I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 100 year anniversary of the Royal Air Force.
I am delighted that we have this opportunity to hold this debate. As a former Chief Whip, I would always say that all the legislation that the Government bring into the House is excellent legislation, but it is probably fair to say that some pieces of legislation are better than others, and I think we would all say that this House’s decision to create the Royal Air Force was one of its finest moments. It is almost 99 years to the day since Lord Trenchard issued his memorandum on the permanent organisation of the Royal Air Force, with a £15 million provision approved by the Cabinet. I must confess that I rather wish that £15 million would go as far for our armed forces today as it did 99 years ago. In his memorandum, Lord Trenchard talked about the need to
“concentrate attention…laying the foundations of a highly-trained and efficient force”.
He went on to say that
“to make an Air Force worthy of the name, we must create an Air Force spirit, or rather foster this spirit…by every means in our power.”
That Air Force spirit has been at the core throughout the first 100 years and remains at the core of the Royal Air Force at the start of its second century.
Under the banner of RAF100, the Royal Air Force has delivered a superb campaign to celebrate reaching this important anniversary. More than 165,000 people have visited six aircraft tour venues throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where they have had the chance to see numerous aircraft, including Spitfires, Harriers and Typhoons, and to meet the incredible people who flew them and who fly them. I very much hope that colleagues will join me in congratulating all those who have gone over and above to make this year such a success. I particularly thank Sir Stephen Hillier, the Chief of the Air Staff, who has done so much to make this such a memorable year for this service. Approximately £3 million has been raised as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations, and that money will now be invested in veterans and young people, as well as those who continue to serve in our Royal Air Force. This is an appropriate moment to thank our RAF charities, including the RAF Association, the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RAF Charitable Trust and the RAF Museum, which work tirelessly to support RAF service personnel past and present.
I remind the House that my daughter is a serving officer in the Royal Air Force.
Further to what the Secretary of State said, the gist of which I fully support, throughout Britain, we still have a lot of redundant buildings of historical importance, particularly in respect of the second and the first world wars. Is the Secretary of State willing to go as far as to say that perhaps we can expand on what he said in respect of tourist attractions and ways of raising money from pleased tourists to help exactly the charities that he has mentioned?
I would certainly be happy to look into that. We should be proud of the RAF’s heritage: not only its planes but the many buildings that were such a vital part of the infrastructure throughout the RAF’s development.
We have had a great opportunity to celebrate more and more of what the RAF has done over the past 100 years. It is incredible to think that, in the summer of 1917, as German Zeppelins silently bombarded London, our RAF did not even exist, yet a few months later the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1917 was passed. It has not looked back since its formation in April 1918. It was this House that created the Royal Air Force and it is fitting that it is this House that marks the Royal Air Force’s success.
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the formation of the Royal Air Force was not the start of our airborne capability, and that the Royal Air Force of course had its provenance in the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, which were operational throughout the great war, to great effect?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the Royal Air Force was born out of many other organisations, which contributed so many of the men and so much of the ingenuity and ethos to the new organisation. It is from those different strands that the RAF has been built into the successful organisation that we see today.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way because he gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to my uncle, Harold Paisley, who joined the RAF in 1939, aged 16. When they found out that he had misrepresented his age, he was subsequently put out, and he ended up in the merchant navy instead.
Each year, the Air Waves show takes place in Portrush in East Londonderry. It is one of the biggest air shows in the United Kingdom and it is also the single largest recruitment air show for the RAF. Will the Secretary of State ensure that it continues to get support and endorsement from the RAF each year, so that we can continue to recruit Ulstermen and women into the RAF?
Northern Ireland has always played an important role in all our three services, contributing far more men and women to our armed forces, both regulars and reserves, as a proportion of its population than any other part of the United Kingdom. The Royal Air Force is absolutely committed to the support of future air shows. We have a clear understanding of their value in telling the story of what the Royal Air Force does.
