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Air Cadet Organisation and Gliding

Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 13 April 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of gliding and the Air Cadet Organisation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Vaz.

I first became aware of concerns about the future of gliding after receiving a letter from the Air Cadet Organisation, which I assume was sent to many colleagues. I immediately took an interest as I have two local air cadet units—one in my constituency of Hornchurch and Upminster and the other just over the constituency boundary, in the part of Elm Park that lies in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas).

It is always a pleasure to see the air cadets march with the Royal British Legion in parades on Remembrance Day, Armed Forces Day and Battle of Britain Day. They are proud to wear their uniforms, and proud to remember those servicemen and women who have given their lives for their country. There is a close interest locally in the RAF because of the Hornchurch airfield, which played a prominent role in world war two, including in the battle of Britain, and local schools and roads are named in memory of pilots who flew in that conflict.

When I was at grammar school, which I am embarrassed to say was a very long time ago, it was in the days when it was not thought necessary for girls to know about current affairs, and when the only two respectable occupations for girls were teaching and nursing. At that time, it was usual for armed forces cadets to be run from most secondary schools; cadets wore their uniforms in school and paraded in the school playground. Sadly, over the years that became unfashionable and politically incorrect, and schools did not want to see pupils in uniform. I think that was a retrograde step and I, for one, would welcome the return of cadet corps in schools.

I am sure, Ms Vaz, that both you and my hon. Friend the Minister who will respond to this debate—the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier)—appreciate the value and importance of armed forces cadet corps, and indeed of all young people’s organisations. That is because while young people are enjoying the activities arranged by those organisations, they are also learning qualities that will carry them through life and make them good citizens and good employees, such as teamwork, fitness, leadership, reliability, personal discipline, responsibility and self-confidence, plus the technical skills associated with their particular organisation. In that respect, the Air Training Corps is one of our strongest assets in youth development.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this really important debate. I have air cadets in my constituency, up in Brownhills, and I have visited them on a number of occasions. Does she agree that air cadets also play a really important part in more general terms in the local community, by helping and linking in with community organisations?

I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable contribution, because she is absolutely right that young people’s organisations, and the air cadets in particular, are noted for joining in with community organisations, for volunteering and helping with elderly people, and for raising money for charities, which makes those young people very well-rounded good citizens.

May I just put it on the record at the very beginning that although there are very few people present I am delighted that the hon. Lady has secured this debate? This issue is really important in Northern Ireland. That is because, of course, in Northern Ireland the air cadets have had to travel to England for what has been a short but very valuable training course; and the fear in Northern Ireland is that such training will be lost completely if we move to residential courses in England. Young people cannot afford to spend such a long period of time away, and parents cannot afford the cost of such a residential course in England. Therefore, may I encourage the hon. Lady to seek assurances from the Minister when he winds up that Northern Ireland’s air cadet corps will not be forgotten amid the changes that are about to be introduced?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. The issue that she has raised about travelling distance and so on for air cadets is one that I myself will raise further on in my speech.

I have already been in contact with the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) about this issue and I congratulate her on bringing it to Westminster Hall for consideration. In my constituency of Strangford, I have one of the RAF cadet squadrons, at Newtownards. However, it is the intention of the Minister and his Department that we will lose the opportunities for gliding at RAF Newtownards, which is operated out of Regent House School; the school has one of the largest cadet groups in the whole of Northern Ireland.

I will just make a point about cost. The cost of sending a student from Northern Ireland across to the mainland, which is the alternative to having the motor-glider in Northern Ireland, will be at least £80,000 for all those cadets, and it will cost £100,000, Minister, if the staff costs are added on to that. That is the price of a motor-glider that could be kept in Northern Ireland for 20 years. I say with great respect that the proposed change is not financially economical or viable. Does the hon. Lady feel that this debate enables the voice of people in Northern Ireland to be heard? If so, it will hopefully persuade the Minister to reverse his decision.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and I will go on to talk about issues of funding and the value of investment in this activity, which will pay dividends in the future of the young people involved.

The concern about the Air Training Corps is the decline in cadet numbers, which were down 6.5% from 34,500 to 32,250 in the year 2014-15. That fall is predicted to become a 10% fall by April 2016 and is attributed, at least in part, to the declining opportunities for gliding.

