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Royal Air Force

Volume 168: debated on Wednesday 28 February 1990

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

3.58 pm

Nineteen-ninety is the year of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Throughout the year, in different parts of the nation, there will be formal commemorations of those events of 1940, culminating in a major parade and fly-past over London in September. In these circumstances it is a particular privilege to be able to make my own tribute to the courage, determination and skills of the Royal Air Force, past and present and the House will carry that anniversary in the forefront of its mind during our debate this afternoon.

I suggest two reasons in particular. The first is the uncertainties in the international situation. For the first time in that period—indeed for longer, because it was clear from the time of the Munich crisis who our enemies were and where the battles would be fought—the familiar certainties of a clearly identified threat, a traditional confrontation, appear to have diminished.

The policies that the West has collectively pursued, and the international institutions that we have developed, have guaranteed us peace and security and freedom and prosperity. The people of eastern Europe now want to share our success. The challenge facing the West is how to accommodate their aspirations without jeopardising our own achievements and, above all, our security.

While the apparatus of Communism and of the Warsaw pact is disintegrating, we retain firm foundations on which to build. We have robust and healthy institutions—the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the conference on security and co-operation in Europe, the Western European Union and the European Community—within which we can co-ordinate our work towards a stable and lasting security order in Europe.

Political and military changes must go hand in hand. The current negotiations on conventional armed forces in Europe are of particular importance. They are an indication of the good faith of the East in reducing its overwhelming superiority in conventional armaments, and a CFE agreement will be a major step towards the new order that we are seeking.

The second reason is even more relevant. As everyone knows, the battle of Britain was a very close-run thing. There were two points when the attrition rate of aircraft and skilled aircrew was such that our survival—and thus the survival of western democracy as a whole—was in jeopardy. That crisis can be directly linked to the neglect—founded in optimism, in parsimony and in political cowardice, for some of which the House of Commons cannot escape blame—of the early 1930s. [HON. MEMBERS: "It was a Tory Government!"] Certainly; I do not deny that. With that recollection in our minds, I am sure that the House would agree that we must—with the Royal Air Force of all the services—guard against a repetition of those mistakes.

I propose to refer, first, to the operational achievements of the RAF in the past year, then to discuss the procurement aspect for the future, and finally to touch on certain personnel matters.

The Royal Air Force continues to play a full part in the United Kingdom's military commitments outside the NATO area, with forces stationed in Belize, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands and Hong Kong. Aircraft of the air transport forces maintain regular support to those garrisons.

In addition to those continuing commitments, Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft have deployed to Oman on a series of training exercises with the Sultan of Oman's armed forces.

In March last year, the United Kingdom was asked by the United Nations, at very short notice, to send personnel to Namibia. A six-man air operations team was dispatched, and, for the first three months of its deployment, it helped oversee the arrival of military and civil aircraft bringing in the various national contingents and their equipment and supplies.

This year, Royal Air Force aircraft will again be deploying to the far east to take part in a major exercise under the five-power defence arrangements. Those arrangements bring United Kingdom forces together with those of Malaysia. Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Royal Air Force participation will include Tornado F3 and GR1 aircraft, together with tanker support, and underlines our continued commitment to the arrangements and the importance that we attach to the area.

In addition, the RAF has played a significant role in disaster relief. Following the passage of hurricane Hugo through the eastern Caribbean, it was involved in the provision of urgent assistance to a number of the Leeward Islands which had suffered damage. RAF Hercules shuttled over 49,000 lbs of freight and 400 passengers from Antigua to Montserrat and St. Kitts. In addition, those aircraft carried personnel of the Bermuda defence force to the British Virgin Islands to assist in the restoration of essential services there.

The Royal Air Force has also taken part in relief work in the United Kingdom following the January gales. RAF Hercules performed the particularly valuable task of carrying electricity-generating equipment to parts of the country left without power. Since Monday, when a sea wall was breached at Towyn, north Wales, four RAF search and rescue helicopters have airlifted 75 people from the town. RAF mountain rescue teams have also joined the police in helping more than 500 people to safety.

The RAF continues to play a vital role in more traditional search and rescue operations at home and abroad. In 1989, some 900 people were rescued in the United Kingdom alone. Some hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller)—who is not in his place—have expressed concern at the recent redeployment of military SAR assets. As we expected, coverage over the country as a whole, particularly at night and in bad weather, has been improved. I am glad that these misgivings have proved unfounded.

The House will wish to congratulate the RAF on its achievements over the past weekend in going to the aid of injured passengers aboard the stricken Cypriot ferry the Baroness M. Following a call from the ship to the Cyprus marine radio station, the RAF rescue co-ordination centre in Cyprus scrambled three Wessex helicopters of No. 84 squadron and a visiting Nimrod from No. 201 squadron. Fifteen casualties were winched from the ship and taken to Larnaca international airport for onward transport to hospital.

Can my hon. Friend confirm whether the RAF has been able to establish the nationality of the gunboat that attacked this unarmed ferry on the high seas? Obviously that information would be of some interest to the House, not least from the point of view of the safety of other shipping in the area.

My understanding is that the gunboat carried Syrian markings.

The year 1989 was a special one for the Red Arrows. It was the team's silver jubilee year and it culminated in an open day air show, held in October at Scampton. Royal Air Force aircraft and display teams from France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, as well as the Red Arrows, displayed their skills to an enthusiastic crowd, some of whom had come especially for the event from distant parts of the world. On those occasions when it is possible to send the Red Arrows abroad, they act as a marvellous demonstration of the quality of British aircraft as well as the excellence of the pilots who fly them. Such displays have a wider role to play in enhancing British prestige and trading prospects in those places.

The hon. Gentleman has outlined a background of a diminution in international tension. Would it not be ironic if that resulted in an increase in low-flying sorties over rural areas as many of these aircraft are relocated from German air space to United Kingdom air space? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the present level of low flying in the rural areas of Scotland is unacceptable as it is, and that any increase in Scotland is out of the question?

I am well aware that low flying is a matter of great concern to a number of hon. Members, especially those whose constituencies are directly affected. I propose to touch on that matter. If the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with my comments, I shall refer to it again, if the House grants me leave.

The House will be aware of the importance that we attach to the safety of all display flying. Last year, we completed a comprehensive review of military flying regulations aimed at ensuring that the RAF would continue to entertain the public as safely and professionally as possible. None the less, every year tragically sees a number of major accidents involving RAF aircraft, in some of which some service men are killed.

As the House well knows, every accident is exhaustively investigated, and we make every effort to ensure that the lessons learned minimise the risk of recurrence. There is no accident level that we regard as acceptable; we are always striving to make military flying safer. But we also have to ensure that our aircrew receive the experience and training that they need to perform their operational roles. Well-trained, experienced pilots are an essential element in enhancing flight safety.

I am sure that the House will be pleased to learn that 1989 was an exceptionally safe year for the RAF in terms of both the absolute number of major aircraft accidents and the more significant measure of the major accident rate per 10,000 flying hours—0·31. This confirms the long-term trend in major RAF accidents, which has been downwards for many years.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the matter of safety, will he comment on the conclusions of his review? Does he agree, that it is dangerous for aircraft to carry out tight turns over crowded areas, and that such turns can better be carried out over runways?

If the crews are properly trained and fly at the highest levels of skill and competence, as we believe they do, it does not make any difference whether a tight turn is carried out over open country or an urban area. There is nothing inherently dangerous about a tight turn, providing that the proper procedures and skills are deployed. I am confident that they always would be deployed.

I am amazed at the Minister's answer to his hon. Friend. I understood that the RAF had issued instructions to its display teams that they should not do tight turns over crowded areas and that the RAF recognised the danger of such operations where there is a likelihood, as in Ramstein in Germany, that a plane could plough into the crowds and kill. Would he check on that? I thought that the RAF had issued such an order.

Aircraft do not plough into crowds simply because they are making a tight turn. Several factors are involved in a failure of a catastrophic nature such as the hon. Gentleman cited. Every accident is subject to a full inquiry and has different characteristics, although we deplore all accidents.

My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State met the newly formed all-party group on low flying last autumn. The Public Accounts Committee last week considered a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General. My Department has co-operated fully with the extensive inquiry conducted by the Select Committee on Defence. We await the outcome of these investigations and will certainly give them the most careful consideration.

I should prefer it if the hon. Member developed his arguments in the course of his own speech, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.

I have concluded my survey of operational matters and I should prefer to move on to the procurement aspect. I shall listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says if he proposes to remain for the rest of the debate.

As the House knows, the RAF has several major programmes of equipment modernisation under way.

The Minister said earlier when he did not reply to my intervention that he would make some substantive comments on low flying. His remarks were so insubstantial that many hon. Members may have missed them.

I explained that the Department has been co-operating fully with an extensive inquiry. When the outcome of those investigations is to hand, we shall give it our consideration and a further statement will be made.

On 23 January, in reply to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), I made a series of points on the European fighter aircraft—in particular the selection of the radar. I should like to reinforce what I said then and, in particular, reaffirm our whole-hearted commitment to the project.

An effective air defence is essential for the security of the United Kingdom. The EFA will be, in the late 1990s and beyond, the leading air defence fighter of its generation. Work on the prototype aircraft is proceeding well, as is the development of the engine and the selection of equipments. The key to EFA is its ability to detect, track, identify and attack hostile aircraft. The radar must meet all our specifications, however exacting. Continuing and fruitful discussions on this subject between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and his German counterpart last month give me confidence that a decision is near to hand.

I shall complete my remarks on this subject before I give way.

I share the concern of many that the Ferranti Defence Systems' ECR90 radar should receive the recognition that it deserves. To this end, the anticipated acquisition of FDS by GEC should dispel any reservations our partners may have had concerning Ferranti's financial viability. In doing so, the competing bids will be considered on their respective merits.

To bring about this restructuring in so short a time was a remarkable achievement well illustrating the flexibility and the capacity for long-term strategic thinking by British industry. This has been widely welcomed by hon. Members representing the constituents concerned.

On the question of Ferranti, is not it outrageous that Sir Derek Alun-Jones, the chairman of Ferranti, should receive something like £0·5 million—I believe that it is £497,000—in a golden handshake when the track record of that company over the past 12 months is appalling, especially in relation to the company's acquisitions? Is not it the taxpayer who ultimately picks up the bill for this, because the taxpayer is Ferranti's primary customer?

The extent to which Ferranti shareholders, who have seen the value of their investment decline by over two thirds in the past year, share this view is for others to judge.

The only sour note in this affair was struck by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) who searched desperately round, to the considerable embarrassment—I suspect—of some of his Scottish colleagues for grounds on which to oppose and criticise. The actual phrase he used was "dirty dealing", and he did his best to spread alarm and despondency with various accusations, all of them shown to be quite groundless. I shall look forward to his comments, if he feels inclined to make any, on how he sees the present situation—

I said that at the time, when I felt that it was justified in the sense that the disclosures trickled out and there was a lot of anxiety and many legitimate questions that had to be answered. In the main, those questions have been answered in the discussions and meetings that we have had with Mr. Dunn of Ferranti and with Lord Weinstock.

I and others have been unreserved in our satisfaction at the outcome of that extremely worrying period which, given the Minister of State's characteristically languid approach to these matters, filled us with great alarm at the time. We now recognise that, in difficult circumstances, this is probably the best possible deal that could have been achieved. We have had assurances from Lord Weinstock, to which we shall seek to keep him, and we are happy to have that opportunity.

I am flattered by the hon. Gentleman's reference to my style and am gratified by his apology.

The first Harrier GR5 squadron is now fully operational at RAF Wittering and was declared to NATO at the end of last year. The second, at RAF Gutersloh, is due to be declared later this year. This aircraft has a greatly improved capability and performance over the Harrier GR3, which it is replacing. Delivery of the first Harrier GR7, the night attack version of the GR5, is expected later this year. All Harrier GR5s will eventually be converted to GR7 standard. In addition, we intend, subject to the satisfactory resolution of contractual and other details, to order 14 new Harrier two-seat training aircraft. Those aircraft, known as the T-10, will meet the rigorous training requirements of the Harrier GR5 and GR7. They will also have a full operational capability.

Progress continues to be made on the enhancement—

Has the Minister any idea of the costs of the conversion of the GR5 to GR7? As a Minister, he will know better than anyone that such conversions can be technically difficult and extremely costly, and that they are not quite as simple as they might seem.

There is a note of it. As this is a point on which the House will wish to be enlightened, if the hon. Gentleman will remain in the Chamber until the conclusion of the debate, I shall certainly give that information then.

May I say how welcome it is that the Royal Air Force is to acquire the Harrier T10, so that the training aeroplane is now compatible with the GR5 and the GR7, which the crews will have to fly? Are the GR3s to be retained for service in Belize, or will Belize have an all-GR5 and GR7 force?

I think that, in the fullness of time, it will be an all-GR5 and GR7 force, but plainly that cannot happen overnight.

Progress continues to be made on the enhancement of our air-to-air refuelling capability and the replacement of the aging Victor tanker fleet. Air-to-air refuelling increases the operational range and endurance of combat aircraft, allowing them to be deployed more flexibly. I can report that contracts have recently been placed for the conversion of a further 13 VC10 aircraft to a tanker role.

The Royal Air Force utility EH101 helicopter programme is currently in the project definition phase. This involves examining in detail the RAF's foreseen requirement against a range of options and establishing the costs and risks associated with each. The results of this work will provide the basis for decisions on the next stage of the programme.

I note that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who frequently questions Ministers on this subject, is not in his place. I recognise, of course, that Wednesday is very late in the week for an SLD Member of Parliament to be in the House of Commons. I am sure that we all appreciate the urgency of the right hon. Gentleman's commitments outside.

Can my hon. Friend indicate when a decision on the EH101 utility version for the Air Force is likely to be taken?

I cannot give such an indication. We do not yet have enough information on which to base a decision. I am quite certain that it would be wrong to make a decision before we are entirely satisfied as to the specification and whether it meets our requirements.

The RAF attaches special importance to the morale and well-being of the Air Cadet Force.

I should like to put a point to the Minister before he leaves the question of procurement. He has not said anything about the LAH evaluation programme on which he has embarked and on which, he will agree, I have pressed him more than once. Of course, I understand why he is not yet in a position to say when he expects to complete that study. Can he say a word about the matter now? He will know better than most people that recent developments have pointed up the importance of the mobility factor to the Royal Air Force.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The LAH is a subject to which, with the whole question of balance in helicopter mixes in the battlefield, we are devoting great attention. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said that a variety of broader deployment options and procurement options are being considered. Certainly, this programme, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has a strong collaborative element, must be given very careful consideration in the context of an altered look at the whole question of the tactical deployment of helicopters.

I am delighted to report that we have recently placed orders for 53 modern gliders, to be known as Vigilant. Deliveries are scheduled to begin next month and to be completed by the end of this year. The Vigilants are self-launching gliders and will replace the existing fleet of Venture motor gliders, which are nearing the end of their useful life. This modernisation programme maintains the size of the glider fleet at over 140 aircraft and will ensure improved availability of gliders for student use.

The Bloodhound mark 2 air defence missile system has been in service with the Royal Air Force since 1964. Although Bloodhound continues to give useful service, it is becoming more difficult to maintain. There are no plans to withdraw Bloodhound from service immediately. However, to ensure more cost-effective management of the Bloodhound force into the future, we plan this year to concentrate it at only two locations. These will be RAF West Raynham and RAF Wattisham. The system will consequently be withdrawn from RAF North Coates, RAF Bawdsey, RAF Wyton and RAF Barkston Heath. Hon. Members in whose constituencies these stations lie will have received letters of explanation from me.

What progress has been made to define the requirement for a medium-range surface-to-air missile to replace Bloodhound? When does my hon. Friend expect to be able to announce progress on this important matter?

If such a requirement is determined, it would probably be filled by buying another system off the shelf, as it were. We are at such an early stage, however, that it would be premature to go into this matter in any greater detail.

It is important to mention two major infrastructure programmes. We have nearly completed a programme to provide hardened aircraft shelters, which, as the House knows, are designed to increase the survivability of aircraft at airfields. That work has been funded largely by NATO.

Another of our major priorities, to which I shall return in a moment, is to enhance the quality of life for service personnel. In this context we are intending to improve the entire stock of married quarters and single-service living accommodation in the next 10 years. This, we believe, will contribute substantially to improving the conditions of service life.

No speech about the Royal Air Force would be complete without a reference to its most important asset—the personnel who make up the service. In the past year, the trained strength of the Royal Air Force has fallen by about 4 per cent. There are increasing shortfalls in some officer branches as well as in ground engineering and support trades, but the shortfalls are manageable and the Royal Air Force maintains the ability to meet its operational commitments.

Applications for voluntary release of trained personnel remain higher than we would wish, although I am glad to be able to report that there are now some signs of improvement. We have devised a major revision of the terms of service for airmen for introduction this year, designed to provide greater flexibility and reward longer service. A revision of the terms of service for officers is also under consideration. Greater flexibility is also being incorporated into the rules governing the return to service of ex-airmen and women.

We are continuing to improve conditions of service by reducing turbulence, increasing job opportunities for wives, promoting greater job satisfaction generally, and improving working and living conditions. I remind the House of the extensive married quarter improvement programme currently in train.

One particularly important development has been the decision, announced last July, to broaden employment opportunities for female aircrew. As a result, the RAF is now recruiting female pilots, navigators and air engineers, with first-year targets of 25, 10 and four respectively. Some have already begun their training, having been selected according to the same criteria as men. We have found the response to this major change in policy most encouraging.

We all know that there is concern about naval wives. Has there been any consultation with Air Force wives about such recruitment?

We are dealing with a completely different situation from that envisaged in sending women to sea in ships. Women are being recruited to use their skills in a number of callings from which they have hitherto been excluded. I wholly applaud that development.

I asked the Minister whether there had been any consultation. Is the answer no?

Those of us who have direct connections with the RAF and who have visited RAF stations, have spoken with the wives; we have found that many of them believe that the change of policy is interesting, as many of their daughters are interested in joining the service.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right, and I regard it as a progressive step.

Does my hon. Friend intend that women pilots should fly combat aircraft, or will he keep them strictly to flying transport aircraft or aircraft other than those in wartime use?

Personally, I would have some reservations about that, but it is a matter that we shall look at as the situation develops. We shall weigh up all the factors that emerge as their skills as pilots are tested and evaluated.

The Minister has said that he has some reservations. I get the impression that the proposal has been ill thought out. What are the Minister's personal reservations?

I have given way to the hon. Gentleman four times already, and I will give way to him four more times, if he wishes. I always appreciate his interventions. My reservations—I emphasise that they are personal; perhaps I am over-fastidious—relate to women going into combat and flying combat aircraft. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I associate women's special gifts with activities other than the taking of life. If a person goes into combat, the ultimate purpose is to kill the enemy, as those of us who were in the services know. I would be uncomfortable in considering that function being subject to disciplinary instruction to a woman.

The Minister said that he would give way to me four more times, but I shall take up only one of them. What is the considered view of the Air Staff? Does the decision have the agreement of the Air Staff? The House is entitled to know what the advice from the Air Staff is.

This is a totally different subject. We are talking about a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson)—women in combat. That is a long way even from the consideration, never mind the considered views, of the Air Staff. I told the House about the recruitment of pilots, navigators and air engineers. It is a long way into the future as to whether the skills that emerge should be used in combat.

I share the concern of my hon. Friend about sending women into combat. Will he explore that comment further, asthat is exactly what will be happening in the Royal Navy?

We do not know what will happen. I do not want to get involved in that. There are differences between piloting a single-seater aircraft in combat, or piloting a bomber which will deliver a weapon system, and being a member of a crew of up to 1,000 in a situation, whether in combat or otherwise, which does not involve a woman in pulling the trigger, dropping a bomb or directing a missile.

I should like to conclude this review with a tribute to the Royal Air Force Reserve—the regular Reserve, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the RAF Volunteer Reserve. We are profoundly indebted to them for their motivation and commitment, and for their competence and skills.

I should in particular make reference to the unstinting efforts of Air Chief Marshal Sir John Barraclough as honorary inspector general of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which have done much to achieve the current high standards. I welcome as his successor my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who will, I know, maintain the same high level of service and commitment.

Finally, I come to a subject that profoundly concerns all our personnel in all three services. The threat posed by terrorists of the Provisional Irish Republican Army continues to demand great vigilance from our service men and women and their families. Last autumn saw the particularly brutal murder in the Federal Republic of Germany of Corporal Maheshkumar Islania and his six-month old daughter, Nivruti—a dreadful event, which brought home to us all the depths of wickedness to which terrorists are prepared to descend. None the less, our people in all three services remain steadfastly determined to resist and overcome this threat, and we are taking a wide variety of measures designed to increase their security and to encourage their awareness of the threat and of how it can be countered.

I end on that sombre note, but I shall seek the leave of the House to address various points which may be raised by hon. Members, if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye at the conclusion of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

4.35 pm

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I join the Minister in paying tribute to the few who flew during the battle of Britain. As he said, this year is the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain, and I am sure that throughout the country tributes will be made in appropriate ways. Opposition Members would like to be a part of those tributes.

Significantly, in working-class areas—and, indeed, throughout the country—there are a great many cenotaphs and memorials commemorating those brave people who went forth from the mines and factories, put on uniforms and fought to defend our freedoms. I join the Minister in paying tribute to those people and their families. I am pleased that this year the Government decided to treat war widows in a slightly better fashion. It was a step in the right direction.

The Minister was right to say that the battle of Britain was a close-run affair. That was because of the desperate state of our defences. I admire his usual honesty in acknowledging that there was a Tory Government in power at that time. Of course, I could mention certain instances that would highlight the paucity of our present air defences, but I must get on with my speech.