Let us take this opportunity to look back to a century ago, when the Royal Air Force was mapping the trenches and directing allied artillery to deliver victory in the great war. In our darkest hour in the second world war, the RAF was our last line of defence against the Luftwaffe. The battle of Britain cemented the RAF’s reputation, the reputation of the few: the dashing, daring, dogged determination of the Royal Air Force to protect and preserve our values and our nation. Our debt to the RAF continued throughout the chill of the cold war. Theirs were the Vulcan bombers that carried our ultimate deterrent and theirs were the transport aircraft that delivered essential aid to the people of West Berlin 70 years ago in that famous airlift, which was the first major humanitarian exercise in modern history. In 1982, the Royal Air Force displayed incredible ingenuity to project strategic air power over thousands of miles to help and support the liberation of the Falkland Islands.
The RAF’s flagship event, which we all witnessed this year, brought this history powerfully home to us all. Like many, not just in the House but throughout the country, I watched the flypast in awe. We heard the unmistakeable sound of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters and the thunderous roar of the F-35s, Tornados and Typhoons, as we celebrated not just 100 years of the organisation’s existence, but 100 years of fighting spirit and of a nation coming together. We saw those crowds on the Mall—the men and women who had come to say their thank you to their Royal Air Force. We as a nation truly do owe the RAF a great debt.
The Secretary of State is making an important and powerful speech. The celebrations were also recognised in my constituency, which interestingly has played a key role in the RAF’s development, with Hanworth air park being a hub for the Air Ministry and home to the Whitehead Aircraft Company and more. Does he agree that this year we should celebrate that history and how many parts of the country played huge parts in it, and that we should recognise the work of, for example, Katy Cox, Richard Griffiths and others from the Friends of Hanworth Park House to bring that history to life?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. The RAF is more than just the service itself. It is all those people who contribute to it so much. It is the businesses that help to create these amazing flying machines, which have been so instrumental in defending Britain repeatedly in the past and will be so again. I pay tribute to those who bring that to life. I take this opportunity to mention the Boulton Paul Aircraft Company, which was in my constituency and produced the Defiant aircraft during the second world war, and the many people of the Boulton Paul Aircraft Society who have kept alive not only the skills of aircraft production but the contribution by so many people across the west midlands and the country to the Royal Air Force.
The Secretary of State makes a point about the evolution of technology over the past century. It is amazing to think that it was only 10 years from the first flight of the Lancaster bomber to the first flight of the Vulcan. The level of evolution in that period is astonishing in today’s terms. In addition, the cost of these technologies has increased exponentially over the past century. His Department normally calculates defence inflation. How can he properly assess the true cost of these equipment programmes? Can he commit to reinstating defence inflation, so that we can properly plan to give our wonderful aircraft industry the certainty that it needs for the future?
I will touch on the great future of our aircraft manufacturing industry later in my speech, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have an amazing heritage. We have wonderful RAF museums in London and in Cosford, Shropshire, which are brilliant examples of the ingenuity we have in this country. That is certainly something that, as a Department, we are very much trying to encourage and to foster, working hand in glove with industry.
Most people in this House will have a relative who served in the RAF one way or another over the past 100 years. I am sure that the Secretary of State will also recall that Coventry, for example, was a target during the war for German bombers because aircraft engines were manufactured in Coventry. I am sure that he knows that, as in the rest of the west midlands, there were targets in Birmingham—the supply chain was a target there. All in all, people have paid a heavy price and we owe a lot to the RAF, particularly during the war and, in relation to some of the wounds that those pilots sustained, in the development of plastic surgery.
What we have always been so incredibly successful at is harnessing the whole of industry for our war effort, and there is no greater example of that than in the second world war. My grandfather was a machinist in Coventry during those bombing raids. Coventry was heavily targeted because of its manufacturing expertise and prowess, which were so vital to our war effort. That expertise is something that we very much continue going forward. Let me take the opportunity to comment—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me for making a little bit of—[Interruption.] I am far too soft. I have melted. I give way to the hon. Lady.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. RAF Cosford has been mentioned. I want to put on record my long-standing thanks to RAF Cosford because, when I did a master’s in information technology at Aston University, I did a project at RAF Cosford. Its contribution to bringing on new skills and talent and connecting others with our armed forces is a tribute to it. I put on record my thanks.