The current air cadet gliding fleet comprises 81 Viking conventional—that is, winch-launched—gliders and 65 Vigilant motor-gliders. In 2014, a glider airworthiness review took place for assurance reasons. Colleagues will understand that all sports and physical activities carry a degree of risk, and demand the proper training of instructors and maintenance of equipment for health and safety. Gliding is likely to be quite high on the risk scale, for obvious reasons.

It has been decided that at least 73 Viking gliders will be recovered, but for reasons of practicality and value for money, only 15 Vigilant gliders will be brought back into service, with this residual fleet being retired in late 2019. That will leave 10 volunteer gliding squadrons out of the current 25, all operating the Viking. The 614 Volunteer Gliding Squadron—based at Wethersfield, near Braintree in Essex—will continue to operate; I was pleased to learn that, because it is the closest volunteer squadron to Hornchurch and Elm Park. Currently, the Wethersfield squadron serves a total of 55 air cadet units from as far away as Suffolk, Cambridge and London. The maximum reasonable travelling time from an air cadet unit to a volunteer gliding squadron is set at two hours, to avoid fatigue.

Given the reduction in volunteer gliding squadrons, the number of units using 614 VGS at Wethersfield is predicted to increase from 55 to around 135 or 140. A significant increase in the number of volunteers, instructors and staff living within reasonable commuting distance will be needed to sustain the squadron’s contribution to the current national total of 50,000 flights annually, or to achieve the uplift of 40% in gliding—to 70,000 flights annually—that is planned by the Air Cadet Organisation.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give an assurance that the 10 remaining volunteer gliding squadrons, including 614 Wethersfield, will have a secure future in terms of airfield availability. As he knows, gliders may only be launched safely with cables given suitable airfield infrastructure, taking into account local airspace constraints and other airfield users. All those requirements limit the number of suitable venues, and alternatives would be difficult to find. Sustaining gliding opportunities would prevent worsening of air cadet numbers and ensure a strong base of air cadets and potential RAF recruits. In 2014-15, the Air Cadet Organisation accounted for 33% of officer intakes and 18% of RAF airmen intakes. It will become an increasingly vital source of high-calibre recruits with suitable experience and values for the service.

Common sense tells me that gliding is not only an exciting activity, but an expensive one. I am sure that budgetary constraints must play their part in decision making, but gliding is a worthwhile investment. Air cadets are the next RAF personnel. Alternatively, they might use their transferable skills acquired as cadets in other occupations, whether technical or engineering, where they will play their part in society and set an example to others. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give assurance to the air cadet gliding organisation that there is a secure future, albeit with a reduction in size, so that it can attract young people to join the Air Training Corps knowing that gliding opportunities will be included in their activities.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) for giving me some of her thinking in advance of the debate and I congratulate her on securing it. I am also grateful to other colleagues who have spoken. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is coming to see me shortly about the situation in Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) has just been to see me about the situation in Wales. I have been looking particularly closely at those two specific issues.

On the issue in Wales, the Government are expecting young people to travel at least three and a half hours from west Wales all the way to Gloucestershire to have the experience of flight. There is some talk about synthetic flight, but that in no way compensates for the thrill of flight when young people are being introduced to flying.

If I may, I will come back to my hon. Friend’s intervention towards the end of my speech.

In November, I had the privilege of watching the cadets from 1838 (Elm Park) Squadron—it is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster—march proudly alongside the Royal British Legion at the Lords Mayor’s show. They are great ambassadors for the air cadet corps and for the future of the Royal Air Force. It is a sobering thought that some of the pilots who saved this country in the battle of Britain were the same age as some of the oldest cadets. Since I took over as Minister for cadets last autumn, I have been lucky enough to visit air cadet units from places as far apart as Perthshire and south London, and I have been consistently impressed by the cadets’ spirit of adventure, leadership and good citizenship skills and by the quality and dedication of their instructors.

Let us be clear that the recent restructuring of air cadet gliding is not a cost-cutting exercise. The Air Cadet Organisation remains hugely valued and the Royal Air Force is fully committed to offering flying training to all air cadets. My hon. Friend acknowledged that an in-depth audit of glider engineering in 2014 made it clear that the Vigilant and Viking fleets were not airworthy. The decline in numbers that she referred to reflects the fact that for nearly two years there has been no gliding in the air cadets. Indeed, almost half the air cadets I met recently at a 75th anniversary celebration event had not been in the air at all.