The announcement that women are to be trained to fly fast jets is a step forward. However, the problem of whether women should be used in combat requires greater discussion. The Government introduced the measure to allow women to go back to work in the coal mines—something which, coming from my background, I find appalling. Like the Minister, I also have reservations about women being involved in combat.

I am assured by the specialists in the Labour party—none of whom is here today—that women are capable of flying in combat roles. The physical constraints involving G-forces and tight turns—although not necessarily over display areas—might be the only reason why they could not fly in combat.

I join the Minister in condemning the cowardly indiscriminate bombing attacks on British service men and their families. There was a spate of bombings some years ago in Wales. I know one of the people who were responsible, and he received a long gaol sentence. He came from my village. Many say that such people are brave men, who are courageous in their cause. When that man was released, I told him that I could think of nothing more despicable or cowardly than to put a bomb in a left-luggage compartment at a railway station and then to walk away. In that instance the bomb was directed against people in Cardiff who were returning after work to the valleys. There is nothing brave about dumping a hag. The sooner that the people who give succour and support to terrorists realise that those are cowardly rather than brave acts, which require no physical courage, the better. Opposition Members condemn such actions and join the Minister in paying sympathy to the families of those who may have suffered as a result of such cowardly attacks.

Last Thursday the Western Mail—which I know the Minister does not read because it circulates only in Wales, although a few copies find their way into the House—carried a report of a rescue operation by a RAF Sea King helicopter operating out of RAF Brawdy in west Wales. Some 240 miles out in the Atlantic, the 20 seamen were rescued in the most appalling conditions in which, almost certainly, they would have lost their lives. The skill and courage of the pilot and aircrew was outstanding.

I commend, in particular, the bravery of the winchman, flight sergeant Graham Philips, who was washed overboard. If it were not for his lifeline back to the helicopter, he would have lost his life. It was RAF Brawdy's second long-range rescue in just a few days. The previous incident was in the same area of the Atlantic when a disabled ore carrier had to be disembarked.

Among our lifeboat crews, the helicopter crews of the search and rescue squadrons have an envied tradition of selfless courage and humanitarian acts. They deserve the commendation of the House for their bravery. I mention those incidents, first, to praise those who participate, but also to highlight some aspects of the future of sea and air rescue and the procurement of helicopters.

Some time ago the Government proposed the privatisation of sea and air rescue. Against a background of massive protests from both sides of the House, the proposals were modified or withdrawn. When he winds up, will the Minister give the present status of those proposals? There are fears that the Government will resurrect them and consider privatising the service. I warn the Minister that if the Government do so, he will encounter the same problems as he did before from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

If the Government are not to privatise the search and rescue service, what will they do about re-equipping the squadrons with new helicopters? The present Wessex helicopters are coming to the latter part of their operational lives. A decision must be made soon on their replacement; indeed, across a range of other helicopter requirements, a decision is required.

I reiterate the question of the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans): when will the Government place a firm order for the EH101? The Royal Navy pre-production aircraft, with a full mission system, has been flying since 24 October 1989. The anti-submarine variant, as currently specified and contracted, is going well. I understand that the RAF's intended Utility EH101 is well within schedule. All that is needed now, three years after the previous Secretary of State said that the Ministry of Defence was looking for 25 RAF and 50 Navy EHIOls, is for the Government to make a decision.

The hon. Gentleman, with his interest in helicopters, will realise that we should purchase, not a particular helicopter, but the right helicopter, the best helicopter for the task that has to be performed. I hope that he will say that that is his view and what our Royal Air Force needs. We must be careful not to lock ourselves into a position where we never buy the right equipment.

I think that that question would have been better directed to the Government than to me, because they have to make the decision, not me. I am rather alarmed if the hon. Gentleman, who I think is a member of the Select Committee on Defence——

No, he is not. Perhaps that explains—if I might say, in the kindest way—his ignorance on the matter.

I see that the Chairman of the Select Committee is nodding.

I should explain the position to the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), although I am sure that the Minister will do so in his wind-up speech. The Government have made a decision on the EH101. In 1987, the Secretary of State said that the Government were going to purchase 25 EH101s for the RAF and 50 for the Royal Navy. The helicopter has gone through project definition and pre-production trials. I think that nine have already flown. It is now merely a matter of integrating the mission system. One can go along that line, preparing for a project to come into operation, but at some stage a decision has to be made. Unless it is made now, the manufacturers and people involved in the industry will have a big gap in the middle of the 1990s when they will not have any orders. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Tayside, North is proposing that we should buy, not the Apache, but the Black Hawk or some other shoe horn variety. I am sure that they have all been considered, but I should have thought that the EH101 was, if I may repeat the expression that has already been used, a cast iron, copper-bottomed decision. The question is, when? That is what we are asking.

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what he thinks the Government should do? Should the Government make a decision in favour of the EH101?

Yes. The helicopter is important and the EH101 is vital to the industry. The requirements are known. The current contract available on the EH101 is a target cost-incentive contract which, when it was signed in March 1984, was hailed as a great step forward in defence contracting. At that time Sir Peter Levene extolled the virtues of the new process of procurement. One of the signal parts of such a contract is that the cost is shared between industry and Government. Certainly, the industry has already put its money where its mouth is and invested millions of pounds. It is now up to the Government to come up with firm orders so that it can proceed with production.

In Question Time some weeks ago, the Minister said that last October the Government entered into negotiations with the company for a maximum price contract. I do not see why we have to go on and on talking like this. The Chairman of the Select Committee is present and the Select Committee said, and it was implicit throughout the recently published report, that it was about time a decision was made.

Bearing in mind the hon. Gentleman's commitment to the EH101 and the need for air mobility, does he believe that this helicopter is the right one to purchase in view of the fact that it will also have to fit in with the various RAF transport aircraft to back up that air mobility?

The operational roles of many of those aircraft are, I presume, under constant review by the Government. The Opposition have been asking for a major defence review for a long time. I should have thought that with the changes that are happening, particularly in eastern Europe, the Government should have a formal defence review. I accept that the position is dynamic and not static, but a decision has to be made. Unless we plan ahead, we shall not have the equipment for our service men, to whom the Minister paid great tribute today.

I am sorry to keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman. Has he made any assessment of whether the EH101 is capable of being transported in the aircraft that the Royal Air Force has at present and looks like having for some time, particularly the Hercules?

Yes, they should be directed to the Minister, not me. I operate with a book and a pencil, and make visits. I certainly do not have the Civil Service to back me up. I should have thought that the Minister was the person to answer the questions. If the hon. Member for Tayside, North is interested in getting the answer, I am sure that the Minister will give it to him when he winds up.

I was disappointed to hear that the Government cannot award a contract for a new nose radar system for the European fighter aircraft. I had understood from a reply in an Adjournment debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) in January that everyone thought that Ferranti would get the ECR90 system. I should have thought that today was an admirable opportunity for the Government to make that announcement.

That is a daft statement. If the Government say that they will support the British electronics industry, in the form of the ECR90 system, the contract will go to British industry. To maintain that the Government have no part in the procurement process is nonsense. The British and European technology involved in such a decision would ensure jobs for thousands of workers for several years. That would be a good decision, on which we would be prepared to congratulate the Government if they took it.

The contract for the nose radar is relevant only in the context of the development of the European fighter aircraft. All hon. Members are anxious that the EFA should be developed, preferably in its dual-capable role, undertaking air-to-air and air-to-surface missions.

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the radar, crucial though it is, is not entirely in the gift of the British Government? EFA is a collaborative venture, and announcements must be made on the basis of collaborative discussion.

I understand that, but if the Government are forceful enough, they can easily influence the outcome of the decisions. The German-led MSD-2000 is a project in which British technology will not lead; it is an adaption of an American system. Incidentally, the Foxhunter is still not in operation after 10 years—that is farcical—merely because American companies have been withholding the intellectual rights to their equipment. The more operations led by British companies, the better. The Government should have faith in British companies.

I am coming to Foxhunter later, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can wait until then.

The EFA's primary function as an agile fighter will fill a gap in RAF armaments. The Americans and the Soviets now have planes in operation that can outperform anything that we have—the Americans have the F15, the F16 and the F18, and the Soviets have their highly capable Fulcrum and Flanker. Both countries are actively offering those top range aircraft for export.

I want to take this opportunity to state the Labour party's wholehearted commitment to the conventional arms reduction talks and to what we hope will be an eventual treaty. The Opposition unequivocally support arms reductions. The CFE talks will, of course, affect the future size and shape of our air force, and the future RAF will be much smaller. If it is, the need for modern flexible equipment with a multi-role capability becomes even more important. Recently the German coalition partners, the Liberals, expressed opposition to the EFA, and I believe that Herr Genscher even stated that if they had any influence in the next German Government, they would withdraw from the programme. Certainly, delays causing cost overruns will make the programme a prime target for German defence cuts, even if only to buy an updated version of the American F18.

The Government continually reiterate their commitment to EFA and we have no reason to doubt that commitment, but we are anxious, given the Government's record of mismanagement of procurement, that this could well result in another hugely expensive procurement disaster. We accept that an order may be placed for fewer aircraft, but that factor could undermine the viability of the whole enterprise. Will the Minister confirm that his answer to my question on 15 January was correct? He said:
"There has been no change in the declared production offtake of 250 aircraft."
Will he also elaborate on the rather brief answer that
"our aim remains to bring EFA into service in the mid-1990s"?—[Official Report, 15 January 1990; Vol. 165, c. 125–26.]
Perhaps Conservative Members who have mentioned EFA missed that answer in Hansard. In what year in the mid-1990s are we likely to have the EFA? I found the Minister's answer intriguing.

It gives us no pleasure to outline the Government's ineptness in procurement, but their deficiencies exist. One has only to read speeches of the past few years to detect the big gaps in the Government's policies. In 1988, for instance, the then Minister of State said that, although there had been difficulties with the aircraft's Foxhunter air-intercept radar, radars to an agreed interim standard had been fitted.

In reply to a question yesterday the present Minister of State said:
"Work on improving Foxhunter is well in hand. Radars to an agreed interim standard continue to be delivered for installation into the Tornado ADV by the RAF".
That denotes a marked lack of progress, even by this Government's standards. Nothing has changed in three years. Yesterday's reply went on:
"These will shortly be followed by radars to the full technical standard".
I know that time has no meaning in the context of Foxhunter, but can the Minister hazard a guess as to what he means by "shortly"? Does he mean this year, next year or next century? Surely at some stage the Government must get to grips with the continuing scandal of a radar that is neither ready nor available for our aircraft.

Would the hon. Gentleman like to take this opportunity to correct his earlier statement on Foxhunter—that its delay was caused by the intellectual property rights on American parts in it? Does he agree that that is wholly false? Delays to that radar have nothing to do with American components being held up.

The hon. Gentleman does nothing in the House but talk about when he was in the RAF, so I should not hope to be as expert as he is. I have already explained to the House that a mistake was made and I was happy to do that.

My hon. Friend is speaking about radar deficiency. Does he agree that quite the most glaring and persistent deficiency is the lack of a NATO identification friend or foe system? It is true that that is an Alliance problem, but the Government have a responsibility because the lack of such a system has endured throughout their tenure of office and there is no prospect of a change before the end of the decade.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

I should like to return to the subjects of Tornado and Foxhunter. The Minister of State has a battery of civil servants and the whole panoply of the Ministry of Defence behind him. That should help him to answer some questions when he is winding up. Perhaps his civil servants will tell him how many Tornado aircraft are still in storage. At the last count when we looked at the matter at the end of 1988 32 were in storage. That is £500 million worth tucked away in hangars at St Athan in south Wales. They are being stored at a cost of at least £60,000 a year. Have those 32 aircraft been brought into service? Perhaps hon. Members who intervened earlier can press the Government on that issue if they have the gumption to speak against the Government instead of making knee-jerk reactions to everything that the Minister said in his speech.

I shall now deal with intellectual rights and IUKADGE, the improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment command and control system. There are many contenders for the prime spot in the league table of delays and slippages. I am sure that hon. Members will understand why at times people are confused by the ineptness of the Government, which has led to projects being behind time and cost overruns.

No, because I want to develop my theme. IUKADGE was considered necessary in the 1970s, ordered in the 1980s and is still not available. What is more, it does not seem as if it is likely to be available. The Government evade the issue and refuse to answer questions. They use the old rag of commercial confidence in the same way as many Conservative Members wrap themselves in the Union Jack when questions on matters of national importance are asked.

The saga has been going on for a long time. The consortium of one United States and two United Kingdom firms is not getting to grips with the problem. As Sir Richard Mottram told the Select Committee on Defence, the problem is that there is difficulty in getting the software-related part of the system to work to our satisfaction. Perhaps in his wind-up speech the Minister will tell us when the system is likely to come fully into service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) spoke in last year's debate shortly after his election to the House, and he outlined the fiasco of the air-launched anti-radiation missile, the ALARM system. The Select Committee on Defence had previously identified the fact that it was £260 million over budget and several years behind schedule and said that this was a matter of great concern. Can the Minister tell us the present position and whether we shall ever get the missile?

Other issues can be raised later in the debate, but before I finish I should like to refer to the problem mentioned by the Minister of the loss of trained and highly skilled personnel from the Royal Air Force. Pilot losses are now becoming significant. The Minister tended to gloss over that and I think that he said that it was a manageable situation. The number of pilots leaving before they complete their engagements is increasing year by year. If the Government are managing, they are certainly not managing to reduce the outflow of those very expensively trained pilots. There is a similar pattern in the loss of engineers and craftsmen. Although the Minister says that there is no danger at the moment, surely a loss of such dimensions must pose a threat to the operational efficiency of the service.

The defence estimates show that the number of apprentices taken on has dropped from 264 in 1983 to 136 in 1988. Can the Minister tell the House why that is so, and whether any steps will be taken to rectify the matter? Obviously, some service men have left for better or more lucrative employment. However, that option has always been there. Our service men have not always been the best paid people in society. I have talked to many service men and I think that they are leaving because the morale in the service at present is low. There are many reasons for that. It is not just a matter of pay, although the Government's decision to pay only a 6·5 per cent. increase in April and to hold over 3 per cent. until next January has not helped morale.

The phrase that I heard was that the quality of service life was getting worse, and that phrase was used last year by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). Unlike many civilian jobs, there are no extras or perks in the services, such as company cars or expense accounts. The facilities for sport, recreation and leisure are vital for maintaining morale and developing good team spirit. The Wednesday afternoon activities in many camps and units were as vital to the efficiency of the service as any other form of training. Now, sportsmen in the services find that facilities are being cut and that people selected for representative service teams are often precluded from taking part because there is insufficient cover in the station. That is only part of what is happening.

Some hon. Members who served in the Royal Air Force many years ago may say no and shake their head. However, last year the hon. Member for Ryedale gave us an account of his secondment to the Royal Air Force under an experimental scheme, which he said was similar to the industry and Parliament scheme. The hon. Gentleman is not present, but in last year's debate he said:
"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."—[Official Report, 9 March 1989; Vol. 148, c. 1078.]
That was a Conservative Member speaking after spending a year with the forces.

On top of all that, we have the imposition of the poll tax, which is especially acute for junior ranks. Service men and women pay rates as part of their quartering charges but now they will be faced with a much higher cost. Will the Minister make some form of recompense to junior ranks for what could be in some cases a 10 times increase in what they now have to pay? Perhaps we can get an answer to that before the end of the debate.

This debate is important. Some people doubt the value of single service debates because they say that we have a defence debate, which very often is not well supported. I happen to think that these debates are important for our service men and their services. Some Opposition Members have a great interest in this, and some Tory Members are ex-service men and have great expertise. Regardless of all that, I hope that the tradition of having single service debates will remain. That is why I have great pleasure in giving this speech.

5.10 pm

I am happy to join my hon. Friend the Minister in congratulating the Royal Air Force on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain—its greatest battle honour. The RAF may be the junior service, but it has a distinguished history. It plays a considerable part in the defence structure of NATO, and particularly in the central front and the second tactical air force in Germany. Without doubt, it will have an important role to play in the future, although I suspect that that will be very different from the one that it is playing now.

I know what an emotive subject low flying is and I understand the concerns expressed by many hon. Members. The Select Committee on Defence, of which I am the Chairman, has been conducting an inquiry into the matter for the past five or six months, and hopes to report to the House between Easter and Whitsun. We have visited RAF stations in the United Kingdom and Germany and I want to say—I am sure on behalf of all my colleagues—how impressed we were with the professionalism, dedication, enthusiasm and the general spirit that prevails in all the RAF stations that we visited. They are all acutely aware of the harm that they cause and the concern about their low flying, but as long as we have aircraft that are required to deliver munitions against a potential enemy, pilots will have to learn in peacetime how to acquire the skills to do so. One example that is so recent that everyone can remember it is the performance of the RAF in the Falkland Islands as a result of the low-flying training that it had done, largely in rural areas.

I shall offer some thoughts about the future. As a result of all the well-known strategies in place in the central front, we have a large Army, a considerable Air Force and a considerable Navy, all devoted to NATO and to the defence of the western Alliance against the threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact. As each day goes by, it becomes clearer that the threat, although still there, is diminishing. One has a permanent optimism about those changes, which will mean that we can still assure our defence and that of our allies, but at a lower level than hitherto. That must be welcome news for everybody.

However, we shall not be able suddenly to slash our defence expenditure. Of itself, that would be destabilising and, in certain circumstances, could be self-defeating. We should be looking, as most of us are—I am certain that the Government are—at where we shall be within five to 10 years. We should be able to commit a lesser effort, but an equally effective one, against a threat that will reduce but is likely still to be present in some form or another, at least to the end of the century.

In that context, I shall look at the way in which the RAF is deployed in Germany in support of the British Army of the Rhine or, more correctly, the Northern Army Group, if it should come to hostilities. I have said before how ludicrous it is that on the central front in Germany the ground forces are supported by five different national air forces flying some 17 different types of aircraft, all with their own research and development and their own production, and at a vastly greater cost than if it had been possible to rationalise that force early on.

We now have an opportunity to take a completely fresh look at the way in which we have carried out our joint affairs and to rationalise. If we do not do that, we shall continue to spend countless pounds, dollars, marks, francs, guilders and all the rest, while nations continue to make their own contributions—some large, some smaller, inevitably—and waste resources that, if pooled, could be used to better effect.

No one knows what will come out of the conventional forces talks except, we hope, some reductions now, and probably some more significant reductions when the next round starts. Nobody knows how we shall best be able not to redeploy but to regroup those forces that will need to stay on the continent of Europe for the foreseeable future. I am sure that we shall be able to make a smaller contribution, but I am certain that it will have to be there in some form to guarantee the new European scene.

To that extent, it is supremely important that we maintain the spirit that has kept NATO together over the past 40 or so years, but in doing so we should not simply be saying, "Let us take away a squadron or two, or a brigade, or a division and reduce the British, German or Dutch contribution." We should look at the totality, and how best we can, together, provide a force that will guarantee the territorial integrity of the NATO nations.

If we do not close our minds to any of the options, we shall be surprised at how many ways that can be achieved. One could internationalise the NATO force. I do not know whether that is the right answer, because that would give rise to many problems. We could group together the ground forces. There will always have to be such ground forces because the nature of an army is that it is there to protect a territory. That could be grouped internationally, perhaps with national brigades and an international division, or perhaps with a national division and an international corps. I am not trying to design a blueprint. I am trying to give some thoughts on how this might happen.

A question will then arise: who is to provide the close air support and fighter ground offensive capability over that force? Continuing to do that with five nations and 17 different types of aircraft would become ever more ridiculous. I hope that the Government will take a radical look at how we, within the NATO Alliance, can change the nature of our contributions so that, by specialising in roles, we can achieve together much more effectively what is now achieved by everyone carrying out the same task.

It is only logical that the Germans should take the greatest part of the role of the air forces over the central front. It is their territory and their air space and they can be best deployed to do that job. Why we insisted, or continue to insist, that RAF aircraft should fly over British forces over the central front is beyond me, and has been beyond me for long time. If it came to war, that would not happen anyway after the first day or two. Nevertheless, we have stuck to the system because we have felt constrained to do so because of national sovereignty problems, defence industrial problems and a whole host of other problems. We have put the whole subject of role specialisation into the "too difficult" category. It must come out of that cubbyhole, be dusted down and looked at in a way that does not foreclose any of the arguments that might be put forward.

If I, or any of the other 50 or 60 hon. Members present, were asked to forecast where we might be in 10 years, I am sure that we would turn out to be wrong. Looking for a way forward, it seems logical that, while we must continue to produce a part of the ground defence support to NATO on the continent of Europe, we must ask whether we need to continue to provide the air support for those ground forces or whether that could be more efficiently and effectively done by the European nations, the Germans in particular, while we return and attend to the air defence of the United Kingdom, which has been one of the most neglected areas of our defence over the years because of the level of our commitment to NATO.

In return for making a lesser effort there, perhaps he could undertake to relieve some of our continental European allies of some of the burdens in the Channel and the eastern Atlantic, which we are better equipped to carry ourselves.

Whenever that argument has been raised, it has been dismissed by Ministers in many countries as not being a practical way forward because of the question of national sovereignty. We have never had national sovereignty over defence since NATO was formed, and I thank goodness for that. We have been able for all these years to dedicate ourselves and most of our forces totally to the NATO structure in advance of hostilities. Yet the suggestion that they would not be our own aeroplanes over our own soldiers was regarded as being a derogation of national sovereignty. I do not see that argument.

In approaching the crucial decisions that we must take for the shape and size of our defence forces for the coming five to 10 years we must consider the question of role specialisation and acknowledge that, while the Air Force has an important job in the future, it should not be dissipated in the way that it has been over the years, in support of our troops in the central front.