I know that everyone at RAF Cosford will be greatly appreciative of those thanks. It is great to be able to name-check such a wonderful RAF base that is making such an impact in terms of training and skills for future generations in our Royal Air Force.
What truly makes the RAF so remarkable is that, since 1990, it has been continuously deployed on overseas operations. RAF100 has also been a chance to celebrate that continuing contribution to defence and the security that the RAF provides to our nation. As we speak in this Chamber, the RAF is involved in campaigns across 23 countries and five continents, working closely with our NATO allies. It has protected Baltic skies over the Black sea and it will soon be over Icelandic skies. It is all about protecting those nations and also Britain from all those who wish to do us harm—nations that are becoming more aggressive and more assertive in their international view and their willingness to put pressure on their neighbours.
Further afield, our RAF is supporting the French counter-terrorism mission in Mali, and RAF Regiment personnel are training their counterparts in Nigeria to combat the menace of Boko Haram. Following the devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean last year, who did we turn to? We turned to the Royal Air Force, which flew more than 850 tonnes of vital freight, including water, rations and shelters to help local people.
I would like to pay tribute to my own father for his service in the second world war, and say that the Secretary of State is making an important point about the service provided by so many other nations, particularly in the second world war—the Poles, the Belgians, the Canadians, the Kiwis, the Australians, the US and so many others. We still see that. The RAF has performed such an important role that over the decades.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is a truly international service. It is absolutely fitting that he mentions so many of those nations that provided an instrumental part of our effort not just to defend Britain, but to defend the values that interweave all our nations together. I had the privilege of being in Poland and meeting some of those veterans who had served for Britain in our services. The pride that they had in their contribution was truly uplifting. It is a debt that I hope this nation will never ever forget, and I do not believe that it ever will. It is a very important part of our tradition.
I am slightly desperate to see the film “Hurricane”. I am not sure whether any Members have had the opportunity to see it. I tried to persuade my wife to come with me to the cinema, but she was not convinced. However, I am looking forward to it being released on DVD, so that I can purchase it.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. On the subject of the Hurricane, I wondered whether I could bring up the iconic Spitfire. I know that he has spoken about the Battle of Britain. The iconic Spitfire was, of course, designed, built and test flown in Southampton. Would this year, of all years, be a good time to have a lasting memorial, supported by Government, to the iconic Spitfire in its hometown of Southampton?
Hampshire made a great contribution to the war effort, with the Supermarine company’s invention, but we must not forget the brilliant people behind it and, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), the great man who did so much with regard to the design of the Spitfire came from Stoke-on-Trent. It would be brilliant to have such fitting monuments, and I would support my hon. Friend in his representations to the Treasury, but I very much hope that the money comes out of other people’s budgets, as against my own, and I am sure that he will appreciate why.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) tried to appropriate the history of Stoke-on-Trent. Surely the Defence Secretary would like to see that memorial to the Spitfire in the county of Staffordshire, which we both have the pleasure of representing. If that is the case, I will happily join him in lobbying the Treasury immediately.
I had the great privilege of being in Stoke-on-Trent with my old friend, Councillor Abi Brown, to look at what has been done in celebrating Stoke-on-Trent’s contribution to the Spitfire. I am personally of the view that, if there is a funding source that is separate from the Ministry of Defence, there should be monuments to the Spitfire right across the nation and also monuments to the Lancaster, the Hurricane and to the many other great aircraft.
I feel there is a bid from Coventry here, so I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
When we talk about the development of the aircraft, we must not forget that Sir Frank Whittle, who developed the jet engine, came from Coventry.
It is true that Sir Frank Whittle came from Coventry, and I think there should be many more monuments to him in Coventry.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is trying to work out the link between the Hurricane, the Spitfire and Luton, but I will not lead him down that channel. I congratulate him on making the time to look back at the RAF’s proud history, but may I ask him also to reflect on its future? I was fortunate enough to be with the RAF Air Cadets of my old squadron—2465 Icknield Squadron—on Friday night for their annual prize-giving evening. I am also fortunate to have 10F, one of the founder squadrons of the air cadets, in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State confirm the RAF’s ongoing commitment to the RAF Air Cadets?
