but it becomes progressively more difficult and expensive. It follows, therefore, that much of the equipment now criticised for poor reliability or high maintenance costs started to be designed and developed at least 10 years ago, long before we began to give greater attention to R and M. Equally, a considerable time will pass before we get the full fruits of our better applied effort. Meanwhile, I can assure the House that as new projects are initiated the policy is that the full R and M doctrine should be applied.

I was glad to hear how much my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) had gained from his time with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was also pleased to hear his tribute to the service men he was with: they enjoyed his company as he enjoyed theirs. We look forward to the scheme not only continuing but expanding. I am glad to be able to confirm to him and to the House that no civilian has been killed on the ground during the 1980s as a result of an RAF flying accident.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces covered low flying fully in his opening remarks. It was referred to by many hon. Members, some with perhaps more understanding of the need for low flying training than others. The hon. Member for Workington worried about the cost to the Exchequer of aircraft lost in accidents. If we had no training, we would not have accidents during training, but we would not have the capable Air Force that the country needs and deserves.

In his extraordinary efforts to show that low flying was not worthwhile because of the highly capable missiles which the Russians have, the hon. Member for Workington ignored the far greater risks of trying to reach targets at high levels and the defensive capabilities of our aircraft. Most of all, he ignored the well known and well set-out advantages of terrain-following, low-level attack. I assure him that we are aware of the threat posed by Soviet missiles and by other Soviet equipment. That is why we equip the RAF to meet that threat.

It was no surprise to the House to hear again that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), supported by the hon. Members for Workington and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), still believes in a non-aligned foreign and defence policy. The right hon. Gentleman is not only a supporter of one-sided nuclear disarmament but, as I understood his speech, he also advocated unilateral conventional disarmament. I think that we should leave him to carry on his argument within his own party. I am sure that he will do it with the same eloquence within the party as he has used in the House.

Mr. Benn

Can the Minister give any indication to the House how, 10 years after the Government have been in force, with a Soviet Government who are more friendly, most people would think, than Mr. Brezhnev's Government, we should find it necessary to spend 20 per cent. more in real terms on weapons than at the time when we were dealing not with Mr. Gorbachev but with Mr. Brezhnev?

Mr. Sainsbury

It was an interesting slip for the right hon. Gentleman to say that the present Government had been in force rather than in power. I take it that he was referring to our majority.

When the right hon. Gentleman makes his suggestions about unilateral conventional as well as nuclear disarmament, he appears to ignore that until now the Soviet Union has continued to produce new modernised military equipment for nuclear forces, conventional forces and every type of force. The one thing that so much of the equipment has in common is its attacking capability. We hope that we can look to a time when the Russians will no longer produce a submarine every six weeks, for example. That has not happened yet. Indeed, the hon. Member for Workington drew to our attention what seemed to him the almost magical attributes of a new Russian missile. If the Soviets are producing new weapons, I would have thought that it was only right that we continued to do so ourselves.

I shall try to cover the other points that were raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), with his great experience of and his great commitment to the RAF, mentioned the very important Tucano. I am glad to tell him that 11 aircraft have been delivered to the RAF and that reports from those who have flown the aircraft are most encouraging. The power, agility and safe handling of the Tucano endow it with the ideal characteristics for basic training. I think that it will serve the RAF extremely well,

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) raised the question of gratuities and pensions payable to the wives and families of serving personnel. I assure him that the Royal Air Force takes great pride in the care and support which it offers to its bereaved. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will write to the hon. Gentleman about the tragic loss of Squadron Leader Nelson and about the wider question of benefit levels.

AWACS—now to be called the Sentry—has been mentioned. The hon. Member for Rhondda appears to be wondering how many we already have. I hoped that he might have been aware that seven are on order and that the first one is expected to be rolled out of the production line during this summer.

Mr. Rogers

But how many?

Mr. Sainsbury

I have just said that seven are on order and that the first one is due to be rolled out this summer —[interruption.] It would help me to answer the points raised in the debate if the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen could restrain themselves a little.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) asked about the AWACS off-set agreement. I assure him that we are closely monitoring Boeing's performance in fulfilling the off-set commitment. We have every confidence that the company will meet its obligations in full. I can further assure my hon. Friend that we are also confident that the RAF will receive from its American counterpart all the information that it needs to operate the Sentry E3 successfully.

Perhaps not surprisingly, radar has featured in a number of contributions—both the radars that we have and, indeed, the ones that we have not yet chosen. Questions were raised about the capability of the radar systems that we have, especially about Foxhunter. Indeed, that gets inextricably mixed up with the Tornadoes. Of course, the hon. Member for Rhondda wheeled out the ones in storage, if I may mix metaphors, at St. Athan.

As the Defence Committee recognised in its report on the Statement on the Defence Estimates for 1988, storage represented the most cost-effective and operationally acceptable course open to the Ministry of Defence when faced with the need to rephase Tornado ADV deployment plans after 1984. All the aircraft involved will be upgraded to a standard comparable to that of the latest production F3s. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said in his second speech, a number of them are, of course, only F2s. I cannot persuade the hon. Gentleman to believe it, but that is what will happen.

My hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North and for Wyre, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), and, as one might always expect, the hon. Member for Rhondda, mentioned the Foxhunter radar, which, even in its present form, is performing much better than on its first. introduction to service. We are confident that its capability will continue to improve as the development progresses We have agreed with the contractor a programme of work to bring the radar up to the required standard.

Mr. Rogers

The Minister has, in fact, acknowledged that the Foxhunter is not up to the standard required. It has been in service now for four years. Can the Minister tell the House when the radar will perform, as it should have performed in 1985?

Mr. Sainsbury

As I have already said to the House, it is already performing much better than the first deliveries. There have been progressive improvements. We have agreed with the contractor a tight contract, which covers the further programme of improvements, with milestones for payment against performance, which is extremely important.

The European fighter aircraft radar seems to feature in practically every Defence Question Time and probably in every defence debate these days.

Mr. O'Neill

It will until the Government make up their mind.

Mr. Sainsbury

I know that the hon. Gentleman is impatient, but he should know—because he is supposed to be in charge of these matters for the Opposition—that there is a procedure to be followed before a choice is made.

We must have a recommendation from the European NATO Fighter Management Agency as to what radar should be chosen. I am sure that all the hon. Members who raised the issue will appreciate that both competing radars involve British companies. It would be wrong for me to prejudge the outcome of the competition. We have been waiting for the recommendation to NEFMA by Euro-fighter, the prime contractor, and we still hope that a recommendation will be made. However, in the meantime the four participating nations are carrying out their own evaluation of the bids from the two competing consortia.

Mr. O'Neill

We have heard repeated undertakings that the decision would be made soon. We were told tht it would be forthcoming last year, in September, in December, at the end of January and we are now into March. How much longer will the delay take? Why is this taking so long? Why will the Minister not be frank with the House?

Mr. Sainsbury

The decision, as I have explained to the hon. Gentleman, is awaiting a recommendation from Euro-fighter. I am not Euro-fighter. We are representatives of the collaborating nations. In a way, the hon. Gentleman is addressing his questions to the wrong people.

I hope that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) will appreciate, in view of all the interest expressed in the subject so far, that the radar is a very important part of the aircraft. The most modern, highly capable radars are not the easiest things to get right and we would all probably agree about that. It would be sensible to ensure that we reach the right conclusions on this important subject.

Mr. O'Neill

That sounds like a Bobby Robson answer.

Mr. Sainsbury

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Bobby Robson has just had a success, winning two-nil away from home.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) made some interesting comments about the importance of helicopters. I assure him that we recognise that and I will study what he has said carefully because, regrettably, I was not able to be in the Chamber for all the time that he was speaking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside asked about the development of the EH101 utility helicopter. As I told the House last November, the programme has started on the formal project definition stage which will examine in detail the RAF's requirements and establish more clearly the costs and risks involved. I assure my hon. Friend that the RAF's basic requirement has not changed.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Tayside, North were among those who asked about stand-off weapons for the Tornado. They referred to the need to provide an updated stand-off capability for the Tornado and the importance of stand-off weapons for survivability in today's highly challenging environment. They will be pleased to know that we are proceeding steadily with the development of a weapon to meet that requirement.

We sought proposals from industry early in 1987 for a range of possible solutions. A total of eight bids were received in October 1987. Although some have been eliminated as being clearly unacceptable on operational or performance grounds, we are continuing with our assessment of the remainder and expect to make further decisions later in the year.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East referred to the search and rescue provision from RAF Leuchars. The greatly improved service provided by the Royal Navy Sea King helicopters at Prestwick and Culdrose together with other helicopter and coastguard services in the area have made it possible to reduce the search and rescue service from Leuchars. The resources dedicated to search and rescue will not substantially change as a result of the redeployment.

The aim of making better use of our existing assets to meet military and civilian needs has been achieved. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for transport in Scotland are satisfied that fully adequate provision is being made for civilian search and rescue needs.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the staff of the Royal Aerospace Establishment, who were not mentioned during the course of the debate. However, those with a knowledge of the RAF would recognise that their research into aircraft and missile systems has helped to keep the United Kingdom at the forefront in those areas. Equally important, the establishment enables the MOD to maintain the intelligent customer capability which is so crucial in our dealings with industry and our procurement effectiveness.

The House will be aware that earlier today I announced that we have concluded that a move to Preston farm in Teesside is the most cost-effective solution for the headquarters and laboratories of the Directorate General of Defence Quality Assurance now at Woolwich and Bromley. The move would concentrate the headquarters functions and main laboratories of the directorate on a single site with fully modern facilities, while at the same time releasing the Woolwich and Bromley sites for disposal and redevelopment. We shall be consulting with the trade unions, as is normal practice. There are 1,500 jobs involved, of which about 650 would be good quality scientific and engineering posts and about 250 would be apprentices.

We have, of course, recently heard of the death of that intrepid pioneer aviator and aircraft designer Tommy Sopwith. It would be inappropriate if this evening went by without his career being mentioned and a tribute being paid to the contribution he made over many years to a wide variety of aircraft names—the Hurricane, the Typhoon, the Hunter and, of course, more recently, the Harrier.

Today is also, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned, the 40th anniversary of the inaugural flight of the Shackleton aircraft.

Every year in this debate we recognise, as many hon. Members have commented, another year of effective and loyal service by the service men and women of the Royal Air Force. They are an enormous credit to the nation through the selfless way in which they continue to carry out their tasks.

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