We shall all have to readjust our defence commitments among the NATO allies to provide the best answer for each nation. There will have to be some horse trading about production, defence industries and so on—that will happen anyway—so that the changes in reducing the level of forces that we shall need can be done logically, sensibly and, above all, in a way that will give us the best value for money in an inevitably reduced defence budget in which value for money will become even more important.

5.22 pm

I apologise for not having been in my place for the whole of the Minister's speech. My absence was due to an obligation outside the House, but I informed the Minister in advance that I would not be present to hear all his remarks.

Like others, I join in the congratulations to the Royal Air Force on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain. Those of us who were born during the war were almost certainly reared on the tales of bravery, courage and commitment that were displayed by many young men in those far-off days. It has become part of the fabric of the history of the forces, not only of the RAF but of the services in general.

We should welcome a single service debate such as this, though it may be difficult to keep one's remarks to one service. That was demonstrated eloquently recently when we debated the Royal Navy. Such is the pace of political change in Europe that there must inevitably be implications for defence policy. Invariably, those implications affect not one service but the overall defence requirement, including the size and strength of the components that go towards it.

The defence requirement should always be dictated by the nature of the threat and, as the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) said, and as is generally recognised in the House, the threat has diminished considerably. What, though, if the old praetorian guard of the Politburo in the Soviet Union were suddenly to reassert itself? Is it feasible or possible for there to be a reversal of what are the current main elements of Soviet policy?

We are obliged to ask whether any Soviet leadership in the 1990s would be willing or able to reverse the downward trend in defence spending, to reverse the demobilisation of substantial numbers of troops, to re-establish hardline Communist regimes by force in eastern Europe, to reintroduce a strategy by which, in any future East-West conflict, the Soviet Union and its allies would revert to a massive rolling advance into western Europe. In short, do we now believe that the Soviet Union is in any position to recreate a hegemony based on a revised Warsaw pact? I suspect that the answer to all those questions is undoubtedly in the negative.

But we must remember that the Soviet Union is beset by uncertainties. Domestically, it is beset by demands for economic progress and human rights and, within the federation of which Russia is the central part, by demands for autonomy in the Baltic states, with the emergence of ethnic or racial conflicts between components such as Armenia and Azerbaijan.

I do not think any of us considers that there is likely to be a resumption of the cold war as we have known it in the last 20 or 25 years. But even with all those uncertainties and even with no reversal of what has happened under Mr. Gorbachev, the Soviet Union will remain a major military power. It will continue to have a vast nuclear potential and, more significantly, because of the nature of the change, unexpected and unstructured as it is, it may be even more unpredictable, it may be alienated, it may be sulking and it may be subject to a sense of injured pride.

If the break-up of the Soviet Union or a slackening of the ties that bind it together occurs as a result of the extraordinary political change that is taking place, who will have access to the substantial number of nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union possesses? In an authoritarian repressive regime, control of matters of that kind is much easier. In a fissiparous chorus of discontented republics, how much more difficult it would be to maintain what we on this side of what was once called the iron curtain would regard as the necessary control.

That analysis leads to the view that the defence policy of this country and of the countries of the North Atlantic Alliance—and in particular the policy that we follow for the RAF—must remain watchful and alert to the threat as it is presently constituted, rather than to the threat as it might have been.

The policy that we follow for the RAF must inevitably depend on political, technological and financial factors. That has always been the case. Those factors must have caused the abandonment of the strategic bombing and nuclear deterrent role of the RAF in the late 1960s. They must have had an effect on the air support role of the RAF, increasing in the 1960s, declining to some extent after 1970 and perhaps now requiring to be increased markedly if rapid deployment is to play an increasing role in our overall defence policy.

Will not the factors to which I have referred have an effect on the current strategy of attempting to achieve air dominance in time of war? Those factors should make us sceptical of the need for equipping Tornado aircraft with the SRAM-T—the short-range attack missile—which is at least in the contemplation of the Government. Surely those factors must have some effect on our judgment about whether we should pursue the original requirement of 250 European fighter aircraft. Ministers have recently reaffirmed their commitment in that regard, and I do not suggest that we should be told their precise thinking about the exact number during today's debate, but I cannot believe that they are not reconsidering; it would be less than prudent of them not to.

We have heard about the concern felt by people in Federal Germany, who may or may not be in pivotal positions after next December's elections, about the original commitment entered into by Federal Germany itself. Any substantial reduction by the Germans might put in jeopardy the financial viability of the whole European fighter aircraft project. As has been said, the survival of some jobs in the United Kingdom defence industry appears—at least at present—to depend largely on the awarding of the radar contract, but a contract awarded for aircraft that are not built will not bring much benefit.

I do not think that anyone would suggest that we can ignore Germany's progress towards unification or the apparently successful progress towards an agreement in the first phase of the talks on conventional forces in Europe. Nor can we ignore the fact that, if the first phase is concluded successfully, the pressure to move to the second and third phases will be that much greater. German unification will undoubtedly take place; the question that we are all bound to ask is what conditions will attach to it, and how will they dictate the nature of our defence requirements? As the hon. Member for Hampshire, East freely recognised, it seems unlikely—whatever the terms of those conditions—that the RAF will retain its present role and numbers in Federal Germany.

A debate on a single service allows us to raise issues directly concerned with that service. I have raised with the Minister on several occasions the question of the future of the search and rescue operations at RAF Leuchars, which is in my constituency, and I suspect that he anticipated that I would return to it yet again today. As he knows, as a result of the review of search and rescue operations the opportunity of night-time flying has been withdrawn from RAF Leuchars. If an operation begins in daylight, however, it may he finished in darkness: that means that the crews must train in darkness, and therefore retain the capability of night-time flying.

I ask the Ministry of Defence to consider giving more discretion to the co-ordinating centre at RAF Pitreavie. There is, as it were, a chink of light: in answer to a recent question from me, the Minister of State said that night-time operations would be permitted in the event of, for instance, a major disaster. If that is so, those who may have to fly in such operations must receive training to equip them with the necessary skills and aptitudes.

The issue of search and rescue is potentially of great political benefit to the RAF. As the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) has said on other occasions, nothing does more for the reputation of the RAF than the notion of the friendly yellow helicopter coming over the horizon to rescue people in difficulty. We have seen yet more examples of the dedication, commitment and bravery of search and rescue crews during the severe weather in the Highlands over the past couple of days.

Search and rescue is provided primarily for military purposes, but its service to the civilian community— 90 per cent. of its operations are for civilian purposes—makes a substantial contribution to good public relations, for which the Ministry of Defence in general and the RAF in particular are responsible. I hope that Ministers will ensure that such operations are maintained at RAF Leuchars, and will consider whether the Wessex aircraft should be replaced by the Sea King, a question which has been raised a number of times since the review.

The time must rapidly be approaching when that will happen. The Sea King has all the capabilities for which the hon. and learned Gentleman is asking, and its adoption would solve many of the problems that caused the Wessex to be withdrawn. Like him, I am optimistic about the future of search and rescue operations—especially those at Leuchars, which are so important to my constituents.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that, when the debate about the future of RAF Leuchars was at its height, there was some support for the Wessex on the basis that it was more manoeuvrable in the Scottish mountains. That argument was promoted with some force by those with connections with the mountain rescue teams. If, however, there is any question about night-time operations from RAF Leuchars, any reduction in manoeuvrability in the Scottish mountains is a price that I am willing to pay for the sake of Sea King deployment and 24-hour operations.

I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member to await with great interest the report of the Select Committee on Defence. I hope that its conclusions will marry the necessity for low-flying operations with the nature of the threat that we now face. The National Audit Office report on low flying occasioned great concern about the possible prospect of an increase, particularly in Scotland. I know that the Government are sensitive to the matter, but I stress that they ignore at their peril the political consequences of any increase in low flying in certain parts of Scotland.

Some of my constituents—both members of the RAF serving at Leuchars and their spouses—have raised with me the recent introduction of a system of retention bonuses, designed to deal with the problem of premature voluntary release. There is some disappointment among the longer-serving airmen and women that the level of bonuses is not related simply to the length of service. They understand why the system has been introduced, but draw a parallel with civilian arrangements: the longer someone serves his company, the greater the benefits he will derive in terms of salary, gratuity or pension. I hope that the Minister, if he cannot deal with that point this evening, will take into account the feeling that rewards should he related directly to length of service.

Our debates of the past 12 months or so have demonstrated that there is now far more unanimity in our views. Of course there will always be differences between all parties on defence matters, but it would be a curious consequence of glasnost and perestroika, and the end of the cold war in Europe, if they brought about in the United Kingdom a rather less partisan approach to defence than we saw in the general elections of 1979, 1983 and 1987.

I hope that the continuing debate about the defence requirements of the United Kingdom and the future of the North Atlantic Alliance and our relationships in Europe will be open and above board, and that all parties and, indeed, the public will feel that they have a legitimate interest to participate. It is clear that, whatever our defence requirements may be in future, the professionalism and commitment of the Royal Air Force will undoubtedly be at the same premium as they were during the battle of Britain 50 years ago. The changed circumstances and the different relationships between what we once described as the West and the East will no less require and rely for their continuance and stability on the professionalism and commitment of our forces, and the Royal Air Force will continue to make a major and significant contribution.

5.40 pm

After more than 25 yeas as a Member of Parliament, this is the first occasion on which I have ventured to intervene in an RAF debate. I have a feeling that it may be another 25 years before I seek to catch your eye again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in one of these annual debates. I am pleased to have the opportunity to say just a few words on a matter of great concern and importance to my constituents. I refer to the proposed closure of the officer and aircrew selection centre at RAF Biggin Hill.

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) nodding his head, because he was kind enough to participate in an Adjournment debate on the matter last year.

No doubt my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will also recall the Adjournment debate on 16 June 1989 in which I reported the dismay and distress which the proposed closure had caused in my constituency and over a much wider area. In recent months, I have received letters from virtually all over the world. It is a sad irony that the proposed closure of RAF Biggin Hill should coincide with the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain, which has already been alluded to by a number of hon. Gentlemen in today's debate. The airmen of Biggin Hill played a notable and historic part in that battle.

In my Adjournment debate last year, I queried in particular the costings of the proposed move to RAF Cranwell, the likely level of capital receipts from the disposal of the Biggin Hill site and the cost of building the additional accommodation required at Cranwell. I am bound to say that in his reply to that debate my hon. Friend the Minister was less than forthcoming in providing specific information on those points. However, perhaps his reticence was understandable when one recalls that the original estimates of the likely capital receipts included the proceeds of the disposal of the married quarters on the site.

It is my understanding that the Ministry of Defence has subsequently discovered that the anticipated demand for officers' married quarters in the Greater London area is now so great that the married quarters at Biggin Hill will have to be retained for the foreseeable future. I should like some confirmation of that later in the debate. If that is so, the original balance sheet in respect of the proposed closure of RAF Biggin Hill is already unreliable and out of date.

The most crucially relevant and important factor to the future of RAF Biggin Hill is the dramatic changes which have taken place in recent months in our relations with eastern Europe and the implications of that for our defence planning, which has already been referred to this afternoon.

The other day, I read that a group of senior Ministers is currently examining how Britain's armed forces can be reduced and reorganised in the light of recent international events. What can be the sense of proceeding with the closure of RAF Biggin Hill and spending millions of pounds on a new selection centre before we have finally established the future needs of the RAF? After all, if the climate of East-West relations continues to improve, as we all hope it will, there is likely to be a significant reduction in our regular forces, with a corresponding reduction in the annual officer recruitment targets.

As we know, the move from Biggin Hill to Cranwell is planned to take place in four years' time. Given the current pace of international events, it would be foolish and irresponsible to persist with that move in present circumstances. It would surely make much more sense to halt the proposed move to Cranwell now, or at the very least to impose a moratorium on new building for which there is no immediate need, until our future defence requirements have been fully analysed and assessed.

Additionally, the prospect of smaller regular forces seems to add attraction to the often-mooted idea of one tri-service officer selection centre. As my hon. Friend will know, RAF Biggin Hill is already in a sense tri-service, in that specialist medical testing for the Royal Navy and the Army is carried out in addition to the aircrew selection work. In the present climate of detente, that is another possibility that should be considered for RAF Biggin Hill before we proceed with that precipitate and unnecessary move to Cranwell.

There is now a compelling case to stop, or at least to defer, the proposed closure of RAF Biggin Hill. We could then continue operating the selection centre there until the future needs of all three services were known. We could then assess the most sensible and economical use of resources in the light of the changed and changing situation. I commend that course to our Defence Ministers, and I hope that they will make some comments on the suggestions I have made, and hopefully express some sympathy for them. I apologise for dealing solely with that parochial point, but it is of great importance to my constituency.

5.47 pm

I trust that I shall be forgiven for absenting myself from the debate for an hour or so because of a speaking engagement, but I look forward to being present for the winding-up speeches.

The hon. Member for Ravensbourne (Sir J. Hunt) should not apologise for raising a matter which he described as parochial, as it is obviously close to the hearts of his constituents and receives wider sympathy given the history of the base to which he referred. I was watching the Ministers' faces during the debate, and I think that they are beginning to look sympathetic.

In their opening speeches, the Minister and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) rightly condemned the cowardly attacks by terrorists on service men and their families. It says much for their courage that, like their colleagues in the Ulster Defence Regiment, in Army units particularly in Northern Ireland and Germany, and in the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, those forces have never been deflected from what they consider their plain course of duty. We honour and pay tribute to them for that. I know that we can rely on Defence Ministers to ensure that the maximum protection is afforded to the families of service men wherever they may be posted. Those families and service men will take much encouragement from the all-party support that has been so evident in the debate.

I should like to pay tribute to the Royal Air Force component in Northern Ireland. May I mention in particular the senior Royal Air Force officer in Northern Ireland, Group Captain Hawkins. He is a truly outstanding officer and does a superb job of co-ordinating the flying element, which is a many-sided commitment, and also has under his command the resident squadron of the Royal Air Force Regiment. It contributes greatly to security, not only in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Air Force bases in Northern Ireland but over a wide area of the Province. The ability of those squadrons to establish a good relationship with the other arms of the security forces is noteworthy and encouraging. The Royal Air Force Regiment has developed greatly since it felt able to dispense with my services in 1946.

In the early part of his speech, the Minister rightly suggested that we should continue to make the necessary resources available to all the fighting services, and used the phrase, which I hope was not accidental, "particularly the Royal Air Force", or words to that effect.

The Minister reminded the House of the events of 1940 and rightly and accurately said:
"the battle of Britain was a very close-run thing."
It might easily have gone the other way had the masterminds in the Luftwaffe been aware of the great advantage of low-flying tactics, which would have enabled it to duck under our radar. As someone who has lived for almost 70 years on the perimeter of a Royal Air Force station, I can understand the annoyance caused by low-flying jets, but I accept that it is absolutely necessary.

No one will take issue with me when I say that Fighter Command saved Britain in 1940. But it did much more than that. The Royal Air Force turned out to be the invincible guarantor of the freedom of other nations. In a sense, it provided an effective long-stop.

There is a certain parallel with the position today. As hon. Members have conceded, Europe is in the melting pot. Regrouping is taking place with breathtaking speed. The political crust is breaking up and the balance of power is changing faster than in any decade this century. For different reasons, Russian and American influence is weakening.

The cosy relationships within the EEC are giving way to a degree of mutual suspicion. I put it no higher than that, but there are forces at work that cannot be tamed and will not be harnessed. When the parts of the jigsaw finally come to rest, the power pattern of Europe will look very different from a year ago.

The hon. Member for Rhondda challenged the Government to give their ideas on a review of defence policies in the light of the events in Europe. My humble advice would be that, until the European map is stabilised, we cannot sensibly make an accurate threat assessment. The threat in Europe would not necessarily come from the Soviet Union. It would be alarmist to identify any possible new source, but we can re-learn the lesson of 1940. Even with the Channel tunnel, Britain is unlikely to be overrun in a conventional war by a European land power.

I do not belittle the need for an effective and well-equipped Army, and I certainly do not dismiss the importance of the vital role of the Royal Navy, but because of the mobility and strike capacity of air power, we must acknowledge that the guarantor role will inevitably belong to the Royal Air Force.

The air defence of the United Kingdom is very important, but that is only the outward and visible aspect of that wider guarantor responsibility. For that reason, I welcome the determination implicit in the debate that, whatever the attractions of various propositions, the House must never make the mistake of our predecessors in the 1930s and for the second time run the risk of another close-run thing.

5.55 pm

It was either by good fortune or good planning that the Chief of the Air Staff brought his presentation team to the House only a few days ago. It was perhaps less good fortune that we were constantly interrupted by Divisions in the House, but it gave many hon. Members the opportunity to see for themselves the present image of the Royal Air Force. I a m sure that they were impressed not only by the quality of life and equipment portrayed but by the high standard of the team that made the presentation.

The main role of that team is to take the Air Force's story around the country and to show it in the community. We know that the Air Force attaches much importance to establishing close relationships with the areas around its bases, but most of the country is not near an RAF base. It is extremely important, therefore, that the service encourages the closest possible relationship with the wider civil community.

A publication entitled "Royal Air Force 89" was recently produced. It will be an annual publication and I congratulate Sir Peter Harding, the Chief of the Air Staff, on his initiative, and Squadron Leader Morris, its editor, on getting the style of the publication exactly right; it is interesting and informative and will, I hope, be widely read. I trust that its publication will continue for a long time.

I have the pleasure of having just started on the armed forces parliamentary scheme between the House and the RAF. I am at the earliest stages of what will obviously be an extensive and interesting programme. So far, I have visited only one flying base—the central flying school—but where better could one start than the oldest flying school in the world, which was formed in 1911. My visit demonstrated to me the superb standard of airmanship in the Royal Air Force—the quality that gives it the edge over the other NATO services.

The main objective of the time that I shall spend with the service in the forthcoming year is to meet and talk to people—not just commanders of stations and units but the pilots, aircrew and those who support the aircraft in engineering, administration and supply.

The Chief of the Air Staff has gone on record as saying that people must come first in the Air Force of today, and I am sure that that is the correct priority. From what I have seen in the few hours that I have spent so far with the Air Force, I have no doubt that the quality of its personnel is as high today as it ever has been.

I should like to concentrate on personnel. The life of a service man is inevitably turbulent. I can think of no other occupation that involves moving one's home so frequently and regularly. That is becoming more significant than it was in the past. We have a higher rate of home ownership, and if one's career requires one to move every two or three years, one will experience considerable problems in establishing a home. I pay tribute to the long-standing efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) to introduce a scheme that will be of advantage to service men in overcoming that problem.

Frequent moves also affect the careers of the wives of service men. Far more wives have occupations than in the past, and while the husband's career is forwarded by moves from place to place, that has the opposite effect on the career of his wife, who must change her job every two or three years. It is difficult to counter that problem.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that particular attention was being paid to establishing a career pattern for wives. Sometimes husbands and wives can serve together in the RAF. I hope that it will be possible to post them either to the same station or to reasonably close stations so that they can maintain a normal family life, with the wife continuing to serve.

Significant changes in allowances were made a little while ago, and some necessary and overdue improvements resulted, but the improvements were basically financed by withdrawals of and reductions in allowances in other directions. The aim was to have a self-financing exercise. Worrying anomalies have been created. I hope that, in winding up, my hon. Friend the Minister will announce that the problem is being addressed and that there will be a review of those allowances.

There are good reasons for increasing the number of civilians in units in the support roles, but one effect is to reduce the number of men and women in uniform available to carry out the secondary duties for which service personnel are needed. I refer in particular to the need these days for regular guard duty to be carried out on all bases. Reference has been made to the cowardly attacks by terrorists from time to time, which are a constant threat to all the service's premises. That has meant that an intensive guard has had to be mounted. The service men on the base are normally the only people available to carry out that duty. As civilianisation expands, the number of people available to mount guard duty decreases, and we are in danger of having a vicious circle.

It is hard to recruit administrative and catering personnel, for example, because of the constant attraction of civilian life. As the job of supplying and providing support in the RAF requires ever-increasing guard duties, it becomes harder to retain people in jobs where there is already a scarcity of personnel. Is there not a case for increasing the strength of the Royal Air Force police? They are specialists in guard duties. I am sure that more RAF police on bases would be some solution to a problem that has resulted from guard duty coming around far too often on some stations.

We should look into the idea of using reserve units to guard bases. Perhaps the current legal problems associated with that can be overcome. I should have thought that many people in civilian life would willingly serve in a reserve unit at their local base and that they could be used in that way. In the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), the Honorary Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, I suggest that we could start forming such reserve units in the north-east of England at some of the RAF bases in my region.

On the north-south divide, those of us who come from the north are well aware that life is better there. Costs are often much higher in the south. This will increasingly be a problem in retaining service men, as many of our bases are traditionally in the south. It is also difficult to recruit and retain the necessary civilians, because Ministry of Defence pay rates tend to be less competitive in the south. I suggest that there is thus an argument for building up the service in the north. There will be inevitable changes in the composition and basing of the RAF in the years ahead—there always have been changes, and it seems likely, given the present scenario, that those changes will become greater. We should bear in mind the advantage to the service in having bases in the north in terms of retention and the interests of individual service men.

On retention, a problem exists because a young second pilot on an airliner can start his career at the same pay as his wing commander in the Air Force. Young pilots who have been trained to a superlative level of skill by the Royal Air Force are attracted by the idea of leaving and securing a high income in commercial aviation. Retaining pilots will not only save the £3 million that it costs to train a fast jet pilot but lead to a reduction in low flying.