Very much so; we see the cadets as a way of reaching out to future generations. Many of us in this House will have memories of speaking to our grandparents, who had such an involvement in the different services during the second world war. As that generation sadly passes away, I think of whether my children had the opportunity to be able to speak to those who saw at first hand what total war was, which my children’s generation of course will not.
The cadets are such an important part of reaching out to and inspiring the future generation. I had the great privilege of visiting the Aston University Engineering Academy in Birmingham, which has the most wonderful air cadets unit. There were boys and girls from so many different backgrounds, who were inspired to be involved in the Air Force and to make a contribution. Where they had a passion for science or engineering, they were interested in something that the RAF had given them—a sense of belonging. The RAF really puts a value on their interests and makes them feel that they are part of something that is so much bigger. I was pleased to announce that we will continue to expand the numbers of air, Army and sea cadets. We are hoping to increase the number of placements within school cadet services from 48,000 to 60,000, and we also want to do that for cadet units in the wider community.
The only cadet unit that does not get any support is the sea cadets, such as those in the Rhondda. I know that we are quite a long way from the sea in the Rhondda, but we have rivers; no, this is a serious point. The sea cadets are one of the most important youth organisations in my constituency, and they get absolutely no support other than a kind of tangential support from the Ministry of Defence. Would the Secretary of State look into at least paying the insurance bill for the sea cadets?
My understanding is that we do support the sea cadets charity, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman with further detail about how we do that. We recognise the support required for all uniformed youth movements. We very much see them as a total family, and that is something that we will continue to do. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I turn back to the Air Force.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I feel as if I would be doing the hon. Gentleman a massive disservice if I did not give way to him.
It is always a pleasure to intervene on the Secretary of State. He will recognise that Northern Ireland has a very good tradition of cadet service. The advantage of the RAF cadets, the Army cadets and the naval cadets—I have all three in my constituency—is that they transcend the political and religious divides in Northern Ireland. This is a way to look forward with hope. Does the Secretary of State recognise the good work that the cadets can do across the whole of Northern Ireland, and what they do to bring communities together?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to point that out. When I was last in County Fermanagh, I had the great privilege of meeting a group of air cadets, who were doing such an amazing job of bringing communities together. There has been a large change in representation within cadet units in Northern Ireland, from them wholly comprising people from a Protestant background to there now being a 70-30 split. We recognise that there is much further to go but, given the progress that has been made over the last 10 years, I hope that we will see much further progress over the next 10 years. It is certainly something about which we can feel very proud.
The Secretary of State makes reference to the air cadets, who do a fantastic job spreading the social footprint of the Air Force to our communities around the UK, but we should also recognise the contribution of our university air squadrons. On Friday night, I had the pleasure of attending the annual dinner of the Military Education Committee of the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, where we celebrated the university air squadron and the other service organisations in the universities. The university air squadron in Glasgow has been in existence since 1941, when it recruited over 400 airmen into the RAF as officers and pilot officers. It made a huge contribution to the war effort and continues to make a huge contribution to this day.
There is a theme coming out very clearly in this debate, which is the role that the Air Force plays in inspiring future generations—whether at school, college or university—into different careers, both in the Air Force itself and in other science, technology, engineering and maths areas.
It would be remiss of us not to talk about what the Royal Air Force is doing today. As we are in this House, the Royal Air Force continuously stands vigilant to protect our skies here in the United Kingdom, but it is also taking our fight to our enemies abroad—Daesh in Iraq and Syria. The RAF has been using its skills to strike and eliminate that threat by combining precision-guided weaponry with unparalleled surveillance, intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities; flying at the highest operational tempo for over a quarter of a century; and striking more than 1,750 times. The RAF has played a pivotal role in bringing Daesh to its knees and significantly reducing its influence across the world. People sometimes think that the campaigns that the RAF is fighting are very far away from here and maybe do not have a relevance to the United Kingdom, but by dealing with that threat in Iraq and Syria, the RAF is keeping the streets of Great Britain safer.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, while we must remember the magnificent 100 years of the RAF, the best way we can pay testament to the nation and the RAF is by ensuring that the RAF and all the armed forces get sufficient funding to keep us all safe?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the best birthday present that any service can have is probably a little bit more cash. I am sure that the Chief of the Air Staff would very much echo that.