The blunt truth is that we were unable to find a sufficiently reliable contractor with the capacity to take on the bulk of the Vigilant fleet. Faced with no viable option but to draw it right down in the way that my hon. Friend described, we are increasing spending to get almost all the Viking gliders back into service, as well as offering an uplift of more than 50% in air experience flights. In addition, we can offer some excellent synthetic training through the generosity of the RAF Charitable Trust, to which I am most grateful. Let me reassure hon. Members that, following my recent announcement on the relaunch of air cadet gliding, we will get back to a position where all air cadets across the country have the opportunity to fly gliders and to participate in Grob Tutor air experience flights.

The cadets in Newtownards in my constituency operate out of Ards airport, where there is a lot of experience, skill and ability, which could provide the background technical expertise that is needed. Has the Minister considered offering such opportunities outside the circle of companies that could look after the gliders? In Ards airport we have that ability, because there are already gliders there.

I am looking forward to the hon. Gentleman coming to see me shortly. I should say that we are setting up an air experience flight of powered aircraft in Ireland. Northern Ireland will be getting one of the two new offerings of air experience flights with Grob Tutors.

I appreciate that the loss of any volunteer gliding squadron will be disappointing, not least for the volunteers, who selflessly give their time to help to support and develop our young people, but it was essential to look again, given the grim background of what has happened with the gliders. Decisions have not been taken lightly or in haste, although when I took over, finding a resolution to this issue was my top priority from the cadet angle. I have taken advice from RAF experts, who are extremely committed to solving the issue. It became clear that our most sensible option in resuming sustainable cadet flying would be to provide a reduced glider fleet operated by fewer, but larger regional volunteer gliding squadrons. That was not an easy decision, but I believe it was the right decision.

While it is true that we are having to draw down the fleet of Vigilants, we are refocusing the resource on reinvesting for the future of the remaining volunteer gliding squadrons. We are extending the life of the Viking gliders by heavily rebuilding them. We are also building much improved infrastructure. Where cadets will have to travel longer distances, investment is being increased to include good quality residential accommodation for cadets and staff during weekends and camps.

I have been to see what will be the new Scottish centre of excellence at Kirknewton. The gliders will be as good as new. We have new winches for them. We have enhanced synthetic training, which we should remember means that each cadet does not have to spend the whole day waiting for their one go on the glider. The simulators really are good. I made a bit of an idiot of myself trying to fly a glider on a simulator, but they are remarkably realistic, and they are in addition to, not instead of, flying. There will also be a major uplift in the Tutor powered aircraft, with an increase of more than 50%, from 40 to 70, including the two additional new air experience flights.

Just for clarification for those air cadets in Northern Ireland who will be following the debate and who look for everything that mentions Northern Ireland, is it in the Minister’s mind that air cadets in Northern Ireland will have the choice between going to the new facility that will, I think, be opened at Aldergrove airport—the Minister has hinted at that—or going to England, Scotland or Wales for residential courses? Actually, I do not think there are any residential courses in Wales, which is disappointing. If it is a residential course, will subsistence funding be given to those young people who have to travel long distances for a residential course?

I will have to come back to the hon. Lady in writing on the last part of her question about the detailed position, although I may be able to answer it in a minute. As for the first part of her question, we envisage, as at present, cadets doing a mixture of gliding and powered flying. The powered flying will now be available in Northern Ireland, but the plan is for the gliding to have to be on a residential course. I should say, as the president of a sea cadet unit, that that is completely normal for kids going away with a sea cadet unit to sail or with an army cadet unit going off to a camp. We do not normally expect cadets to do everything in one day. [Interruption.] We will have a more detailed discussion when the hon. Member for Strangford comes to see me. Perhaps he might invite the hon. Member for North Down to join him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster specifically mentioned Wethersfield and 614 Volunteer Gliding Squadron. The plan remains that the size of the squadron will be expanded—she mentioned that—to facilitate its role as a regional hub. As she mentioned, Wethersfield has been identified for disposal as part of the MOD’s programme of estate rationalisation by 2020. This is part of the Government’s commitment to provide land for 160,000 extra homes by the end of the Parliament, so the squadron will move to another site. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that work to identify the potential future location remains at an early stage. I am confident that, throughout its transition to a future location, the staff of 614 Squadron will continue to ensure that the unit provides the same excellent training to cadets as it always has in the past.