The House understands the need for low flying. I know from my discussions with the central flying school of the high priority that the RAF gives to the need to cause the least disturbance to the population beneath. It is given a high priority in all training. Much of the low-flying training takes place during a pilot's initial training. By reducing the outflow of pilots from the service, we would reduce the number needing training, which would not only be a cost saving but reduce the amount of low flying necessary.

There is also a problem in retaining those involved in the ground trades. The number of young people who provide a recruiting pool is falling by 25 per cent. The fact that the service is turning increasingly to the role of women is a step in the right direction. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to pilots and aircrew, to which ladies are now being recruited. There has also been a big increase in the number of women employed in the ground trades. Although women are being recruited to aircrew for the first time, women have made an excellent contribution to the ground trades for many years, and it will increase in the future. I understand that 10 per cent. of those working in the ground trades in the service will be women, who will make a very important contribution.

The youth training scheme has been a great success in the Air Force. It is a benefit to the young people involved, 80 per cent. of whom sign on for a career in the service. The scheme provides a useful introduction to the service for people with the right enthusiasm.

On that point, the Air Training Corps continues to play an important role in the community and in providing young people for the services. There are squadrons all over the country, with some 40,000 boys and girls serving in the corps. I am proud of my local units and am always impressed by the smartness of the turnout at North Shields and Whitley Bay, which reflects the smartness and enthusiasm of the regular Air Force.

It is my happy annual duty to present the prizes at North Shields. A large number of the prizes are won in regional competitions, and I believe that it must be one of the most worthy squadrons anywhere. It has a splendid record. I was particularly impressed on the last occasion by the fact that the senior cadet was an extremely smart young lady. I pay tribute to the instructors who give so readily of their time in the thousand or so squadrons in Britain. We can all be grateful to them for their work in instilling good citizenship in the cadets and providing the RAF with a large part of its future membership.

I have spoken mainly about people, but I should like to say something on the equipment front. I am a great supporter of the European fighter aircraft. It is essential for the future of the RAF and this counry's defence. The Select Committee on Defence did us a service recently in drawing attention to the fact that we still do not know what we will do about replacing the Wessex helicopter, which is now 30 years old. It is more than 10 years since the Air Staff target for the replacement was produced.

The reason for the delay is the continuing uncertainty about the requirements. If we do not know what we want, it is not surprising that we have not found the answer. But the answer will have to be found and if we wish to retain a helicopter building capacity in this country, as I believe we must, there must be a regular ordering programme for helicopters. If not, we shall no longer have that capacity. We must make up our minds. I know that at times there are disagreements within and between the services about how we should seek to perform that role, but I believe that the time for a decision must soon be with us.

The Air Force provides mobility and flexibility today, as it always has. Air mobility is likely to be more, rather than less, important in the future when, inevitably we shall see fewer soldiers on the ground. The need for speed, flexibility and ability to respond quickly and over distance will be essential. In the RAF we have the necessary qualities.

It is a wise man who could tell the future in Europe in the light of the changes in the past year. Who could have foretold at the time of the previous RAF debate the position in eastern Europe today? This is the first occasion on which we have debated the RAF since the momentous changes in the Warsaw pact. It would be unwise to assume that stability will be with us in the future and that we shall not need to maintain our defences. In the 50th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain, it is only right to remind ourselves that it is absolutely essential to maintain the air defence shield so admirably provided for us by the Royal Air Force.

6.11 pm

As a Scottish Member, I begin by paying tribute to the search and rescue sections of the RAF. Increasingly, our fellow citizens seem to be persuaded to go on hills and mountains at times and in weather conditions when they are asked not to do so. They risk not only their lives but those of the extremely skilful and courageous helicopter crews who are asked and never fail at least to try to rescue them.

I do not know what can be done because it is a difficult matter, but surely some minor sanctions should be exercised against those who risk other people's lives as well as their own. The time has come do something about it. It is not right that the lives of helicopter crews should be put in jeopardy by those who take decisions that they are asked not to take.

I interrupted the Minister earlier on the question of the conversion of GR5 to GR7. I do not know the details of it, but he does. What some of us do know is that conversions have often turned out to be much more technically complex and, therefore, expensive, than is generally assumed. Is the Minister convinced that it is a realistic conversion? He may be persuasive about it and may say that there are no problems, but I should like to know, in the light of the Spey conversions and much that has taken place in the past, whether it makes sense.

My next questions are about the Tornado, which was touched on by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). First, is the SRAM-T insertion, technically feasible? Secondly, what is the strategy behind it? Given the changed conditions, it should be subject to reconsideration. I repeat the question of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East. It is an important one, about which some of us were thinking before the RAF debate began. Do we really need 2.50 Tornado aircraft? In the light of political events in the past six months, has there been any reconsideration? I ask a precise question. Has it at least been reconsidered?

Last Friday, at the request of the Minister's former colleague, Christopher Tugendhat, the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, I visited Edinburgh airport and RAF Turnhouse. During discussions, certain skill shortages faced by the CAA were raised. I was told that hitherto the CAA had relied on ex-RAF personnel because they had the skills needed for not only air traffic control but many other skilled jobs in the CAA and in British Airways and other airlines. Is the Minister convinced that sufficient help is given to those who want to transfer their skills from the forces to civil flying? I had always thought that the RAF was good about transfers, but the impression that I formed in that setting, talking to people who knew about the matter, was that it was not quite so easy to transfer these days, financially or otherwise.

I had the good fortune to visit RAF Belize some years ago and I was impressed by the work that the RAF did there. The matter that I raise today is a little different. There are two urgent problems. One is control of drug smuggling and the other is control of the rain forests in certain areas. The problem can be described in the words of the Brazilian Minister for the north, Fernando Cesar Mosquita, who, sitting in his office, said to me, "If anyone creates an airstrip in your constituency, you know about it whereas I do not." The attitude in Brasilia is that if the rain forest is a world problem, the world should help. One of the ways of helping is to provide not only fire-fighting equipment but skilled helicopter crews and equipment. However much good will Governments may show, they cannot do much about the forest unless they have the equipment to do so. Has any thought been given to Governments in rain forest areas who request help from the RAF?

My penultimate question is on women in the RAF. Hon. Members who speak from personal experience must be careful that their experience is not many years out of date. Frankly, mine is. I did national service in a tank crew. During all that time in the Rhineland Army, I should not have cared for women tank crew members. Some of us are unhappy, to put it mildly, about recent events involving naval wives. Some of us believe that naval wives have a point. It is not clear what evidence the Ministry of Defence has about women operating in—heaven help us—battle conditions. The same applies in the RAF. In the context of the RAF, one has to assume, whether one likes it or not, the possibility of action.

The questions put by the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) and by me were perfectly valid. My question is simple. I am not jumping to conclusions; I am open to persuasion. What evidence has the Ministry had from the air staff? The air staff must have taken a view on the matter. To put it bluntly, the announcements have been pretty casual. There was not a cheep about it with regard to the Navy until ten minutes to ten the other night. The Minister was a little offhand about the announcement on women in the RAF. It is a departure from previous practice. It could be justified and some of my hon. Friends may be in favour of it, but I repeat my question: what advice has been given to the Ministry of Defence from medical sources and air staff about the feasibility of what it suggests? Until the hon. Member for Newbury asked that direct question, it was not at all clear to me—perhaps the Minister and the House will forgive me if I have got the wrong end of the stick—that some kind of role in any possible action was involved——

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has been looking at the newspaper reports of the United States experience in Panama. Will he ask the Minister what cognisance he has taken of that, and what contact the Ministry is having with the United States military authorities on the issue of how women perform in combat?

That is what is called a yorker in cricket. However, I am alarmed by the decision and—although I was hesitant to say so—I am alarmed also by the American experience. We are on delicate ground here. I understand that the figure of 35 per cent. pregnancies in the first year was given. If one talks to the American forces, one realises that they are less than happy about that. Perhaps we live in a different age, but there are some very angry people, one or two of whom are in my constituency, at Rosyth. The naval wives deserve some answer.

The hon. Gentleman is old enough to remember the ladies who flew in the war in the Air Transport Auxiliary. There is no reason why a woman should not fly an aeroplane as effectively as a man. The question that the hon. Gentleman wants answering is, are they ever likely to be put into combat? The answer has been stated clearly—they are not.

I am on political and other thin ice here, so I shall skate off it quickly. However, the question that one is entitled to ask is, what technical advice—medical and from the air staff—has the Ministry of Defence taken? The House is entitled to know.

The Minister will be grateful to know that I come to my last question. It relates to page 2 of The Times on Monday.Under the heading "Officials study spy-pay claim", the article stated:
"A bizarre allegation that MI5 has been using Premium Bond cheques, supposedly issued by Ernie, the electronic 'lottery' machine run by National Savings, for paying freelance agents, is being examined by the Cabinet Office, it was disclosed yesterday."
Is it really being examined by the Cabinet Office? The article continued:
"The claims first came to light when a constituent of a senior Conservative back-bencher approached his MP and alleged that Ernie did more than just select prize-winners each month.
He said Ernie's address at Lytham St. Annes, in Lancashire, was being used as a front by the Security Service.
The man claimed that when freelance operatives—often referred to as 'cut-outs' because their undercover work cannot be traced back to M15—were employed, their pay cheques came in the guise of a prize-winning, tax-free Premium Bond payment."
Lucky them. The article continued:
"There was no suggestion that real Premium Bond prize money had been used.
The constituent claimed he had been paid a substantial sum for working for MI5 and produced a letter from an official at Ernie's office, dated 1981, informing him that he had won a Premium Bond prize.
The bond number was checked and found to be genuine.
Last week the letter was handed over to Cabinet Office officials who agreed to take the matter further.
One official was said to have suggested that the letter could be a forgery. The constituent had been involved in a celebrated court case several years ago and there had never been any previous suggestion that he had worked for the Security Service.
Ernie—Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment—is the nearest thing in Britain to a national lottery.
Since the first draw in June 1957 more than 30 million cheques, worth about £2 billion, have been sent out to prizewinners. The largest monthly prize is £250,000 and about £5 million remains unclaimed.
Ernie which is now on its third model, takes 75 minutes to select the monthly winners from the 24 million owners of Premium Bonds. Results are published in national newspapers."
My last question is, did the Cabinet Office really spend its time considering this matter? Why did a newspaper such as The Times decide to put that story on page 2? Was it all fiction or is there a grain of truth in it?

Normally, whatever other hon. Members criticise me for, it is not for my parliamentary manners. Normally I sit through a debate, having spoken, but a long time ago I promised to uphold the honour of this House against the House of Lords in a chess match at the Athenaeum——

I shall doubtless have won my two chess games against the other place, but I promise, either in defeat or in victory, to return to hear the Minister's reply.

6.25 pm

In a characteristically generous mood, at the beginning of his speech my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark), congratulated my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on his appointment as honorary Air Commodore of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force——

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) is the honorary Inspector General.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries was formerly the honorary Air Commodore of the Highlands squadron—and probably still is—but now he is assuming what was the four-star mantle of Air Chief Marshal Sir John Barraclough and becoming the honorary Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I am sure that the whole House was gratified by that news, aware as we are that my hon. and gallant Friend is no armchair warrior. Following world war two service, he was awarded the air efficiency award for his service as a pilot with the city of Edinburgh squadron, No. 603, of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I undertake to award to my hon. and gallant Friend the PE award—the parliamentary efficiency award—if, after due service as honorary Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, he can get the Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons flying again.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State made a fitting speech for a renowned military historian. Long before I knew that my hon. Friend was to be a politician, I read his book on aces in the first world war, and his book on Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union that was undertaken by the Wehrmacht. My hon. Friend made us look back to the battle of Britain and suggested that it was a close-run thing. He said that he hoped that never again would we face such a close call. I submit that in the battle of Britain the tide was turned not only by the gallant Poles who came in in early September, and flung themselves into the battle from RAF Northolt, which is in my constituency, without ever having been declared operational by Air Marshal Keith Park, but because one third of the crews involved in the battle of Britain were Royal Auxiliary Air Force personnel. Without them, the battle could not have been won.

In an interesting speech, containing good news about the order of the T-10 training variant of the Harrier, my hon. Friend the Minister of State said little about strategy. He did not even vouchsafe so much as a single surmise about the strategic implications for the Royal Air Force of the changes taking place in central and eastern Europe at present.

If I may indulge myself briefly, I should like to speculate a little. It must be our earnest endeavour, by the process of arms control and diplomacy, to seek to eliminate the Soviet armed forces, including, of course, the Soviet air forces, from the territory of what is now the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. If we can do so, we shall ensure much greater security for ourselves in the West. But in that process, which will encompass the real possibility of the unification of the two German states, it is hard to foresee that, for very much longer, Soviet forces, including air forces, will be stationed in what would be the eastern part of the united Germany, or that foreign troops, including British troops and Royal Air Force Germany, will be stationed in what is now the Federal Republic.

The logic of events—this is something for which we must hope—is that there will be a demilitarised Germany, certainly a Germany in which no foreign troops are stationed, and no foreign air forces based. That need not mean that Germany will be any less reliable as a NATO partner. Denmark and Norway do not have foreign troops of NATO stationed on their soil in time of peace. Of course, they have the facilities and the infrastructure for reinforcement, and reinforcement is conducted regularly in exercises by the NATO allies.

I hope that the air staff, among all the scenarios, is at present looking at the possibility of questioning, at some time in the not-too-distant future, the Brussels treaty commitment to station an army of 55,000 men and a tactical air force on the soil of continental Europe—in Germany. Just before the end of last year I inquired of Her Majesty's Government whether the Brussels treaty commitment was under review. I was told, significantly, that it was. That is a very new development.

We could, and should, spell out with some clarity the basic strategic dispositions that will ensue from the changing scene in central and eastern Europe and the process of arms control in which we are engaged. First, it is likely that there will be a premium on the capacity to reinforce, rather than on in-place formations, on the central front. Secondly, there will be a premium on the need for reserves rather than regular forces. The number of regular forces in place is likely to diminish, but we shall need a capacity to reinforce and to expand. Thirdly, there will be a need for reach and/or range. I have suggested a process of arms control which, I hope, would lead to the elimination of Soviet air forces and Soviet ground troops from central Europe. The Soviets still possess formidable air forces with great capability, and we ought to be able to reach far and fast over extended ranges. The quality of air power is a supreme consideration. It is a quality applicable not just to the central front but, of course, to out-of-area operations. In this uncertain world—I am thinking of the middle east, Iran, and so on—there are areas to which we may have to address our military attention in the future to secure our basic national interests.

Having looked at strategy, I want to consider the consequences for the composition of our Air Force. First, there will be an even greater need for flexibility—the basic, fundamental, inherent ingredient of air power itself. Secondly, as there will be fewer forces in place, we shall need to be able to concentrate force and fire power rapidly at the decisive point. Fire power will be at a premium. So will force multipliers—tankers, so far as material is concerned; auxiliaries and reservists, so far as personnel are concerned. In short, we shall probably need a rather smaller Air Force, but one of higher quality and enhanced capability. Certainly there is no case whatever for eliminating the European fighter aircraft from our long-term costings and our future plans.

I should like to consider briefly how withdrawal of Royal Air Force Germany, if eventually it takes place—and, if so, it will be a gradual operation, I am sure—will affect our front line. There are seven Tornado GR1 squadrons and one recce squadron in Germany at present. It must be assumed that they will be brought back and based in the United Kingdom. The existing bases could be maintained for reinforcement and redeployment in time of tension or war if required by our German NATO allies, or if those allies chose just to be members of the Brussels treaty organisation or WEU allies. I think that in the redeployment back to the United Kingdom there will be an opportunity to replace the two Buccaneer maritime attack squadrons with Tornadoes—an overdue replacement and, I think, a sensible one. Secondly, we shall not need to police the air corridors to Berlin. It must be presumed that, following German unification, the four guarantor powers will accede to redesignation of Berlin as a fully German city. There would then no longer be a need to police the air corridors, so the two Phantom interceptor squadrons in Royal Air Force Germany—No. 19 squadron and No. 92 squadron—would be redeployed back to the United Kingdom. That would be a good opportunity to eliminate the Phantom, which is getting rather long in the tooth, from our air defence forces altogether, to get the F2s and F3s, which are in store in St. Athan, and to rationalise purely on the basis of a Tornado air defence variant force for the No. 11 group air defence task.

With so many Tornadoes coming back from Germany, one must wonder whether it would be rational or good economics to equip the two United Kingdom Jaguar squadrons—No. 41 recce squadron and No. 56 defensive support squadron—with the Jaguar. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for them to be re-equipped with the Tornado. As for the Harrier squadrons—Nos. 3 and 4 at Gűtersloh—they would probably come back, too. I am sure that it will be suggested that, in those circumstances, there would be basing problems in the United Kingdom. I do not believe that to be the case. The announcement by Defence Secretary Chaney that the United States is to relinquish certain bases—Fairford, Greenham Common, Weathersfield, and so on—suggests to me that there are sufficient bases in the United Kingdom. There would, of course, be a dramatic foreign exchange saving to the Treasury as a result of such redeployment.

Last but not least, in the modernisation of the Air Force to make it a service with a flexible structure that will enable it to endure into the next century, there is a very real need for reserves. At present, many highly qualified aircrew and ground crew are lost to the service as a result of premature, voluntary retirement, at great cost to the taxpayer. For example, we have to make up numbers by recruiting women into categories other than the normal ones. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), I know that women will be fully capable pilots; of that there is no doubt. None the less we need to prevent that haemorrhage of talent. If auxiliary flying squadrons were in operation, they would ensure the economic use of skills currently going to waste.

There are a number of roles that auxiliary squadrons could undertake. First, the United States Air Force is giving up its aggressor squadron at RAF Bentwaters, which is currently equipped with the F16. The Auxiliary Air Force could have an aggressor squadron to practise air combat, probably using the single-seat version of the Hawk, the Hawk 200. Secondly, because we may need to reinforce Germany—that possibility will still exist—and because our main anti-armour component will be air power rather than tanks on the ground, I suggest that a wing of Hawk aircraft, optimised for air-to-ground operations, be constituted for the purpose. Thirdly, I believe that the communications squadron at RAF Northolt could be an auxiliary one manned by personnel who fly airliners or executive jets. Fourthly, there is a need for a cheaper maritime patrol aeroplane to supplement the Nimrods for inshore maritime work. Fifthly, there is a great deficiency of helicopter lift—many hon. Members have already spoken about that—and the old idea of equipping one or two auxiliary squadrons with Wessex until a more appropriate aeroplane comes into service to provide lift for the Territorials should be dusted down, re-examined and taken up. Last but not least, in the future, there will be a premium on air mobility, in the broadest sense, and air transport.

The Royal Air Force will continue to suffer a grave deficiency if it does not have a heavy-lift capability to fly helicopters, for example, to trouble spots or to transport armoured vehicles and so on. Heavy Lift Cargo Airlines has suggested to the MOD that that airline, in its entirety and with its crews, should become an auxiliary squadron of the RAF at no capital cost to the Ministry. That is a most imaginative concept, which I broadly support.

I hope that the Government will seize the opportunities of the hour for some imaginative forward thinking to modernise our Air Force and to adapt it to the changing scene in central and eastern Europe.

6.42 pm

I want to follow the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) in what I can only say was an extremely good speech. I agreed with much of it, and he is obviously exceedingly knowledgeable on these matters. The hon. Gentleman is realistic about the situation in eastern Europe and its consequences for Britain's contribution to NATO.

I want to refer to the low-flying programme of the Royal Air Force. I have raised this matter on many occasions over the years, but I do so tonight in a different light—not so much from the basis of constituency complaints, as of following the arguments deployed by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood and their consequences for Britain's low-flying programme.

Following a major incident one and a half years ago outside Keswick, the town where I live in the Lake District, I asked the National Audit Office to set up an inquiry into the cost-effectiveness and value for money considerations of the low-flying programme. That inquiry was followed six months later by an inquiry by the Select Committee on Defence on similar matters.

The National Audit Office report was published some weeks ago and we had the pleasure of being able to examine that report and to take evidence on it from senior officials of the Ministry of Defence only last week. Although Sir Michael Quinlan was unable to answer many of my questions, I should like him to know that I hold him in great respect, as I regard him as one of Britain's great civil servants. When he has the opportunity to reply to those questions that he was unable to answer orally during our hearing, I hope that he will do so in some detail, because the public want answers to them. Sir Michael was unable to answer a number of questions relating to the developments in eastern Europe.

Tonight I want to place a question mark over the whole justification for the RAF's low-flying programme. Why do we need that programme now? To establish that need, I can do little more than refer to what was said in the National Audit Office report, when it referred to "NATO's forward defence strategy" when defining the requirement for the programme.

I also want to refer to a number of letters that I have received from Ministers in the past 10 years, in particular a-letter of 26 August 1987 which stated, in justifying the programme:
"In the event of an attack on this country or on our allies, our pilots must be ready to retaliate against targets deep in enemy territory."
The operative words are "deep in enemy territory".

Another letter of 3 November 1987 stated:
"I would only say that military experts remain convinced that high speed flight still offers the best chance of evading radar and defence systems to attack targets deep in enemy territory."
Another letter of 19 December 1987 was a reply from a Minister about many of the complaints that have come through my office over the years. It stated:
"Low level, high speed flight still offers the best chance of evading radar and defence systems to attack targets deep in enemy territory."
What is meant by "deep in enemy territory"? That phrase is turned out so liberally from the MOD word processors when replying to the many thousands of complaints received annually.

In a letter of 4 February 1983, the then Minister said:
"In a more settled world, of course, there would be less need for the flying, but it is no secret that the Soviet Union and its allies have greatly increased their military strength in the past few years and are a potential threat to Western Europe."

It was written by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin).