I hope that I am not interrupting the Secretary of State in order to mention something that he is going to come to in his speech. One of the critical elements of defending this country is our rapid reaction force. Every day, that force stands on high alert for incursions into British airspace—both of adversaries and of civilian flights that might have been taken over by terrorists. It is the rapid reaction force that protects our skies across the UK every day.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct to state that the RAF is always vigilant. It is always ready to act. It is always ready to respond. Within literally a few minutes of a warning, it is up in the air defending our skies and dealing with these threats. That sense of protecting our skies has been a theme of the Royal Air Force throughout its 100-year history.
It is both humbling and inspiring to meet the extraordinary men and women who are doing this—to see their commitment, their passion and their dedication to their duty and the service that they are part of. We in this House must always do everything we can to protect them and to make sure that they always have the very best, much as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
Yes, I will.
It is about aircraft this time. The Secretary of State will know that quite often the Russians have been flying at the edge of our airspace or sometimes just inside, and that this has seen a very significant increase in the tempo of what the RAF has had to deal with. The Russians keep on saying, “Oh no, it’s Britain that is completely breaking the rules here.” Can he just put the Russians right on this?
Well, I always like to send very clear messages to the Russians. [Laughter.] The RAF is always right, and the RAF is protecting our skies from potential threats. That is the right thing to do, it is what we expect it to do, and it is what it will continue to do against any possible incursions.
The RAF plays a much bigger role than just in our skies. In terms of what we have been doing in NATO, the Royal Air Force has been in Romania as a key and pivotal part of its air defence. When we go to Romania and speak to Romanians, we see the real pride and sense of appreciation that they have for the role that the Royal Air Force has played. The RAF was not there just passively—it was scrambling in order to respond to potential threats that the Romanian air force was also having to deal with. This is a way of expanding our influence right across Europe and the world, because people, quite rightly, put the RAF on a pedestal as the world’s greatest air force, and they put great value and privilege on working with it. We need to exploit that more and more, not just for our strategic defence but from a prosperity angle as well.
The Secretary of State is talking about the RAF deploying into Romania as part of NATO air policing operations. Does that not also remind us all of the vital role the RAF plays in providing a conventional deterrent, as we were saying in Defence questions earlier? We talk about our nuclear deterrent, but we are part of a key NATO conventional deterrent as well.
My hon. Friend is right to point that out. This goes to show the depth and the range of roles that the RAF has to perform. People are often attracted to and talk about the fast jet capability of the Royal Air Force, but it is equally important not to forget the much wider role that it plays in terms of surveillance and reconnaissance, which is absolutely critical in dealing with the threats that we are having to manage today. There is also the ability to deliver heavy lift. We have one of the most impressive—I would go further and say the most impressive—heavy lift operations of any air force in the world. I notice my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) agreeing with that, as it is based in his constituency. No other country, whether it is Germany, Italy, Spain or France, has anything that is even vaguely comparable. The RAF is not just about our past and our present; it is very much about our future. This is about what our future Air Force looks like. We know that air power is critical to our security today, but in a darkening world, with the dangers intensifying, the RAF’s ability to project power around the globe at pace will be a vital part of our tomorrow.
We have spent a landmark year putting our formidable future Air Force plan into place. This has been about bringing to fruition the world-beating fifth generation F-35B Lightning stealth fighters, which have been doing trials off the east coast of the United States off our Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. The fact that we now have these aircraft stationed at RAF Marham plays an important role in making sure that Britain’s defence in the future is secured.
The Secretary of State has just made mention of some of the hardware that we have. Does he not agree that we have the greatest body of men and women who have been trained and are putting their lives on the line? This is about the resource of the people that we have and the training that has put them there. I represent a constituency that has a base, RAF Aldergrove, where one of the oldest squadrons of the RAF was based. It played a key role in the defence of our nation during the second world war and was instrumental in targeting, probably, the Bismarck, which was going to create a major problem for this nation, and ensuring that we had a supply from North America of all the goods that we required during the war.