In the last 48 hours I have talked to a former volunteer instructor who was with a unit that moved from RAF Locking in Somerset to Hullavington in Wiltshire, which is a round trip of more than 200 miles. Almost all the staff moved there and they may now be moving back to somewhere closer to their original location.

People have asked how the Air Cadet organisation can offer the same amount of experience to cadets with a substantially reduced glider fleet. Many Members will be aware that front-line Royal Air Force pilots in our flying training system make very extensive use of realistic simulators to provide basic flying skills training on the ground, prior to consolidating that in the actual training. This saves on real flying hours without diminishing the trainee’s competence levels to operate the aircraft.

The Air Cadet organisation is following suit, developing a common syllabus so that every single flight in future will be focused on training—rather than simply providing a passenger experience—whether in gliding or powered flight. The air cadet aviation flying programme will remain unmatched by any other national cadet force worldwide.

The Royal Air Force Charitable Trust has generously purchased 25 simulators—part-task trainers. Although I did not do very well, I can attest to how realistic they are in preparing young men and women for flight, and I am most grateful to the trust for paying for those simulators.

The redesigned courses provide a cadet flying training structure built for the future, just like that used by our future RAF Typhoon and Lightning II pilots. When I was in Woolwich, I had a go on a very effective simulator for an F-22. I am sorry to recall I did not do particularly well on that, either. I am not the sort of person the RAF would ever want to recruit—parachuting and gravity do it all for you—but again I was impressed.

On the redesigned courses, cadets will learn basic flying skills from an early point in their air cadet careers starting with ground school lessons and realistic synthetic training. This smart use and integration of synthetic flying during the early stages will ensure that a much higher proportion of actual glider launches will be used for the consolidation of already learned skills and will get cadets ready faster to be able to go solo.

The planned uplift in the number of Tutor aircraft and the creation of two additional air experience flights will also enable us to fly a far greater number of cadets in this aircraft type. Again, this activity will be integrated into the wider aviation training programme. In future, all AEF powered flying will be phased to relate directly to the individual cadet’s level of experience, so each AEF sortie that a cadet undertakes will further enhance his or her aviation expertise.

The RAF and I are extremely grateful for the commitment and professionalism of the volunteers who support each Volunteer Gliding Squadron, and so a plan has been developed to offer alternative opportunities for the volunteer gliding instructors who are affected by the closures. This includes opportunities for Vigilant instructors to convert to Viking and in some cases to transfer to another Volunteer Gliding Squadron. Another option is to transfer to a formally established ground cadre within a VGS that provides the synthetic training and ground school elements. We aim to have a significant gliding programme again by this summer and to have the full programme in place by 2018.

This year, 2016, is an important year for the Air Cadet organisation, as it celebrates its 75th anniversary and the cadet expansion programme continues to provide new cadet units throughout the country in schools. This is indeed an important year. There are two parts to the programme that I am still looking at in more detail in relation to Wales and Northern Ireland. I want to ensure that we have a fair outcome, although, as I mentioned, Northern Ireland is getting a new AEF squadron to balance the loss of the gliding.

After this very unhappy, unprecedented period, in which we have had nearly two years with no gliding, the combination of getting the Vikings back in the air again with the expansion of the Grob Tutor powered flying, and building in the simulators and the good quality accommodation that will enable weekends and camps to become a reality, this is a really positive way forward. I believe that air cadet gliding will emerge to be safer and more resilient in the long run and that the volunteer instructors will continue to be the strongest part of it. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster for initiating the debate and I thank all colleagues who have participated in it. [Interruption].

Thank you, Ms Vaz. I failed to say how much I have enjoyed speaking under your chairmanship for the first time. The note says that cadets are assisted through squadron and wing HQ budgets. Similar to when they attend annual camps in mainland UK, food and accommodation are free to cadets.[Official Report, 27 April 2016, Vol. 608, c. 1MC.]

Question put and agreed to.