Well, that may be so, but that letter defines the justification for the low-flying training programme.

Although potential targets and potential enemy territory will change from time to time, particularly because of developments in eastern Europe, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, during the Falklands conflict, there was a clear need for aircraft to fly extremely low beneath the Argentine radar? During that conflict, our aircraft flew over enemy territory at extremely low levels because of the experience and training gained in this country.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, but the problem is that it is costing us nigh on £4 million to maintain that programme. Not that many jets were used in the Falklands campaign; if the hon. Gentleman examines the information, he will find that no more than a dozen jets were used at any particular time. The hon. Gentleman's argument is no justification for the scale and nature of the programme currently in place.

Who are the "deep in enemy territory" nations to which reference has been made? They are Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany and Hungary, along with the part of the Soviet Union which is called Byelorussia. I think "Byelo" is the Russian for white; it is the area of the Soviet Union referred to as White Russia. Those parts of eastern Europe have all been subject to political change. Let us establish what the change has been.

Let us take Hungary. Hungary is currently ruled by a Government drawn from the Hungarian Socialist party, the reformist successor to the old Communist party. However, that is merely a caretaker operation pending elections on 25 March which the Socialist party is unlikely to win. Hungary has arrived at that stage by a series of dramatic but peaceful transformations. To date, the USSR seems remarkably relaxed about the changes in Hungary, and individual spokesmen suggest that some form of neutrality might be acceptable in due course.

There seems to be surprising unanimity between the main political parties about Hungary's international status and alliances. In January, the National Assembly voted for the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Negotiations to that end are well advanced. On 20 February, Gyula Horn, the Foreign Minister said that he would not rule out the possibility of Hungary joining NATO in the long term. Later he clarified his statement by saying that he envisaged Hungary belonging to NATO and the Warsaw pact.

I mean well; I hope to help the hon. Gentleman accelerate the pace of his speech. At least he can miss out this bit. There is no training in the Royal Air Force to attack targets in Hungary, from high or low altitude.

When Ministers were writing those letters, the reference to eastern Europe and its allies was repeated; it appears in letters as late as one and a half years ago. That has been the position which has been put consistently by Ministers over the years. That is what the word processor keeps churning out. Perhaps they should change the programme.

Like my hon. Friend, I am surprised by the Minister's response. I thought that the pilots were being trained to attack countries in the Warsaw pact, and that Hungary was a member of the Warsaw pact. If they are not being trained to attack Hungary, I do not know what the target is. Are there any other Hungaries about?

Perhaps I may refer to countries other than Hungary. Let us take Czechoslovakia. It has undergone dramatic upheavals since November 1989. These followed similar upheavals in the German Democratic Republic and stemmed from the realisation that the unpopular and illegitimate Communist regime, installed in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1968, no longer enjoyed Soviet backing. Elections are scheduled for 8 June this year. President Havel has already visited Berlin, Bonn, Warsaw, Washington and Moscow. In Moscow, he signed an agreement on the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops by July 1991. Is Czechoslovakia the target? Is it one of the nations which is situated deep in enemy territory?

Let us take the next one, the German Democratic Republic. Future security arrangements for eastern Germany are being hotly debated in the run-up to the elections on 18 March. Is not it strange that elections are about to take place in all these countries? They are all negotiating the withdrawal of troops; they all want the troops returned to the Soviet Union.

The Federal German Republic will have elections on 2 December. The most likely outcome is that a united Germany will belong to the political part of NATO. Germany might not remain in the integrated military structure of NATO. France has been outside the military structure since 1966, so there is a precedent. Germany will probably remain within the Western European Union.

The preferred solution for eastern Germany is that proposed by Foreign Minister Genscher—that the present territory of the German Democratic Republic will have a special treaty governing military status under which the Soviet forces will be allowed to remain, and German and other NATO forces will not be introduced. But negotiations are going on all the time about the removal of Soviet forces.

Indeed, I understand that the position in eastern Germany is so bad that today the Evening Standard wrote this article about a country which is deep in enemy territory and for which we should have such fear and tribulation:
"East German's armed forces, the pride of the Warsaw Pact until just a few months ago, are falling apart as men desert in their thousands and discipline collapses, say NATO sources.
'The East German army has stopped functioning as a military machine', said a senior NATO official with access to intelligence reports. 'It is amazing—unlike anything else in eastern Europe.'
The Western alliance estimates that the National People's Army, which had 173,000 men until the Berlin Wall came down last November, has now shrunk by almost half to 90,000.
'Soldiers are simply not turning up for work, some have emigrated to the West, others have gone to take jobs elsewhere. A lot of them feel the army is useless. That famous German discipline has gone', another source said.
Last week a battalion of East German soldiers refused to take part in an excercise led by some of the 380,000 Soviet troops still based in East Germany, the source said."
Of course, those too are the subject of withdrawal negotiations.

Whatever the status of the so-called eastern bloc countries, is not the hon. Gentleman aware that agreement was recently reached within the United States to allow 195,000 Soviet troops to be based in Europe?

Negotiations may have taken place, based on the historic positions in conflict of the parties, but things are happening every week, every day. There will be developments prior to the elections in all the countries to which I have referred. It is clear that major changes are taking place. All I am arguing is that "deep in enemy territory" can no longer include countries such as those that I have mentioned.

I have not referred to Poland, but it is in the same position. Discussions are taking place about the withdrawal of Soviet troops. There are matters outstanding with East Germany, but they will resolve with the passage of time, and there will be a reduction in tension in eastern Europe.

Let us look further. What is beyond the boundary of eastern Europe? We have Latvia, Lithuania, Byelorussia, the Ukraine and Moldavia. Most of those areas of the USSR are themselves the subject of democratic change. That is what the argument is about on the other side of the Urals. Indeed, elections have just taken place in Lithuania and elections are due in Moldavia. In the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, the Ukraine and Byelorussia, elections are taking place in three months. In Latvia and Estonia, there will be elections on 18 March. All these elections are against the background of the nationalist movements developing in those countries, most of which are opposed to further domination of their political systems by the Communist party. They want change based on the western model of applied democracy.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we are witnessing rapid political change and enormous political instability. Would he care to cast his mind back to where we started, the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain? Will he reflect on how long it took Hitler to emerge from political instability to a position in which he threatened Europe? How many years did that take?

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the clock will suddenly turn back——

Perhaps I misunderstood the implication of the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

I have dealt with what I believe to be the major changes in eastern Europe and in those satellite regions that form part of the USSR.

I am sorry, but I must press ahead.

I have a map of the area to which I am referring. There is the old iron curtain, there is the boundary of the existing——

Order. The hon. Gentleman's remarks must be comprehensible for the Hansard reporters. He must describe exactly what he is doing so that it can be written down.

I shall do precisely that. This map shows the iron curtain, the boundary between the states that form part of the western USSR and that area of eastern Europe that includes Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. The significance of this map is that it shows also the operational ranges of the Tornado and Harrier jets that are currently deployed on three bases in western Europe—Bruggen, Gutersloh and Laarbruck. One of those bases has a Harrier squadron and the other two have Tornado squadrons.

Taking the maximum operational range—without mid-air refuelling—based on an average load-bearing Tornado, and making a kilometre calculation from the bases where those aircraft are deployed, they only just cross the border from Poland, Czechoslovakia and eastern Germany into the Soviet Union. Their ranges are geared to operate in an area that is now the subject of political change. Most of the operational potential for those aircraft has been offset by the changes in eastern Europe.

The Tornado cannot even penetrate more than 120 km inside the Soviet Union when it is operating on maximum range. It cannot even reach industrial cities in the west of the Soviet Union, because it is built to deal with a problem deep in enemy territory in the satellite states in eastern Europe. Much of its operational capability and role is now defunct because of the changes.

I am not saying that it should be withdrawn tomorrow. I understand that there is some question whether the changes in eastern Europe are long term, or whether there is the possibility of a reverse. My view is that there is not, but there are varying views. All I am asking is that Ministers take that matter into account. If the political conditions are changing, there must be some Government response, especially if the role and capability of the Tornado is interfered with by those changes.

The hon. Gentleman was correct when he said that there have been enormous changes in eastern Europe. He has correctly outlined them, and none of us disputes that. However, all those countries would have been unreliable allies to the Soviets. We are now faced with a much shorter Soviet frontier. Therefore, as the hon. Gentleman says, we need different types of weapon. One of those weapons is the atomic deterrent.

The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that the Soviet Union is deperate to cut defence expenditure. It cannot build a modern economy while such a high percentage of its GDP is spent on its defence efforts. It desperately wants changes. Western Europe must recognise that reality and respond accordingly, so that the Soviet Union can convince its public opinion and military institutions, which will probably resist a reduction in internal defence expenditure, that it is justified.

Unless western Europe recognises its responsibility to respond and so enable the Soviet Government, especially President Gorbachev, to sell the principle of reducing expenditure, it will fail in its historic duty. We must not speak that language, because changes are happening. I am saying not that we should unilaterally give up everything—on the contrary—but that we must take everything into account and not take an entrenched position on areas such as low flying and Tornado training just because, historically, pilots have been in a strong position to demand and secure what they wanted.

I shall now deal with aircraft losses. Information is published in America that sets out the truth, which British Ministers have always refused to accept, about the attrition rates for Tornado, Jaguar and other fast jets used by the RAF. I want to know the answer to a simple question that I asked the Select Committee on Public Accounts last week. Why is it that, in 1979, the major accident rate, which includes aircraft losses, per 10,000 hours—as referred to by the Minister in his opening speech—was twice as high in the RAF as it was in the United States air force?

The figure was 1·49 fast jets lost by the RAF and 0·74 by the United States air force. In 1980, why was the figure 1·13 for the RAF and 0·51 for the United States air force—two and a quarter times higher? Why was it two and a half times as high in 1981–1·28 compared with 0·48—and in 1982 two and a third times as high—1·22 compared with 0·52? I am sorry to relate all those statistics, but they should be put on the record. They are published in the United States of America and they should be published in the United Kingdom.

In 1983 the RAF figure was three times as high—1·25 compared with 0·40; in 1984 it was two and a third times as high—0·86 compared with 0·37; in 1985, it was 0·73 compared with 0·29—two and a half times as high. In 1986 we had a good year as the figure was 0·58 compared with 0·33—one and three quarter times as high; in 1987, figures were 0·84 compared with 0·33—two and half times as high. The Minister said that last year's figure was 0·81——

I am sorry; I thought the Minister said 0·81. Perhaps we had a better year last year. However, what is coming next year? The pattern of the past has repeatedly been that we lose, or have major accidents involving, far more fast jets than does the United States of America. That includes not only low flying, but flying at all altitudes in fast jets.

If we try to identify low flying, what happens? We are not given the figures, because figures relating to low flying are not published. The Ministry of Defence uses all sorts of answers to try to justify the fact that we cannot have statistics relating to low flying, whereas in Germany the figures are published. Why, in many of those years, were the number of Tornadoes lost—one type of aircraft—twice as high per 10,000 hours in the United Kingdom. with RAF pilots, as in Germany with Luftwaffe pilots? Are the Germans safer fliers? Those are the same aircraft, and the same basis of calculation has been used.

These matters are of great importance because, to some extent, they show that there is something about the British low-flying programme, or the use of Tornado generally, that might make low-flying more dangerous in the United Kingdom.

I shall give way in a moment.

It may be that we are the only country in western Europe that allows low flying down to 100 ft. I wonder if that is it? I wonder if the NATO agreement that we have, whereby we carry out low flying to 100 ft puts our pilots at greater risk.

I do not have the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's piece of paper with the statistics. Will he confirm that those statistics cover all fast jet operations in the United States, including the United States navy and the United States marine corps? The United States marine corps flies low and fast, and has more aircraft than the Royal Air Force has in total. Therefore, if those flights are included in the statistics, that would certainly change the figures enormously.

I am comparing like with like. Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman is not.

The hon. Gentleman says that I am not, but I know what statistics I have here. I am comparing like with like.

I shall now consider Tornadoes, in comparison with F111s. In 1986, not one F111 aircraft—I understand that in terms of role and capability, the F111 is similar to the Tornado—was lost anywhere on earth. Let us imagine the scale of the United States operations and the use of F111 aircraft and consider that not one was lost.

I understand that the F111 is a safe aircraft, yet over a period of years we have lost 22 Tornado aircraft in this country. The figures vary depending on what extent of damage is regarded as a write-off. There was a story in the national press last year of Tornadoes being holed up in some garage or hangar at a national airport, for whatever reason.

I shall confirm for the record what my hon. Friend said about the aircraft being stored in a garage. In a report, the Select Committee on Defence expressed great concern about the fact that there were 32 Tornadoes in storage in a hangar at RAF St. Athan. The total worth of those 32 Tornadoes was more than £500 million and it was costing £60,000 a year to keep them in storage.

I am glad that my hon. Friend is able to confirm that report. I was obviously telling the story as it is.

It is always significant in a debate in the House when a large number of hon. Members rise to intervene. It may be that I have provoked them to think about these matters tonight. I hope that they will chkeck the figures that I have given and the figures that will inevitably be published in the report of the Public Accounts Committee that will be produced when the evidence that has been taken on the National Audit Office report is published. If those figures are given in full, they will justify what I have said tonight and endorse my case.

I do not want to say what I am about to say, but I shall say it; pilots tell lies. I know that because of an incident that took place on 7 November 1988, about 200 miles to the east of the boundary of Keswick, the town in my constituency where I live. Three people witnessed the incident, which was a near miss. None of those who reported the incident to me knew any of the others who had done so. They all reported the incident independently and from three different positions. The letter that came back from the Minister of Defence said:
"As promised in Roger Freeman's letter to you of 7 November, the points raised by three of your constituents about Tornado aircraft activity near Keswick on 14 September have now been looked into.
I can confirm that no airmiss report has been filed relating to any incident over Keswick that day. As you may know, the pilots would have been obliged to file such a report if either of them had felt that their aircraft had been endangered by the proximity of another. It is however, quite possible that your correspondent saw Tornado aircraft executing a navigational or tactical turn, manoeuvres which involve one aircraft crossing over the track of the lead aircraft. In such a manoeuvre the aircraft would be separated by some 500 feet. I can assure you that these manoeuvres are standard practice in the Royal Air Force. Both pilots would have been well briefed beforehand and would have maintained visual and radio contact throughout. Such turns are in fact carried out in the interests of aircraft safety. I hope this is helpful."
The background to that letter is that the pilots concerned told lies. when they were asked, they said that there had been no air miss. They did not file reports because they knew that that would lead to an inquiry. Two of those three constituents may well not be of my political persuasion and all three are reliable people, not known for hysteria. They are level-headed and know what they saw. Nothing on earth will convince them that it was other than what they said in the statements that they gave to officials.

I know that these air misses happen all the time. I have seen incidents; I live under the flight path of one of these aircraft. As I am not there for most of the week, but only the weekend, I do not see many incidents. However, in the summer months I have seen the aircraft coming down the valley over Keswick. Sometimes they come down very low indeed. People write in and complain, and the Ministry sends out officials, who write reports. We all know that the exercise is a waste of time because the pilot says, "I did not do that," and that goes in the record.

We cannot go on like this, on the basis of a Skyguard system, which I understand is some jacked-up, captured piece of Argentine equipment. Perhaps we are now buying new equipment—I do not know; it did not come out in the Public Accounts Committee the other day. Something must be done to catch these people out. It is not just me who complains; all hon. Members who live in such areas are complaining.

I believe in a low-flying programme where it is necessary and when it is run properly. I object to pilots who tell lies. No doubt they will have the opportunity to read tonight's debate. I hope that those who have told lies know what I am talking about and realise that people strongly object. If three people see something independently and know it happened, we do not expect a pilot to go back and lie to his senior officers, as happened on that occasion.

There are alternative locations in various parts of the world where such low flying could take place. I have had a letter faxed to me today from Canada, from the leader of the New Democratic party, which I understand is an important party in Canadian politics. To some extent the letter undermines my case, but I intend to read part of it out.

The Canadians object—I did not know this till yesterday—to the fact that some of us are advocating more low-flying training taking place overseas, particularly in Canada. It seems that that idea is causing a great deal of anxiety to the populations of certain areas—especially to trappers, whose activities make an important contribution to the economy of certain northern areas.

The letter ends:
"The New Democratic party has appreciated the solidarity and friendship accorded us by the Labour party over the years. We now ask you to consider our position in formulating your policy on low flying in the dramatically changing international arms context."
The letter objects to any possible NATO decision on increasing low-flying activity in Canada. It also refers to an aboriginal group known as the Innu and questions the low-flying programme on the basis that the changes in eastern Europe obviate the necessity of maintaining the present scale of the programme.

7.21 pm

If we followed the line of argument advanced by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) we should ignore the very nature of a credible defence policy for the RAF, the Army or the Navy. The whole essence of defence—this debate centres on an effective air defence—is its insurance policy element. An insurance policy should be taken out against all risks, and we hope that when one of those risks is called in, the policy will cover it. If we extended the argument of the hon. Member for Workington, we could talk ourselves out of having any defence at all, saying that we could see no risk for the foreseeable future, so we should remove our defence forces. That is unsound policy.

At a time of great changes we must, when deciding on the role of the RAF, examine some important underlying concepts—for example, those of technological deterrence and operational deterrence. In a rapidly changing world I should not like to predict in what sort of theatre of operations our Air Force may be called upon to perform its tasks. We have heard in the debate that the European theatre may be less important in the foreseeable future, but I can think of out-of-area operations in other parts of the world in which our interests could be threatened and in which the characteristics of aircraft such as the Tornado—it is built in my constituency—with its low-flying capability might be called into play. An effective Air Force must be effective in all the possible roles that it might be called upon to perform.

Would the hon. Gentleman care to mention any area in which the British Air Force is likely to operate—apart from our present out-of-area commitments?

Is the hon. Gentleman thinking of going back to the colonies, or of raiding another country? Perhaps the commodore of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force could give us some guidance on this?

No one could have predicted that we would need to defend our interests in the Falklands; no one could have predicted the need for the Armilla patrol. There are always possibilities that our defence forces will be called upon——

Does my hon. Friend recollect that it was the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) who decided that we did not need an aircraft carrier squadron in the south Atlantic, and that it was the removal of that deterrent which resulted some years later in the Argentinians invading the Falklands?

I thank my hon. Friend for refreshing my memory. The thesis behind an effective Air Force is that it must be effective whatever the demands upon it. Part of our task now, with the conventional forces in Europe talks under way, is to determine the flexible nature and the technology that will be required for our Air Force to meet future demands, seen and unseen.

In my constituency 6,500 people are employed in British Aerospace's military aircraft division. It was refreshing to hear the commitment made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) to the Tornado, to hear his questions about its operational capability, and to hear his commitment to the European fighter aircraft. I hope that those commitments last all the way through the Labour party's policy formulation and that at the next general election it will be able to explain why the party has reversed its policy of trying to run down the defence industry.

The Labour party has talked about some sort of conversion agency. If such an agency came into being not all the objectives that the hon. Member for Rhondda set out in his speech could be achieved, because the agency would undermine the technological base that provided the very weapon systems that he supports. How would he sustain the home-based defence industry without the contribution of its defence exports? In Lancashire we know very well the benefits of, for instance, the Al Yamani project, supplying Tornadoes, Hawks and other systems to Saudi Arabia; but the Labour party made it clear at the last election and thereafter that it would dismantle the overseas sales network for British defence equipment.

At a time when we are—rightly—questioning value for money in European defence, orders for different aircraft systems, some of which will be endorsed by purchase by the RAF, will make the economics of planes such as the Tornado and the EFA come right—at affordable prices, for us and for others. It is very important that the RAF continues to order such planes. I recall the classic example of an American fighter developed by an American aircraft company. The United States Air Force would not buy it, so the plane made no export business.

The hon. Member for Rhondda should also bear in mind the importance of Britain developing its sale of defence equipment worldwide, which helps us to determine defence policy in new theatres of operation. To answer the hon. Member for Workington, sometimes the achievement of such sales is determined by the capability of an aircraft—for instance, in low flying.

Apart from the 16,500-strong British Aerospace work force in defence procurement in the north-west, we also have Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick and Lucas Aerospace in Burnley. The work forces in those companies are worried about the conventional forces in Europe talks. They are aware of the dramatic developments that have resulted recently in a reduction in the number of combat aircraft to 4,700. As yet it has not been specified which types of aircraft will be involved or what the implications are for future defence procurement, and that causes anxiety.

I contend that there are also opportunities. The CFE talks put a premium on technology—what is left will have to be good. That maxim is certainly mirrored in the Warsaw pact's strategy of developing higher technology planes that pack a bigger punch. We need to know how we shall react to what emerges from the CFE talks.

We must remember that the RAF's strategy in future must be flexible. The achievement of flexibility will largely depend on our ability to develop highly sophisticated technological products, so we need to retain in this country the basic capability to produce such equipment. I was pleased to hear the Minister's commitment to the European fighter aircraft. He is right to say that work on that aircraft is advanced. Five prototypes are currently being worked on in the hangars at Warton.

The need for that plane cannot be overemphasised. The Soviet Union has made it clear that, while it may be reducing the number of aircraft that it has at its disposal, it is generating types that we will find difficult to deal with. Aircraft such as the Blackjack, the Flanker fighters and the Fulcrum are threats that the European fighter aircraft may be called upon to meet. The whole point of having a credible deterrent such as the European fighter aircraft is the hope that it will not have to meet such threats. If we show any weakness and do not proceed with a specific programme, other people could get the wrong idea.