Yes, there is Aldergrove and so many other RAF bases in Northern Ireland. I think there were 28 RAF bases in Northern Ireland during the second world war, although I may be out by one or two. They all played a vital part in creating the air corridor from the United States to Britain and, of course, to Europe in our great war effort. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to single out the people. The people make the organisation, over and above all the aircraft and equipment that forms the Royal Air Force.
As we look forward, it is not just the F-35B Lightning aircraft that creates such an exciting opportunity for what our Royal Air Force will do—it is also about how we continue to develop our capabilities. These capabilities are going to be strengthened by two additional Typhoon squadrons—one at RAF Coningsby, and one at RAF Lossiemouth, securing the RAF’s enduring presence in Scotland and generating growth in the local area. By 2020, Lossiemouth will be home not just to more Typhoons but to the new P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, allowing us to defend thousands of miles of ocean alongside our allies the United States and the Norwegians.
The Secretary of State rightly points out that the future of the Air Force will depend on the F-35s—As, Bs and Cs—as well as our carrier strike group, but he will also know that there is a £7 billion hole over the course of the next 10-year defence equipment plan. How does he intend to fill that hole in order to achieve what he sets out, which we all agree with, and what more can we do to help him get out of the Treasury the money that he needs?
The hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me. I am incredibly encouraged by the fact that we have a defence budget that last year sat at £36 billion and next year will sit at £39 billion. This is a real commitment to and investment in our future capabilities. We have already taken out £9.5 billion in terms of efficiencies, and we will continue to look at how we can do more on that going forward. We do recognise the importance of investing, and that is why we are so proud that we have a rising defence budget and the opportunity to invest in new capabilities.
But this is also about looking at how we do things slightly differently. How do we proceed as we invest in new technologies? We have seen a divergence in the costs of military technologies as they rise exponentially higher than those of commercial technologies. How can we start to bridge that gap and bring down some of the costs of these technologies? It will be important to recognise that more new technologies are becoming available. We are upgrading our Reaper remotely piloted air system with the Protector, which will give the RAF unrivalled intelligence-gathering ability and more than 40 hours of endurance. We will be looking at different types of ability to bring the fight to our enemies. A large part of that will be not only F-35s and Typhoons, but unmanned aerial vehicles that will be able to do surveillance and bring strike capability.
The Secretary of State is outlining some of the very important work going on to future proof the RAF and ensure that it remains fit for purpose. Any change that is undertaken requires those who are leading the change and supporting it from within, but there is a deficit in the full strength of the RAF at the moment in terms of numbers, and there are concerns about morale in some of the personnel statistics. Does he agree that support should be given to ensure that morale remains high and that there is sufficient recruitment of people with the skills needed for the future?
I take on board the hon. Lady’s comments. I am not sure whether this has been released or if I am breaking some sort of cross-Government embargo, but apparently recent surveys show that those in the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces have the most positive attitude out of all Government Departments—more so than the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and all the others. That shows that there is a real sense of purpose and a very positive attitude about what we are achieving.
I know that the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) will set out a very positive view and vision of our armed forces and our RAF. We see an RAF that is creating two new Typhoon squadrons and new Lightning squadrons and investing in new technologies, drone capability, heavy lift, Poseidon and all the things that will be so vital for a vibrant future Air Force. We can be incredibly optimistic about that. We are sometimes in danger in this country of talking down what we are achieving; I would not accuse the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) of doing that, but we should focus on the positives and the incredibly bright future of our Air Force.
As we look to the future, the sky is no longer the limit for our Royal Air Force. Earlier this year, I announced that it had taken command and control of the UK’s space operations, defending our space assets and infrastructure, alongside our allies and partners. As I say, we are lifting our eyes even further than just the sky. In early 2018, the RAF launched a space-based imaging satellite, Carbonite-2, allowing us to take high-resolution colour pictures and video from space. The launch was an important step in integrating the RAF’s ground, air and space capabilities.
But if our Royal Air Force is to keep ahead of our adversaries, we must look not years but decades into the future. Besides investing more than £2 billion by 2025 in Typhoon and future combat air systems, we have launched our combat air strategy. Designed to preserve our national advantage, it will keep us at the cutting edge of air power for years to come. