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Low Flying

Volume 172: debated on Tuesday 15 May 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he is taking to reduce the incidence of low-flying military aircraft over populated areas.


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proposals he has to review the flying of aircraft below 250 ft in the Scottish tactical training area.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement
(Mr. Michael Neubert)

The operation of the United Kingdom military low-flying system is kept under continuous review as efforts are made to minimise the impact of low-flying training on those on the ground. This monitoring applies equally to the operation of the tactical training areas which provide essential work-up training for exercises in North America.

Given the broad welcome yesterday for the report by the Select Committee on Defence and especially for the proposal that flights under 250 ft should be phased out over two years, will the Minister tell us when the Government will give a measured response to the recommendations in that report and when they will ensure that hon. Members of all parties who are interested in the subject are given a full opportunity to debate the issues?

We also welcome the fact that the Select Committee has concluded its comprehensive study of this important subject. The report deserves careful and considerable study, which it will receive. In accordance with parliamentary convention, we shall present our formal response in due course. Until then, I cannot respond to any particular recommendation in the report.

In considering the Select Committee's report, will the Minister pay particular attention to the evidence given by his own officials that it was possible to bring down flight training from 250 ft to 100 ft within two weeks? If the international climate persists, two weeks seems sufficient time in which to make the adjustment. Will the hon. Gentleman also pay particular attention to the fact that this country is paying a far smaller amount for research into simulators, especially on Tornado-type aeroplanes, than the Federal Republic of Germany? It would be appropriate to build up such research while phasing out very low flying.

It is important to remember that very low flying, which occurs in the three tactical training areas, accounts for only 1 per cent. of low-flying training as a whole in the United Kingdom. It would also be as well not to underrate the need for that low-flying training because training in this country is carried out at far greater heights and slower speeds than would be necessary in conditions of war, when aircraft would need to fly lower and faster. I take into account all that the hon. Gentleman has said, but, as I mentioned earlier in response to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), we shall first have to prepare a formal response to the Select Committee.

Will my hon. Friend take particular note of some of the useful and practical recommendations in the Select Committee report, such as better records of low flying in each area and the publicising of a telephone number and address to which members of the public could complain, as well as the other recommendations?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right to recognise the constructive nature of the report and the fact that almost every aspect of low-flying training is covered in it. We shall certainly take account of what is suggested and we shall endeavour to be as positive as possible in reply.

Lincolnshire has the highest concentration of RAF stations in the country and, I believe, one of the highest concentrations of low-flying planes come over my house all the time. Lincolnshire also has a long tradition of great pride in the valour and skill of the RAF. Lincolnshire is totally committed to maintaining the RAF's tactical viability through proper—

If the young men in the RAF are prepared to risk their lives in our common defence, the least that we can do is to put up with a little noise occasionally. While naturally investigating any abuses, will my hon. Friend the Minister give very short shrift to the whingers?

Lincolnshire has many claims to fame, as I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would be the first to acknowledge, and I am glad to hear that it is such a strong source of support for the Royal Air Force and the need to carry out necessary training. As the Select Committee acknowledged, low flying needs intensive training and regular practice. That is the sole purpose of low-flying training in this country.

Does the Minister accept that other countries seem to manage without the amount of low-flying training that we carry out here? Would not it be a sign of the Minister's good faith about the need for change, which my constituents in Porthcawl would welcome, that should there be a reduction not only in low flying by military aircraft but in the number of training aircraft taking off from RAF St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan? Will the Minister make that commitment now?

There are no commitments to be made this afternoon, as I made clear earlier. We are members of NATO and we make a major contribution to the defence of this country and that of western Europe. The hon. Gentleman would do well not to belittle the efforts of our highly professional pilots in that defensive system.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members who call for the abandonment of any stand-off capability for our low-flying aircraft expect RAF pilots to deliver old iron bombs with none of the security which comes from flying below radar? That is a recipe for disaster.

My hon. Friend, with his long experience of the Royal Air Force and of defence matters generally, exposes the poverty of the Labour party's defence stance, which will no doubt bring dividends when it is put to the test at another general election in which the issue of defence will be foremost in people's minds when they make their decisions.

Will the Minister inform his hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) that Lincolnshire is not a designated low-flying area and that if any low flying is taking place in his constituency, the pilots are breaking the regulations? The Opposition welcome the Select Committee's recommendations, especially those that we have been urging on the Government for some time, but will the Minister assure the House that he will look urgently at the recommendations relating to ultra-low flying, especially that which affects the three areas in the United Kingdom subjected to flights at 100 ft?

I fear that the Opposition spokesman shares the confusion demonstrated by half the nation's sub-editors in this morning's papers. We must be careful to distinguish between the three tactical training areas where low flying is allowed as low as 100 ft and general low-flying training, which accounts for 99 per cent. of low flying. The latter is spread fairly over the whole country and counties including Lincolnshire will see their share of low flying. The only quibble that I have with my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) is that he need not necessarily believe that he is getting an unfair share of that low flying.