In technology terms the European fighter aircraft is interesting. In real terms it could be argued that the aircraft is cheaper than its previous equivalents. It employs the new technology of carbon fibre in its wing construction and has new forms of mouldings and alloys, all of which contribute to improved serviceability. Those who seek justification for having it will find, for example, that one of the targets is to reduce the amount of time when it is not serviceable. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us when he replies what is happening in terms of the availability of aircraft in relation to maintenance. Can he also give us some idea of the time that will be required to resolve the problems of the European fighter aircraft? It is right that the four nations concerned should look again at the question of radar and reach a conclusion. There are outstanding issues and many of my constituents would like a firm word on those.

I shall now deal with the matter of the delivery of Tornadoes that British Aerospace has on its production line. I am surprised that the Opposition did not reflect on the fact that, in spite of the efforts of the engineering union to mess up production at the British Aerospace plant in Preston, those at Warton in my constituency continued working and there was no disruption in the flow of aircraft to RAF and other customers of British Aerospace. Warton can be justly proud of its role in ensuring the continuity of procurement. It distressed me greatly to see the engineering unions pressing the strike to the limit and posing some fundamental questions on their suitability to continue as a source of labour for components for use in British Aerospace's wider activities. It is about time that the Opposition had words with their friends in the trade unions and told them to exercise more responsibility.

Nobody can predict with precision the future role of the RAF. We may see a need to increase maritime air power. What consideration has the Minister given to adapting existing marques or future planes such as the EFA to fulfil a maritime role? There has been some speculation about what comes next. I appreciate that there is considerable public pressure to reduce defence expenditure, but we must not ignore questions such as what comes next. The lead time on modern aircraft is very long. If we are to maintain our technology base and our leading edge on aviation technology in Europe, with the obvious potential spin-offs in the civil field, we must try to give an early indication, commensurate with CFE 1 and CFE 2, to our aircraft industry so that it can plan properly for technology and materials procurement.

The idea that we can all gain immediately from some form of peace dividend worries me. There would be no dividend from what has happened in eastern Europe if we had not been resolute on our defence expenditure and policies. Neutral countries such as Sweden and Switzerland place great emphasis on maintaining a credible air defence system to protect the inviolability of their air space and their national security. Such a strong view by neutral countries must reinforce our stance to place emphasis in the coming years on credible air defence. The European fighter aircraft has an important role to play in that.

7.34 pm

The hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) made an interesting speech that was informative about the Conservative view. Conservatives argue that defence is about liberty and freedom, but the hon. Gentleman uttered a thinly veiled threat to ban trade unions from defence factories. Effectively, he said that in his speech. He eulogised about arms exports. Arms exports have been expanded enormously and it is little wonder that British and European-made arms were used to kill British soldiers in the Falklands war. Conservatives have pushed ahead fast with arms exports because they are interested only in the money, but they should realise that British troops will be at risk from British arms in future wars.

I apologise to the Minister for missing the early part of his speech. I put it down to a failed attempt to improve my sartorial image. I have been trying to avoid bulging pockets by not carrying keys. Unfortunately, I closed my front door and then found that I did not have the keys in my pocket. I wish that I had had an RAF helicopter to lift me over my neighbour's back wall and into my garden so that I could get into my house.

It is difficult for hon. Members to visit Royal Air Force bases and it can be done only on strictly limited conditions. I tried to do it and was snubbed by the Ministry of Defence. I was told that I could not visit when I wanted to. I have a picture from Aviation News magazine of a girl in front of a Hawk. The caption says:
"A bird in the hand … Pilot's Pal Kris Jaynes with a No. 151 (Shadow) Squadron Hawk T.Mk.1 make a fine combination for this year's Christmas cover."
It is clear that calendar girls can get into RAF bases. I appreciate that hon. Members are not as popular as calendar girls on visits, but nominally at least we hold the purse strings and if calendar girls can get in surely we can. Will the proceeds from such calendars be given to the Royal Air Force? That would save the taxpayer a few bob because I understand that such calendars make money.

I congratulate the RAF on its disaster relief work and its search and rescue efforts. My experience from meeting RAF officers is that they have an amazingly high technical standard and great expertise. They are immensely efficient. However, one must ask whether the Ministry of Defence is efficient in managing them or is it inefficient, incompetent and wasteful of public money?

I should like to read to the House a long passage that is worth reading from The Independent of 22 January. It points to that inefficiency and to the need for a major defence review. That was emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers). It also shows that a peace dividend should be comfortably available from cutting our military hardware. That could be used for peaceful purposes such as the National Health Service and civilian jobs in an arms conversion programme. Only the Tories set their face against that. I have seen reports saying that changes in Europe mean that we have to spend more. That is plain stupidity. The article in The Independent is headlined:
"Military budgets 'able to withstand £15 bn cut'."
It says:
"The RAF runs too many airfields, requiring duplication of services and more men than any other western airforce operating a similar number of aircraft. Five or six RAF air bases could be closed, including at least one of the major facilities in West Germany. RAF Germany will probably have to lose two of its 12 combat aircraft squadrons under the CFE treaty. Airpower should be reorganised with at least two of RAF Germany's nine squadrons of Tornado bomber aircraft brought back to Britain to replace elderly Buccaneers … the RAF's strength could be cut by about 15,000 men from its current strength of 93,000. These changes could be made with the RAF losing only four of its 28 fast jet squadrons while retaining all its projects for upgrading UK air defences.
Further, the RAF's support helicopter force should be transferred to Army control. Currently, troops ride in helicopters operated by two services, a duplication of effort and something that hinders the development of airmobile tactics, which will become increasingly important as forces in central Europe are thinned out by the CFE accord."
I do not mind whether that is controlled by the Army or by the RAF, but there should not be that duplication. The article also says:
"The RAF's plans to buy a new air-launched anti-tank missile could be cancelled".
That is particularly relevant if the CFE talks result in the scrapping of some of the tanks in central Europe. Another article in The Independent on the same day says:
"A comparison of the Royal Air Force with that of Israel shows the difference between an organisation which evolved through the abandonment of empire and one which grew up to meet a specific threat. Each force deploys about 550 combat aircraft but the RAF uses three times as many people to do it. There is only one general in the Israeli air force but there are more than 50 officers of equivalent or higher rank in the RAF …
Some military experts also believe that the RAF deploys much of its strength too close to the East German border. The bulk of the RAF's bomber force, nine squadrons of Tornados, is based in Germany. The Americans base fighters in Germany to protect ground forces, but put most of their bombers in England and elsewhere, to keep them safer from a Warsaw Pact attack."
So it is bad strategy anyway. My hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and for Rhondda both mentioned the next point in the article which is:
"The RAF remains pre-occupied with buying aircraft, there being more than 200 of them sitting unused in hangars. This embarrassment of riches provides the visible proof of the RAF's success in pursuading governments that continued purchasing of aircraft is good for the nation's industrial health. While all air forces like to have reserves no other in Nato has such a high proportion of its aircraft gathering dust'.
The RAF would have difficulty manning and sustaining these spare aircraft in a conflict. Spending billions of pounds buying aircraft has not helped the service to man this reserve fleet; there are not enough aircrew, even if desk-bound officers are mobilised, to keep the RAF flying around the clock in war. Stockpiles of advanced weapons for use by these aircraft are so low that, in some cases, they would only last a few days."
What a catalogue of mismanagement. That also shows where there is scope to get the peace dividend from the RAF, let alone from the other forces if they are anything like that.

I suspect that that article was written by the same journalist who has been writing knocking copy about the European fighter aircraft month after month. Every time he says something, reality proves him wrong.

The points are set out in detail. I have quoted them and it is for the Minister to respond in detail, point by point. Why are those aircraft gathering dust in the hangars? Why has the Ministry been so keen to buy aircraft and leave them in that condition? Let us have the answers.

The CFE talks will result in reductions, and those reductions will have to include combat aircraft. The Prime Minister tried to block that at the outset by saying that no United Kingdom dual-purpose aircraft would be included. That is why there was such a long wrangle over the definition of what aircraft should be included—a wrangle that put at risk the whole deal. On 28 November last year, The Atlantic Newsreported:
"The Prime Minister has expressed doubts about including aircraft in the negotiations"
during her visit to Washington. Despite the Prime Minister, it now looks as if a deal can be reached over, for example, air defence interceptors. That is welcome, although, judging from the reports, too many aircraft will still be left.

The Government have also been less than frank about the future of the United States air bases in the United Kingdom. We are told in press reports—not by the Government—that RAF Molesworth is to be used as a huge spy centre, to be transferred here from Stuttgart by the United States. It will be called a joint analysis centre and will have over 700 staff. That makes Britain a front-line target again.

How many of those spy centres are needed? We already have GCHQ and Fylingdales, and now we are to have Molesworth. Only a little while ago, NATO made a fuss about a Soviet Union spy centre. The Soviet Union has shut down that centre, but we go on expanding and having more and more spy centres.

The Ministry of Defence is still insisting that RAF Greenham Common has only a military future. On 11 January, it announced that it was pushing ahead legally to extinguish all commoners' rights over the land. That is being done under the Defence Act 1854, which went through Parliament in one day as a part of the Crimean war effort. It is ironic that an Act to facilitate a war with Russia is being used because of peace with Russia. The war is against the Newbury residents, and its aim is to take away their common land. The 1854 Parliament was deeply undemocratic and unrepresentative. The Act has none of the appeal or compensation rights that there would be in modern legislation for land acquisition.

Greenham Common is no good anyway because, under the inspection procedures of the INF treaty, it has to be inspected. It is down only as a standby base. It has the Hilton hotel and a new Tesco supermarket close to its western flight path, and on its eastern flight path it has Aldermaston, the nuclear production facility, so there would have to be immense flight restrictions anyway. Greenham Common should be closed down for military purposes and returned to the people of Newbury. That land is the lung of the area.

At RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk, the F15E Strike Eagle nuclear bomber is to be based, with a stand-off nuclear missile that can be launched into the range that is supposedly covered by the INF treaty. Even McDonnell-Douglas, the producer of the F 1 5E, boasts in its advertisements of it breaking the spirit of the INF treaty.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) for obtaining information through a series of written questions, especially as Congress in America has already approved a £12 million base preparation programme with a nuclear element at Bentwaters. RAF Bentwaters is to be the new Greenham Common. Congress has been told about that, but the British Parliament has not been informed.

The same situation applies to the SRAM-T, the new tactical surface-to-air missile. Congress has been told that SRAM-T is to be fitted to the F15E and to the Tornado. The Congressional Record reads:
"General Leyland: We will put the SRAM-T on the F15E first, then the F111, then the F16.
Senator Cohen"—
who is not related to me but who is equally inquisitive, then asked:
  • "Any non-US aircraft?
  • General Leyland: It is going to go on the Tornado.
  • Senator Cohen: Tornado?
  • General Leyland: Yes."
Although that information appears in the Congressional Record, we in the British Parliament have not been given it. America is planning to produce 450 TASM—Tornado air-to-surface missiles—and reports say that 160 of them are to be based in the United Kingdom. If that is true, there will be more of those in the United Kingdom than the number of cruise missiles being dismantled under the INF treaty.

In addition, it was confirmed when defence was last the subject at Question Time that the Government are going ahead, with the approval of President Bush, with a new Anglo-French nuclear missile. The whole programme involves updating, modernising and increasing what existed under the cruise programme. So much for Tory claims of disarmament success. Some people in NATO, such as the Tory Government here, are set on continued expansion rather than disarmament. At whom are all the new nukes targeted? Are not those involved in these activities aware of the changed world situation and the potential unravelling of the cold war? Are not they continuing the same old arms race, albeit on only the NATO side?

The truth is that the Tories are frightened of peace. That is why they have already made plans to spend the peace dividend on the next generation of nuclear weapons. If the British public are able fully to appreciate the truth of that, they will resent it and reject the Tory cold war dinosaurs.

7.52 pm

I assure the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) that my hon. Friends and I are determined to retain the peace that we have enjoyed since 1945. Western Europe has been the only part of the planet where forces totally opposed to each other have faced each other for that length of time, yet there has been peace in the area. All the evidence shows that if one can deter, one can enjoy peace.

The hon. Member for Leyton does his cause no good by suggesting that in some way Conservative Members are war mongers. The opposite is true. There are many on the Government Benches, and some on the Opposition Benches—not as many as there used to be—who experienced war. I assure the hon. Gentleman that anyone who has experienced war does not want to see it repeated, and certainly we do not want our children to suffer it. I find offensive the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we are interested only in war.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said that we wrapped ourselves in the Union Jack. As hon. Members can see, tonight I am not wrapped in the Union Jack. I am wearing the Royal Air Force tartan kilt. I am proud of it and I am proud of the years I spent in the RAF. I am equally proud of the years I have spent in the RAF Volunteer Reserve.

In view of the interest in such matters displayed by Opposition Members, I must declare an interest. I am a serving member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve. I do not pretend, and have never pretended, to be an expert. Last weekend, when I was with the RAF, I was with some real experts. One need only be with experts, in whatever walk of life, to realise how little one knows. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Rhondda said, we do not spend our time living in the past.

My information, from RAF sources, is up to date and, I believe, reliable. In this, the 50th anniversary year of the battle of Britain, it is important for us never to forget that the war was a close-run thing. Never again must we ask the RAF to face such a situation. We have a duty and responsibility to the young men and women who give their service to our country to ensure that we give them the equipment to enable them to deter, and we hope that they will never have to use it in anger.

I welcomed the visit last week of the RAF presentation team to the House. The fact that they were coming appeared often on the all-party Whip, so any hon. Member who was interested in finding the true facts could have attended and put questions to the Chief of Air Staff. Opposition Members who wonder whether the RAF authorities have views on low flying and whether advice is given to pilots on the subject could have talked to the RAF presentation team and questioned the Chief of Air Staff. Those of us who questioned them found that they gave clear and lucid answers.

There is a dramatically changing situation in eastern Europe. We welcome the breakdown of Socialism and Communism. We on the Conservative Benches have always been opposed to Socialism and Communism. Some Opposition Members are rather discomforted because their friends are no longer in office. As I say, we welcome the changes that are taking place.

The hon. Gentleman does himself no credit by sneering in that way. I reiterate what I said earlier; my hon. Friends and I and people of our background are just as committed, perhaps even more so, to the defence of this country as are Conservative Members. As many people from the mines of south Wales and the factories of Yorkshire and Lancashire as public school boys gave their lives in the last war.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party and Lord Halifax held hands with Hitler. His party ran down British forces immediately prior to the last war. The Conservatives consorted with the Nazis and Fascists at that time. So it ill behoves the hon. Gentleman and his Friends to cast slurs on us. Those of us who come from a Christian Socialist background greatly resent his implication that we are Communists. We are not Communists and the Labour party since the war has been opposed to Russia's imperial developments.

The hon. Gentleman protesteth too much. We are debating the RAF, which has always recruited from all the socio-economic groups in this country. It is important to remember that. The hon. Member for Rhondda should also remember that, like him, I come from a working-class background. His jibes at me went wide of the mark. The Soviet Union, let us remember, is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I described that regime as being Socialist and I am sure that that is what the Soviet Union believes itself to be.

As we look at the USSR, that massive conglomeration of races and creeds in which the Russians are in a minority, representing fewer than 50 per cent. of the total population, we see the threat that it faces with the growth of Muslim fundamentalism, the impact that that could have on the Soviet Union generally and the possibilities that exist for mischief-making. One is bound to wonder who will have possession of Soviet military hardware in the coming 10 years. The Soviets' nuclear capability is enormous, and their vast, modern, sophisticated air force could well end up in the wrong hands.

We must retain a broad capability. The RAF must be able to expand to meet any threat or need that arises, and in that context I welcome the strong commitment to the European fighter aircraft. We must also consider the possible threat posed by Soviet aircraft such as the Fulcrum, the Foxbat, the Flanker and the Backfire in the hands of nations unfriendly to us, perhaps in the middle east. At some time in the future we may require RAF pilots to fly against such aircraft, for we never know who tomorrow's enemy may be.

We must retain the ability to deploy aircraft rapidly, and we must consider the type of helicopter that should be used in such a role. Although I do not wish to criticise the EH101, which can work for the Navy in its anti-submarine capacity, I believe that the ideal candidate is the Black Hawk, which can be accommodated in a C 130 Hercules for rapid deployment—with Rolls-Royce engines, of course. In case any hon. Members are worried about the future of Westland, let me remind them that Westland will be manufacturing the Black Hawk. As for search-and-rescue services, I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) that the time has come for us to make the replacement of the Wessex by the Sea King a priority; the left-over Wessex aircraft could be allocated to auxiliary duties.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) in his place: I probably derived as much pleasure as he from his appointment as Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. That is a great honour to bestow on a former volunteer and auxiliary, and Conservative Members, at least, share in it. I am confident that the Royal Auxiliary Air Force is in good hands.

When I was in the United States last year, I visited the United States Marine Corps depot at Cherry Point in North Carolina on the anniversary of the battle of Britain. The corps has more high-class jets than the Royal Air Force, which is why I questioned the statistics given earlier by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). The general very kindly sent his communications aircraft to pick me up at Washington, accompanied by two air cadets who were on a visit that I had arranged.

I discovered that both the majors who were flying the aircraft were auxiliaries—US Marine Corps reserve officers putting in their annual commitment. I have talked to former regular RAF officers, now flying with British Airways, Britannia, Dan-Air and British Midland, who are willing to serve in the RAAF or the RAF volunteer reserves; as many are former fast-jet pilots, they would surely be useful if more air crews are needed in future.

There is a world shortage of pilots, both civil and military. I have a long-standing interest in the air cadets, and particularly in the volunteer gliding schools run by them; such schools often give young men and women their first opportunity of learning to fly. Let me place on record my gratitude to my hon. Friend t he Minister of State for Defence Procurement—and his predecessor, Lord Trefgarne—for re-equipping the gliding schools with the Grobb 109B, a fine aircraft for such purposes. Some nine airfields now have doubts about their long-term viability, and this may be a good time for us to order more Grobb 109Bs while the production line is still going, at the same fixed-contract price. I compliment the Procurement Executive—which normally receives a good many knocks—on obtaining such a good deal.

There used to be a volunteer gliding school servicing the north-east: it was based at RAF Ouston when that unit was still in existence. I have a particular interest in that unit, because I was the last commanding officer of 641 volunteer gliding school. Sadly, the unit had to close down, because we had lost our home. Now, however, Acklington—a former RAF base that became an opencast coal site—is being restored, and I think that it could be procured for the gliding school. I believe that the price on offer is reasonable.

The RAF will be obtaining substantial sums for other units: the asking price for the Acklington site is a tiny proportion of what it will receive for one of the many sites that it has offered. I hope that the Ministers will not be put off by comments about the site being used only by part-time fliers: that is no way in which to talk about our volunteer gliding schools, which get their staff for nothing and do the job without charging. More important, the unit would be able to run courses during the week, and other units—such as Catterick, which can no longer engage in midweek flying for annual courses—could use it as well.

I should like to place on record my thanks to one individual for what he has done for the air cadet gliding movement. His name is wing commander Jack Alcock and he is due to retire this year. He has done a remarkable job running the central gliding school for the Royal Air Force, and in my view he should be encouraged to extend his service so that he can see through the conversion that will be required to the Grobb 109B.

The Chipmunk and Bulldog have given good service to the Royal Air Force and we should carefully look at them and their replacements. The cost of keeping an aircraft in operation can often be greater than the cost of replacing it and having a massive reduction in running costs. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister of State that our experience with GRP gliders and motor gliders has given us confidence that they represent the way in which all light aircraft will probably be constructed in future.

I must declare an interest as we seem to be living in an era when there is great interest in my activities. At least certain Opposition Members seem to take great interest in my activities. I visited the factory where the Grobb 109B is made. I must declare that I was entertained there and enjoyed some lovely sausages and various other things and I did not pay for them, but I hope that no one will conclude that I was compromised in any way, as we seem to be entering the realms of stupidity in these matters.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the staffing of established units of air cadets and volunteer reserves. The PR flight commanded by wing commander Alex Dickson does a tremendous job, as do all the other flights of the volunteer reserves. As a result of the Taylor report which is now some 30 years old, we adopted a system of appointing retired officers to J-class posts in the operation, running and control of those units. That was done on the basis that it was a less expensive way of staffing those posts. That is no longer relevant. The Conservative party believes in competition and there is enormous competition for highly qualified, capable and able people. We can no longer expect those who retire from the Royal Air Force—and people retire much later than they did 30 years ago—to accept jobs as J-class reserve officers for the salaries that we now offer. I strongly recommend that if we cannot have regular officers in those positions—and I understand why—we should consider using better paid J-class officers so that we can pay people their market worth and get rid of them if they are unsuitable, that is a decided advantage. Alternatively, we could consider using volunteer reserves in the top jobs so that we could get highly motivated people who understand and can carry out the job. My last suggestion is the least expensive; it would cost very little money and circumstances might force us into taking that option.

8.13 pm

I do not normally speak in defence debates. The last occasion when I spoke about the RAF was during an Adjournment debate on the transfer from RAF Carlisle of the stores ordering facility DDS MI5. That was nearly two years ago and the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) joined me in speaking against the transfer of that facility to Harrogate. Two years on it is clear that what we said in that debate was true. It did not save any money; it decreased efficiency at DDS MI5 and very few of the staff transferred from Carlisle to Harrogate. I should like to ask the Government to change their mind and to transfer the facility back to RAF Carlisle. I very much doubt that they would do that. They did not change their mind about the poll tax, so they are unlikely to do so about an RAF unit.

On 18 May 1989, I wrote to the then Minister, now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, asking him what was to become of the excellent office facilities at RAF Carlisle. The Minister described them as "excellent"; I would not have used that description. He said that the Ministry of Defence did not want to give up those facilities which I wanted to be made available for other Government Departments, because at the time there was talk of 30,000 jobs being moved out of London. The Minister replied that the MOD reallocation committee was considering the facility at Carlisle, but it would not be possible to say anything for several months. His letter was dated 18 June 1989.

In my book, "several months" does not mean nine months. If the Minister cannot give me a reply tonight, perhaps he will write to me about the office facilities at 14MU Carlisle. Obviously that concerns my constituents, as there are jobs involved.

My constituents are also concerned about low flying over Cumbria. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has already mentioned the problems that exist. I represent the largest urban area for 60 miles in that part of the country, so any low flying over Carlisle disrupts an urban area.

When I was a very new Member of Parliament I went to see a Defence Minister about low flying and I was given an assurance that there would be no low flying below 2,000ft over an urban area. Foolishly, I accepted that assurance. Then I started to receive letters from constituents saying that aircraft had been flying over a particular estate or a certain part of the city. I wrote to the Minister reminding him of the commitment he had given me that there would be no low flying and asking him to take disciplinary action against the pilots concerned.

I received a reply saying, "We are very sorry, but of course your constituent lived a mile and a quarter from the centre of the city." My constituency is about five miles across, so all my constituents live fairly close in. About 10,000 or 20,000 people live in the area. I wrote back and asked the Minister to define an urban area, and of course he would not. So any assurance from the Government that there is no low flying over urban areas is absolute nonsense—unless of course a pilot does a fly past over the town hall, although the Government would still say that it was on the outskirts of the town.

It is interesting that my hon. Friend should ask the Minister to define what the Government mean by an urban area. In last year's debate, the word "conurbation" was used in the context that low flying should not take place over major conurbations. I asked the Minister to define "conurbation" and I remember that the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), said from a sedentary position, "It is a town." But I persisted in asking the Minister to define a conurbation, and of course he.could not. When I drew to his attention the incidence of low flying over substantial towns and cities such Swansea and Llanelli in south Wales, the point was brought home to him. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is a great deal of low flying over urban areas and conurbations.

I look forward to the Minister's reply. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) that there needs to be a definition, but I am afraid that when I read Hansard tomorrow I will not find one.

Pilots will continue to fly low over urban areas of my constituency. My constituents have every right to be worried about that because, in the past 10 years, there have been four collisions between low-flying military aircraft, three of which were within 30 miles of my constituency. That is a minute or two as the Tornado flies. On 18 June 1988, a Jaguar crashed at Keswick, which is 30 miles away; unfortunately, a member of its crew was killed. On 19 August 1988, two Tornadoes crashed, and four aircrew were killed. At the beginning of January, there was a crash on the Carlisle side of Hexham; fortunately, no one was killed.

Aircrews accept that low flying is dangerous, but the Government boast that there have never been any civilian casualties as a result of such crashes. However, it is only a matter of time before there is a major disaster. As the Member of Parliament for Carlisle, I am concerned that that will happen over my constituency.

It is not long since the Lockerbie tragedy. Carlisle is only 25 miles away, and on the same flight path. If the bomb had gone off two minutes earlier, my constituents would have died. My constituents felt that tragedy with the people of Lockerbie. Where possible, we should minimise the risk of aircraft crashing in large urban areas.

The hon. Gentleman says that low flying is dangerous, but does he agree that it would be much more dangerous to expect Air Force pilots to fly at low levels during times of war when they had not practised during times of peace? Over the past 10 years, the number of fatal accidents has progressively reduced, and we now have the lowest fatality record for many years.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but he obviously was not present when my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said that our accident record for the past 10 years is two and a half times worse than the Americans', who do the same amount of low flying. Given that record, we should consider improving training and should not be complacent. I detected some complacency in the remarks of the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), but we have nothing to be complacent about.

Over the past 20 months, there have been seven incidents in my constituency of civilian and military aircraft being involved in so-called near misses. That causes my constituents much concern. There seems to be more low flying in my constituency than in Scotland or Wales. The bulk of it seems to be from Northumberland to Cumbria, and I hope that the Minister will say that, because of the relaxation in world tensions, the Government will reduce the amount of low flying, but I fear that they will not do so.

I wish to place on record my concern that the House was misled on 6 February. In a written question, I asked what information the Government had about construction plans for RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces replied that a post office, a conventional weapons facility and a field training facility would be built on that site. The United States' budget proposals, which were printed on 29 January, show that only a post office will be built. There is no mention of the training or ammunition facility. Under a heading of "Overseas Classified", it says that it will build one conventional munitions facility and one field training facility somewhere in Europe.

That facility will be for the F15E bomber. The Americans say that it will be stationed at Bentwaters, but the Government say that that is not true. On 6 February, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) asked whether any decisions had been taken on the F15E, but the Minister of State replied:
"no decisions have yet been taken."—[Official Report, 6 February 1990; Vol. 166, c. 604.]
Either the American Government are building a base on our soil without telling our Government or, more to the point, the Government do not want to admit that that aircraft will be stationed here. The Germans have said that they will not accept it. They know that it is part of a nuclear expansion because it carries the same warheads as cruise missiles. We are sending those warheads back, yet allowing them to return to be used on the F15E bomber.

I hope that the Minister will put the record straight. I attended expecting an announcement on the F15E. If I am incorrect, I am sure that the Minister will delight in telling me so. I presume that, unless he so states, that new nuclear bomber will be based at RAF Bentwaters.

8.27 pm

Before making a few remarks on the Royal Air Force, I should like to comment briefly on the speech by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), particularly his remarks on low flying.

I assure the hon. Member for Carlisle that there is no complacency. Statistics show that over the past 10 or 20 years the Royal Air Force's fatal accident total has steadily declined. That shows that complacency does not exist. Although I was not fortunate enough to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), if his statistics on the United States Air Force were based on the speech that he made last year, they are highly dubious. We must be careful about whether we are comparing like with like—whether we are talking about low-flying accidents, total accidents or the number of accidents per 10,000 flying hours. I shall check the hon. Gentleman's statistics in Hansard because there are many statistics on those matters. The RAF's record of reducing accidents, particularly low-level accidents, is very good.

This debate is different from previous ones. We now have a different situation in Europe. In many ways, one could argue that it is more unstable because we do not know what the future holds. The threat is less obvious, but it is clearly still there, and because of that it is much harder to determine what the future holds, which equipment the Royal Air Force needs and what training the men who use it need.

The debate offers us an opportunity radically to, consider the role that the RAF will fulfil over the next decade. The detente, the reduction in force levels, should allow us to look beyond the parameters that have existed for the past 20, if not 30, years and clearly see the role of the three services. I suggest that, as in the past, air power offers great flexibility because of its mobility and its increasing ability to take large loads great distances and to he available on site before a disturbance occurs. Whatever decisions are made on the future role of the three services, I am convinced that the RAF will play a major role, if not the predominant one.

We need to look outside the NATO theatre. Because the threat is less obvious, the area from which it comes is less obvious. The RAF has a big role to play. The men and women who comprise the personnel in today's RAF are worried about the changes. It is not surprising that morale is not as high as it otherwise would have been. It is important to bear in mind the difficulties of keeping experienced aircrew in the RAF. That is not surprising, given the reduction in unemployment and the priority that is given to people with experience and training in specific skills outside the services. There will be a steady drain of experienced personnel for some time. I hope that it can be stopped, or at least slowed down.

As seems customary at present, I declare an interest in that I am a serving member of the RAF Reserve. My experience is that many people in the service are not fully satisfied with their pay increase this year, and the staging over nine months is of concern. It is interesting to note that, in the past few months, RAF personnel, who have played a commendable role in the ambulance dispute, left to join either the police or the ambulance service. They did so before the recently announced pay rise because they realised that their pay in the ambulance service would be much higher than in the Air Force. Those points show that the pay of the armed forces must be reviewed continually; tremendous work is done by RAF personnel in support of our emergency services.

The application of the community charge or amenity charge, as I think it is called, to people not resident in this country is causing anxiety. It will go into the defence Vote and is considered by many service men to be rather a backhanded way of getting money that the service would not otherwise get. Those problems must be addressed it' we are to stem the tide of people leaving the service in future years.

Equally important, the RAF's personnel department must be much sharper in its dealings with individuals, ensuring that they stay in the service and do not leave for a minor reason, simply because the system cannot cope with the needs of the individual as opposed to the wider needs of the service. Obviously, the wider needs of the service must always take priority, but if it is to retain the personnel that it needs, closer attention must be paid to individual needs.

I have a small example, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) dwelt in a small way. Over the past year or two, there has been a change of policy towards instructors in the university air squadrons and the commanding officers of air experience flights. The RAF has attempted to introduce civilian instructors into those posts. One need only look at what happens to see how wrong-minded it was to suggest that. There has been a reduction in the number of pilots in the Air Force because they have left to take better-paid jobs outside, but at the same time we are trying to encourage civilian pilots to join the service and take jobs at a much lower salary than they would be paid outside. Although there were many replies to the advertisements in newspapers and many people were interviewed, in the case of air experience flights, five people were offered appointments but, over the three months needed to get their security clearance sorted out, four turned them down and found other jobs in civilian life. The RAF must more closely consider the means of retaining the personnel it already has, rather than come up with schemes which, even on the surface, will not work.

We have spent some time talking about helicopters. The Puma is running into severe fatigue problems and needs to be replaced sooner rather than later. It is important to make a decision, whatever it is. Although the Wessex helicopters of the Queen's flight are superbly maintained, they are quite old and cannot go on for ever fulfilling their present role. I understand that the Tornado ADV F3 has also suffered fatigue problems. I should like an assurance, either tonight or in written form, as to whether that is true and, if so, information on what is being done. It is a relatively new aircraft and, given its cost, it is worrying that fatigue problems seem to be cropping up so soon. I shall not dwell on the Foxhunter radar, which has been discussed at some length. If the taxpayer has to pay out about 17 million for a Tornado, it is vital that the aircraft that the pilots fly is demonstrably better than the aircraft it replaced or, more specifically, the Phantom alongside which it operates. Many reports show that in certain situations the Phantom is as good as, if not better than, the Tornado. That worries me, because I believe that the radar has brought that about. This matter must be sorted out soon. I understand that the new Tornado reconnaissance aircraft in Germany is suffering some teething problems, as do all new aircraft. I hope that the problems associated with the reconnaissance pod will be sorted out quickly, because it forms a vital part of the force's viability in Germany.

On equipment, I should like to mention the airborne warning and control system and the offset agreement. Some years ago, it was decided that the offset would amount to 130 per cent. of the total cost of the aircraft. Over the past year or so, the Ministry of Defence has been silent on those offset purchases and on whether Boeing is meeting its commitment and ensuring that a considerable amount of work is given to firms in this country. I should like to know, either in an answer tonight or in written form, where we are with that offset.

As I said, it is clear that the RAF is going through an interesting time, because the threat in Europe is changing, because there are problems with manpower and because of the equipment programme. As I am reasonably close to what goes on in the RAF, it is clear to me that the personnel are none the less in good heart. In addition, many of them look forward to the opportunity to do something different from what they did in the past and the diverse roles that I mentioned earlier.

8.39 pm

I am in something of a quandary. We are told that one should declare one's interests being and that the declaration in the document published annually is not sufficient. I have an interest to declare but if I do so I shall be accused of advertising. I am talking of the future of the Air Force and NATO and I am author of Jane's "NATO Handbook". If I am accused of advertising, I apologise but it is incumbent on me to declare that interest. I have no vested interest in the survival of the Alliance for the purpose of writing for Jane's, but I wish to counter some of the arguments that one hears on both sides of the Atlantic and of what was the iron curtain. It is argued that alliances have become superfluous and that their withering away is necessary and should be expedited.

I have always championed British membership of NATO and appreciated its critical role in maintaining our security in difficult international circumstances when our national security was in jeopardy for a considerable number of years. To those who argue that the alliances should disappear, I counsel caution in the immediate future. There will be a major requirement for a bloc-to-bloc dialogue to continue.

If events in eastern and central Europe get out of hand, the Soviet Union will get exceedingly angry and worried. In particular, its generals will be worried because they will perceive the Soviet Union's security interests being jeopardised by the disappearance of its cordon sanitaire and expulsion of its ground and air forces from its former buffer states.

It is not in our interests or those of the Soviet Union to allow the alliances to disappear. I hope that in the short term it is not seen to be in the interests of current members of the Warsaw pact who may not view any future military or other relationship with the Soviet Union as desirable. It is important, at least in the immediate future, that we do all that we can—although it sounds a perverse argument—to sustain the Warsaw pact. It is necessary to do so.

The Warsaw pact might disappear but it has already ceased to have much military relevance. I remember a debate in the Hungarian national assembly, at which I was representing the North Atlantic Assembly. I said to Hungarian Members of Parliament that we had an alliance of parliamentarians in the form of the North Atlantic Assembly. Yet we were meeting them as parliamentarians at an assembly of Alliance Members and parliamentarians from individual countries in the Warsaw pact. I asked them why they did not consider forming an organisation like ours so that parliamentarians of one alliance could meet those of the other. The almost unanimous response was that it would take some time to set up such an organisation and in the meantime the Warsaw pact would have ceased to exist. There was not much point in finding a counterpart to us because there would be no counterpart to relate to.

In one sense we might view that with amusement or even delight. But the position is fraught with difficulties. It is difficult to say to eastern Europeans that one of the advantages of totalitarianism and Soviet hegemony in their countries was that tensions, national differences and animosity were kept under control. I am worried that once that hard and heavy hand has been removed and, we hope, all the countries in the region become democratic, the combination of economic crises, political instability, national differences and international differences will make the area one of considerable instability. It will require great judgment by many different powers, super powers, medium-sized and small powers. In the period of turbulence that may come, alliances could be of advantage.

It has been said many times but it is worth repeating that we hope that the evolution to democracy in the Soviet Union proceeds and gathers pace. However, one can never be certain. History is full of examples of good aspirations that are thwarted. In the 1920s the Treasury said that there would be no war for eight, nine or 10 years. That judgment was generated more by financial considerations than realistic calculation of the evolution of Europe.

We need NATO as an insurance policy. Even if the Warsaw pact collapses, there is no earthly reason why we should expect NATO to collapse in sympathy. After all, the Warsaw pact is less necessary to the Soviet Union than NATO is to us. It is almost unthinkable that we could devise our national security policies in a vacuum, unrelated to those of our NATO allies. But it is possible for the Soviet Union to guarantee its security with its own forces. The absence of its forces in eastern Europe and the absence of reliance on its non-Soviet Warsaw pact allies will not necessarily present the same potential disaster for the Soviet Union military as the collapse of NATO would present to us.

It has been said that we need the Royal Air Force because of out-of-area activities. Such activities must not necessarily be construed as rapid deployment forces from Britain, the United States and France charging throughout the world. Those countries have displayed great restraint in the use of their forces out of area. But we must realise that we are partly to blame for the position that we are in now. Third world countries now have substantial armed forces, many of which have been supplied by the Soviet Union and its allies and western industrial nations, such as Britain, France and the United States. We are now dealing with countries that, as part of the natural desire for national self respect, aggrandisement, securing their borders and increasing diplomatic initiatives outside their borders, have become substantial military forces.

The Soviet Union has exported missiles which have been adapted by Iran, Iraq and Syria. According to SIPRI, about 20 countries probably have a ballistic missile capability. Many of those have the capability, some potentially and others actually, to put some form of nuclear warhead on those ballistic missiles. Countries that cannot do that, have the capability to put on the poor man's nuclear missiles—chemical weapons.

The lethal combination of chemical weapons, nuclear warheads and ballistic weapons in the hands of countries outside NATO and the Warsaw pact is potentially threatening to us. The longer the range of such countries' missiles becomes, the greater is the potential danger, perhaps not this year or next year, but at some time in the future.

We must remember that, even if we were in perfect harmony with the Soviet Union and its allies, there would still be a potential threat to western interests. That means that any process of strategic denuclearisation must incorporate not only the super powers, Britain, France and China, but other countries, too. If not, it will be injurious to our national interest to reduce or to eliminate our nuclear weapons because, at the same time, medium-ranking powers, which would wish to be excluded from the process, would almost become super powers, by default.

I am not saying that eventually I do not wish to see a nuclear-free world, but we must view the world situation maturely and realistically. I argue and will continue to argue the case for our Alliance to survive. Integral to its survival is the continuing involvement of the United States. We know of the inclinations of many Congressmen and of many other people in the United States who, historically, have been reluctant partners in NATO. They hark back to the days of United States isolationism. Now, with the pressure of the Soviet Union withdrawing from eastern Europe and with the confusion over Germany's future role, there will be diplomatic, psychological and economic pressures in the United States to call its troops back home. After all, are not those troops in a continent that does not always appreciate their presence?

Although there is a great temptation, such withdrawal would be folly. It would be an economic folly because, with a military presence in Europe, the United States has advantages other than security advantages. Many countries in Europe, including in eastern Europe, would welcome a continuing American presence for reasons of which we are all aware. I refer to what this generation sees as the "danger" of a united Germany. I do not join the chorus of people who are fearful of the Kohls of this world, but who knows what will happen in the future? It is in our interests that a substantial American presence should remain. I hope that the Americans will have the sense to realise that their future is bound up militarily, economically and culturally with that of Europe. They should resist the easy temptation to satisfy and placate public opinion by withdrawing.

The future of Germany is clearly a complicating factor. If Germany should decide that the price of independence and unification is neutrality, it would deal a blow to the Alliance from which it would be difficult to recover. We must recognise that West Germany is overpopulated militarily, with its own armed forces of the Bundeswehr and the British, French and American forces. Clearly, there must be some thinning out of those forces—not just because the threat has diminished, but because there is no reason why the German population should expect to bump into tanks or to have aircraft on low-flying sorties regularly.

However, if the troops are to be thinned out—and some Germans might argue that neutrality is the only way to achieve independence—how will our Alliance survive with a half-hearted or a neutral Germany? There would be no territory. A general would find it impossible to organise any theoretical or practical defence without including the Federal Republic in his calculations. We need only look at a map of Europe to realise that.

We must bear in mind the Soviet interests as well as our own. I have attended meetings with Soviets who have far more reasons than we have to be anxious about the developments in central Europe. I recall chairing a meeting that was attended by distinguished Soviet parliamentarians, including General Akromeyhev, General Lobovov, the chief of staff of the Warsaw pact, and Valentin Falin, who is the head of the international section of the central committee. Falin referred to the newly released figures of the war dead, which amounted to over 25 million people. Clearly, some would say that we have no right to interfere in Germany, but we must say that we have history to remind us that our futures are bound up in their decisions.

I hope that the formula of two plus four will not simply be a process that ratifies anything that the Germans want and that they will have the maturity to realise that Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Poland and many other countries in central, eastern and western Europe have a vested interest in the right decisions being made in the next six to 12 months. We must not only ensure that German security will be guaranteed, but that Soviet security and our security will be guaranteed also.

Those are some of the dilemmas. If the wrong decisions are made and we are turfed out of Germany, how shall we be able to relocate our tanks and aircraft? Ministers will have to face horrendous problems and they will certainly earn their money in the months ahead. In many ways, Ministers on all sides of this argument have had an easy task in the past. There used to be a definable threat and their task was how to fund the meeting of that threat. However, there are now so many cross-currents, problems and crises that how to calibrate the different elements in our part of the equation with those of our allies and of the Warsaw pact is an immensely complicated problem that we have to get right quickly.

We must remember the issue of the peace dividend. The public opinion polls are not entirely unanimous about this. Such a poll in The Independent a month ago suggested that the majority of people wanted to maintain the present levels of defence expenditure because of the current uncertainty. Although positive trends are emanating from eastern Europe, there is also an element of uncertainty. In such times it is prudent not to go through the catastrophic 1930s decision-making that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), for which both parties must accept some blame in relation to the situation that eventually emerged.

We must realise that negotiations are taking place. The CFE process is proceeding and an agreement will be reached in three or four months. As part of that treaty or agreement, NATO is clearly thinking hard about how each country will reduce its forces. Perhaps we should not be tempted—indeed, I hope that there will be Governments who will not be tempted—to make cuts prior to an agreement being signed by the members of the Alliance or prior to the signing of a CFE treaty. There have been negotiations and studies by SACEUR—Supreme Allied Commander Europe—which I understand are now to be passed to the military committee and which will then go to the political authorities. Let us get an agreement on cuts in conventional forces; on who is to make the cuts and on where they will fall. We can then agree rationally to a fair sharing of those cuts. Some countries have made their cuts over the decades and know that there is no logical reason why they should make a percentage cut while other countries have maintained a greater contribution. Those countries should be treated more favourably. The temptation is to say, "Let us cut in advance." Public opinion may also say "cut", but we should be cautious. We should reach an agreement in NATO and then sign an agreement with the Soviet Union so that the process will be carried out rationally.

With the diminished threat and with the pressure on our defence budget, we in this country must ask how any CFE or other cuts can be made. NATO will give us some guidance, but I suspect that we shall have to take most decisions unilaterally. It should not be salami-slicing; the process must be carried out rationally. We must ask what troops we require in the decade ahead. Ministers must act with caution and with some imagination.

There are two or three further points that I wish to raise briefly. Co-operation in aircraft development is still very important. On the question of EFA, I advise hon. Members to read the excellent House of Commons brief written by Richard Ware. We shall still need sophisticated aircraft for all sorts of reasons. In the old days, the Spitfire or the Hurricane could be built in a couple of weeks, or perhaps even more quickly. These days, Governments have to make their procurement decisions and then live with them. Having made a decision, a Government will not see an aircraft for 10 to 15 years. I hope very much that the EFA will survive.

I realise that low-flying aircraft are a damned nuisance. I am fortunate to represent an urban constituency where there is not much overflying. Of course, we have other hazards of modern life that people in rural areas are spared. As I express sympathy for people who have to tolerate low-flying aircraft, I hope that they will have some sympathy for my constituents, who have to endure pollution so that people living in more idyllic surroundings may have products and services.

There is no reason why Germany should continue to be subjected to the current levels of overflying, but neither is there any reason for us to expect the Indians of Labrador to suffer the same problem. There is no reason for us to go looking round unpopulated parts of the world to cause anxiety there.

Some progress can be made by way of simulation, but we are not yet living in a world so idyllic that aircraft do not need to be produced. So long as we need aircraft to defend us we shall need pilots to fly them, and I regret that, unless pilots get adequate training—and the increased use of simulators is only a partial solution—we shall continue to have the problem of low-flying aircraft for some time. Here I should refer to the inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee. The Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, is also conducting an inquiry. We hope that it will be possible to give some advice to Ministers. But there are no simple panaceas, and that is something that those people who think that we should take our problem to areas over the seas, to Labrador or to north Africa, or who think that the Germans should have to put up with it will have to realise. I cannot offer any simple solution, nor, I am sure, can anyone who understands the subject.

We are living in exciting times. Who would have thought, two years ago, that today we would be talking about the Start agreement, and the CFE agreement, about the collapse of the Warsaw pact, or about democracy in eastern Europe? These are, indeed, exciting times, but exciting times require rational decision making, and I hope that we shall see a continuance of that.

9.1 pm

I am very grateful for the opportunity to join other hon. Members in congratulating the Royal Air Force on its fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Britain. Unlike others who have spoken, I am no expert on this subject. Indeed, I am rather pleased about that because an expert has been defined as "'X', an unknown quantity, and 'spurt', a little squirt under pressure".

I should like, first, to take issue with the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who made what I thought were some very dangerous remarks in relation to low flying and the range of tactical aircraft in central Europe. In particular, he put heavy emphasis on the term "enemy territory". I should have preferred the term "enemy-held territory". Even if the countries of the eastern bloc that are currently in turmoil do decide to abandon the Warsaw pact, or at least to take on a neutral or non-participatory role in the Soviet system, there will be considerable danger for the West, including the United Kingdom. To realise this, one has to go back only 50 years and consider the turmoil that created the conditions for the second world war, which included tremendous instability in central Europe.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks about low flying worried me. The suggestion that, under present conditions, particular countries in central Europe would be targets is quite ludicrous. Our experience in the Falklands, and the Americans' rather more recent experience in Libya, have shown the tremendous importance of low flying. It is the only way a pilot can really be sure of delivering his cargo to target. What has been said should not be restricted to the European theatre. It is necessary to be broader. Of course it is inconvenient to have aircraft flying low over one's constituency, but it is a necessary evil.

In these times, the definition "enemy territory" is contentious. I think that it is worth pointing out that the agreement that was reached 10 days ago, allowing 195,000 Soviet troops to be stationed in eastern Europe, represents the first legitimisation of any kind of Soviet troops in eastern Europe. The agreement means that, respectively, there will be 195,000 American and Soviet troops in Europe, plus an additional 30,000 American troops stationed on the periphery.

I believe that that agreement was a mistake. If we had kept our powder dry and held our hand a little longer, we would have had substantial cards to play. I am worried that, at this moment, we should legitimise the stationing of Soviet troops outside their border. It does not surprise me that such decisions are taken. I am reminded of my horror on Christmas eve when I heard a Minister say that the West would understand if Soviet troops invaded Romania.

Two RAF bases may become available as the result of the peace dividend—Brize Norton and, possibly, Greenham Common. Brize Norton is an important transport centre and it is strategically located, especially when one considers the overloading of the air corridors and the tremendous air traffic in the south-east. Every year in the summer we consistently see the appalling congestion because Gatwick and Heathrow are overloaded with aircraft.

There is a great desire to shift many of those air movements away from the south-east, and two candidates for that purpose present themselves immediately. One is Brize Norton, which is under-used by the RAF, and the other is Greenham Common, which has terrific facilities and which is to be abandoned by the United States Air Force.

We would be in terrible danger if we anticipated the collapse of the eastern bloc and neglected to order new equipment. There is a tremendous lead time in the sophisticated procurement system and it would be to the United Kingdom's disadvantage to anticipate events too far ahead.

It is also important to consider the security requirements of the United Kingdom and the RAF. The RAF provost police and the Security Service had a grisly experience during the Cyprus trial. I do not want to go into the details of that trial because it resulted in acquittals, but the report on the conduct of the interrogations that took place showed a damning lack of expertise. I have always believed that the Security Service should be enhanced and given greater powers, especially with regard to vetting. It comes as a surprise to many critics of the Security Service and others to discover that it does not conduct positive vetting, that that is done by the Procurement Executive of the MOD, the Security Service believing that security is far too important to be left to the experts.

Those people who are concerned about events in Europe and who advocate using the peace dividend—too quickly for many people—would be well advised to study the article that has appeared in the press in the past two or three days by Oleg Gordievsky. It provides a most terrifying indictment of Brezhnev and the Soviet perception of the Western threat. Until 1982, when Pershing was deployed, the Soviets, according to Oleg Gordievsky, seriously believed that there was a strong possibility of a first strike being made by NATO. That shows the danger of not having good communications and good understanding on both sides. I hope that one purpose of having strong defence, a well-equipped RAF and proper verification procedures will be to allay fears in the eastern bloc.

When one talks about security for the West and about verification, many people believe that verification is an institutionalised espionage system. We have to accept that the Soviets will not be satisfied just with the on-site verification that we have seen at Greenham Common, with Soviet officers arriving at short notice to ensure that cruise missiles had gone or were being removed; they will always need alternative verification which will involve clandestine surveillance, and therefore a role for their intelligence services. Espionage will not end.

Just last year, there was a dramatic development in the strategic balance. Code-named Miracle, the first ballistic missile was brought down in flight by a laser weapon. Such a development can alter the strategic balance between East and West. The Soviets, being anxious about verification and about new developments in this highly specialised technical sphere, will unquestionably continue to indulge in espionage.

I am grateful for the opportunity to congratulate the RAF again. I simply urge the House and Ministers not to spend the peace dividend too early.

9.11 pm

The House is anxious to get on to the Adjournment, but I should like to deal with some important points which have come up in the debate. Low flying was mentioned by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). Outside any arguments as to whether low flying is necessary, there are many complaints about the way in which practising is done.

I wish that it was not thought all the time in the House that if an hon. Member makes valid criticisms he is against something. My hon. Friends have put forward genuine complaints from constituents. Anyone who has been hugged, if I may so describe it, by a Tornado at 100 ft. will complain. It is a shattering experience. The Minister may say that people living near an aerodrome know what happens, but holidaymakers in west and mid-Wales, for example, are not used to it. They do not expect it. Suddenly this awful machine flies just over their heads. Anyone who has undergone that experience, as I have, knows that it is shattering. Someone on an airfield can cope with it because he is expecting it, but I can understand the old and infirm complaining about low flying.

We do not want to argue about the merits of low flying, but I ask the Government to implement some of the proposals in the report of the Public Accounts Committee that was published recently. One suggestion was that the Government should examine the control system for low flying. In the past, two planes going in opposite directions crashed into each other over the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell—Savours). The only response from the Government was that the pilots should have seen each other, that there should have been visual contact. Pilots now have to submit the information when they want to practise low flying, but no one checks that they are all flying in the same direction. We want more control on those issues. I do not want to argue the theory or principle of low flying, but on 9 March 1989 the Minister said:
"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".—[Official Report, 9 March 1989; Vol. 148, c. 1061.]
Will the Minister inform the House—perhaps by placing information in the Library—whether the system is in operation, or is subject to further delays?

One subject that has not been referred to—I hope that the House will forgive me for raising it at this late stage—is ethnic minorities within the services. I applaud the consultative document commissioned by the Government, and recently published by Peat, Marwick, McLintock. Will additional training for recruitment officers be introduced? Will recruitment advertising be reorganised to include a more positive image of ethnic minorities in the services? Above all, what steps are the Government taking to deal with racism in the armed forces? That is a complicated issue and, seemingly, it will take a long time to resolve. There are instances of both verbal and physical bullying and I should like to think that responsible officers are vigilant in that aspect of their duties. I seek the Government's assurance that, where senior ranks are negligent, the appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.

I want to comment on the speech by the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). I am surprised that a man of his reasonableness should deliberately distort what has been said by Opposition Members. He did himself no credit by suggesting that Opposition Members were not prepared to support the European fighter aircraft programme. He knows that to be absolute nonsense and he should withdraw his statement. As I said in my opening speech, we support the project. However, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here to hear me.

I shall be precise about what I said. I welcomed the hon. Gentleman's support for the Tornado and the European fighter aircraft, but I wondered how he would square that view with Labour party policy, as it was planning to have a conversion agency that would effectively run down the industry. How can the EFA project be compatible with the Labour party policy of opposition to sales?

The conversion programme is a response to disarmament, not a result of it. Opposition Members meet many trade unionists—some from the hon. Gentleman's constituency—who ask us what will happen if there are cuts. The hon. Gentleman should not mislead the House as there have been substantial cuts under this Government. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) was mentioned earlier. Hon. Members should ask him about cuts. I should like to ask him about the cuts in the helicopter industry in his constituency a year ago.

People ask us what we should do.

We must think about turning munition and armament factories towards more peaceful production. That will eventually happen. The hon. Member for Fylde thinks in a Neanderthal way if he imagines that, because we have armament production now, it will never alter. Arms conversion is something that the Government should consider more seriously. If they did, the country's economy would be better balanced.

The hon. Gentleman also misled the House when he said that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) who caused the Falklands war. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will want to correct me on that, but I am sure that that is what he said——

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he said, and it is on the record, that the action of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East and the removal of the aircraft carrier force from the south Atlantic created the problems that led to the Falklands war.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is muddling my remarks, in which I talked about the Falklands scenario and possible out-of-area operations, with those of another hon. Member—possibly my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), who intervened in my speech. Those were not words that I used and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his allegation.

I shall withdraw it. It was the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). It is a pity that he is not in the Chamber now, because one of the daftest remarks that I heard during the debate was that that was the trigger for the war. Any cuts in our aircraft carrier force were made in the east of Suez policy back in 1967, which was an awful long time before the Falklands war. The Government's withdrawal of HMS Endurance was a bigger factor than anything else in the precipitation of the Falklands war.

It was nice to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) making his speech. I know that this afternoon he had no intention of speaking in the debate, but he gave his usual scintillating speech on a number of wide-ranging topics. He asked the House to forgive him because he had to go off to play the Lords in a chess match. I am sure that the House will be greatly interested to know that he won one match, but was adjudicated against in the other. I asked my hon. Friend not to ask for an inquiry into the adjudication and he assured me that he will not do so tonight. I admire his skill in getting the premium bond payments to MI5 operatives into the RAF debate. I felt that he would do so.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) is not here——

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington says that it was a good speech. I do not understand why the Government do not make the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood an adviser. He obviously knows what he is talking about. The Minister should take him on in whatever job he has available to help him on his way. He reorganised the Air Force beautifully. He shuffled the squadrons around—perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow will get him to join the chess team, he was so good at shuffling squadrons about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington made a substantial speech about the problem of low flying to which I have alluded. I merely reinforce his remarks in relation to the distress caused to people by low flying in their area. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) talked about the same problem of low flying. As I understand it, the definition of a conurbation is a large, densely populated urban sprawl, formed by the growth and coalescence of individual towns and/or cities. Those are the sorts of area where low flying takes place. It is no good denying that and saying that it takes place only over rural and sparsely populated areas. It would not be popular in some of the suburban areas of the south-east or around London.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Tayside, North is not here. It is always nice to hear his contribution to these debates because of his RAF background, and he always graces the occasion with his kilt. It is nice to see him wearing it. He says that it is an RAF kilt, but I thought that it was a Douglas kilt. Perhaps it is a Douglas and an RAF kilt at the same time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on his appointment as Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I called him the commodore earlier, but that was a mistake.

I was surprised that the hon. Member for Tayside, North did not support the development of the EH101 helicopter, and that he came out so heavily in favour of the Black Hawk, which is a fine helicopter, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) can testify. We had a trip in one last week in terrible weather and I admit that we felt very safe.

I join in the tributes to the reserve and auxiliary forces and to the cadet force. I am old enough to remember the contribution of the volunteer reserve at the time of the battle of Britain.

This debate, like last year's, has taken place against a background of Government prevarication and inaction. There are procurement decisions that need to be made. It is not a matter of defence policy being industry-led. Certain needs must be met if the functions that we are asking our service men to undertake are to be carried out. The Government refuse to contemplate a defence review. We have yet to see any consideration on their part of the industrial and economic effects of disarmament. The Labour party has called repeatedly for a defence review and on successive occasions we have called on the Government to plan for conversion. The Government's defence policy—doing nothing—is deeply worrying to all who are concerned about the proper defence of this country, and only the election of a Labour Government can ensure proper consideration of those matters and an appropriate defence policy for Britain.

9.27 pm

A number of interesting and constructive points have been made. The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) drew attention to the fact that while, as he called them, calendar girls can get access to RAF bases, he found such access impossible. If he communicates with me, I shall be glad to facilitate his entry to an RAF base.

The hon. Member for Leyton read at great length from an article in The Independent by Mark Urban. I enjoy listening to the hon. Gentleman, and I prefer him being himself to his quoting a correspondent who, most hon. Members would agree, does not enjoy the highest level of credibility—unlike the hon. Gentleman himself.

Similarly, I prefer the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) when he is speaking spontaneously and with sincerity. Then he is at his most effective and convincing. When he is reciting various items fed to him by the graduate of the Bradford peace studies school, or whoever writes the hon. Gentleman's research, he is rather less persuasive. However, I shall do my best to answer some of his points.

:I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have been in the Chamber for five and three quarter hours, with one absence of 12 minutes. In my opening speech I gave way 17 times, five of them to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). I have been on my feet now for about two and three quarter minutes, and I hope to be able to proceed for a little while without having to give way—

The hon. Gentleman chooses to defend this journalist. As we know, journalists are extremely sensitive to any sort of attack, in contrast with the way in which they themselves behave—a characteristic of public life with which we are all familiar. If Mark Urban wants to fight his own battle, he can proceed as he is doing at present. I do not see why he should rely on so distinguished an hon. Gentleman as the Member for Linlithgow to defend him.

The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke about the EH101. We cannot place a production order until we are satisfied about performance, cost and contractual arrangements. In particular, as he said we must be satisfied with the arrangements for the integration of the very complex mission systems. The Select Committee on Defence recognised in its report that it would be wrong to commit ourselves to production until we were satisfied on these matters.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of Tornado ADV aircraft in store. There are presently 20 in store at St. Athan and not 32 as the hon. Gentleman said. In its report SDE88 the Select Committee on Defence recognised that storage was the most cost-effective course open to the Ministry of Defence after deployment plans had to be altered when it was apparent that insufficient radars to an acceptable standard would be delivered compared with the plan.

I can confirm that there is no change at present in the United Kingdom's declared intention to take 250 European fighter aircraft. It is too early to forecast the eventual size of our requirement. The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke about IUKADGE, the improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment command and control system.

We have acknowledged the problems in the integrated command and control system, which is now some three years late because of software problems. The prime contractor recognises his responsibility under the fixed price contract and we remain in close touch to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to rectify the situation.

The question asked about the community charge is certainly important. In general, service personnel, like the rest of the population, are liable to register for and pay the community charge in respect of their sole or main residence. There is no standardised level of charge for service personnel, and that is in line with the principle of local accountability. Those in service accommodation have no choice about where they live, and their community charge liability will effectively be limited to £1 a week above the service average by refund of accommodation charges.

I draw to the attention of the House a commendable guide to how the community charge applies to service personnel and their dependants. It has been issued by the directorate of personnel services in the Royal Air Force and I have given instructions for a copy to be placed in the Library. I hope that hon. Members will find it interesting and helpful.

The Minister says that there will be some equation about payment and that service men would not pay more than £1 above the average. Surely the Minister accepts that the poll tax is substantial and will average well over £200. [Interruption] I am being generous. The maximum that anyone will pay is £1 above the average, but the amount will still be much larger than the percentage that is paid in the quartering charges in lieu of rates. It will still be a big charge, particularly on junior ranks. I emphasise again that a private or a corporal will pay the same poll tax as a general or an air vice-marshal.

I have told the House the position as it stands. I am aware of the equation that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. We are looking at the possibility of other solutions, but I can give no assurance about that now.

The House enjoyed two vintage performances by the hon. Members for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and for Linlithgow. The hon. Member for Workington returned to a subject with which he has occupied a good deal of the House's time in earlier debates. He devoted some 35 minutes to telling the House that things have changed in eastern Europe. I am sure we are all extremely grateful to him for reminding us of that. The change started more or less when I began my period of office in the Ministry of Defence. I leave it to the House to judge the extent to which the linkage is coincidence. None of the letters that the hon. Gentleman has received on this subject will have been signed by me. The phrase "deep in enemy territory" may exist somewhere on a word processor. I shall immediately take the matter in hand and make sure that the phrase is changed to "deep in the territory of an enemy". I hope that he will be satisfied by that.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow asked a number of pertinent questions, and ended—characteristically and reassuringly, because we all like hon. Members to behave in character—with a highly idiosyncratic, if not batty, suggestion that the premium bond computer was being used to pay secret service operatives. That is interesting, and I am sure that we are grateful for the suggestion, although it is not related to the RAF. I was glad that he used this opportunity to ventilate this important topic.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the cost of the Harrier GR5 to GR7 conversion. I am sorry to give an irritating answer, but this is still subject to negotiation with the contractor, so the answer is commercial in confidence, and I cannot give him the figures.

If the hon. Member for Linlithgow can get the figures from another source or a technical paper, he should ask for that information.

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that, unless the Minister gives way, he must resume his seat.

No. The hon. Gentleman must recognise, as I have already said, that I gave way 17 times in my opening speech, and five times to him. Since then, he has tried to intervene in this speech to defend the reputation of the defence correspondent of The Independent, and I was glad that I did not allow him to do that. Now he wants me to give way again.

No, it cannot be a point of order. I know that the hon. Gentleman must be frustrated, but the Minister has said that he will not give way, so he must resume his seat.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This involves protection. If there has been a statement that the British Cabinet Office solemnly is considering——

Order. This cannot be a point of order. I have no knowledge of these matters. I wish that I had.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) spoke about the decision to employ women in the RAF in non-combat roles. This was announced last July and was fully endorsed by the air staff.

Had the hon. Gentleman been in the Chamber—I do not reproach him for this because he nearly always is in the Chamber—he would have heard my view, which was drawn out from me at some length earlier.

The decision was fully endorsed by the air staff. The ability of women to fly aircraft is not in question. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) for drawing attention to the distinguished role of women as air transport auxiliaries during the war. The employment of women in combat roles is an entirely separate question. We took a major step in this sphere last July and we need to review the outcome before considering any further extension of women's roles.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow also mentioned the WE177 replacement. We are convinced that there will be a requirement for a replacement for the free-fall bomb, but it is not possible at this stage to say whether it will be the American or French alternative.

The hon. Member for Rhondda raised the question of privatising the search and rescue service. The then Minister of State for the Armed Forces made it clear in a 1988 RAF debate that there were no plans to contract-out the search and rescue helicopter service. I am sure that that will be reassuring to the whole House.

A number of hon. Members spoke about display flying. Modifications that have been made to the Red Arrows routine have been explained by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement. These have eliminated formation changes while aircraft are pointing towards a crowd. I can also confirm that no display aircraft may perform aerobatics or manoeuvres above crowds.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) spoke of search and rescue operations from Leuchars. While I fully appreciate why he was not in the Chamber for the start of the debate, I covered that issue in my opening remarks. I told the House that we were satisfied with the greatly improved service in the area concerned, taking account of the Royal Navy and RAF Sea Kings at Prestwick and Lossiemouth and the coastguard S61Ns at Stornoway and Sumburgh. We have no plans to review that deployment.

Questions were asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) and others about the replacement of the Wessex. There are no plans as yet to replace that aircraft, which continues to give useful service in a demanding role.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth also referred to apprentices. The drop in the number of apprentices, from 264 to 136, is explained by the phasing out of the apprentice scheme by 1991. The scheme was unpopular with potential recruits and did not meet the needs of the service. It has been replaced by an imaginative package for better qualified youngsters and provides early practical experience of operational work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Sir J. Hunt) has been in attendance virtually throughout the debate. I am sorry that I cannot meet his concern about the closure of the historic RAF station in his constituency. I fear that we do not have any doubt that the move of Biggin Hill to Cranwell makes economic sense, and events in Europe will not affect that decision.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy)—who always contributes in a significant way to defence debates and has done so ever since I have been a Member—expressed concern at the length of time that the NATO identification system was taking to put in place. This is an important subject and I fully echo his concern. Discussions at Government and industrial level between Britain, Germany and France are at an advanced stage and I hope that it will be possible to agree on a positive way forward to full development by the middle of this year.

A large number of points were made in the debate and I fear that I cannot cover them all, but all hon. Members have been agreed, whether expressly or by implication, on the skills and professionalism of the Royal Air Force and on its essential role in maintaining our security.

Some hon. Members have said that they hope that members of the RAF will read the record of the debate in the Official Report. I hope so, too, despite the rather unfortunate remarks of the hon. Member for Workington about air crew lying, which were an extremely prejudicial and one-sided presentation of the position. Those who read the report will have a clear idea of the support for the RAF that exists in the House, and I believe that today's debate has been thoroughly useful and worthwhile.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.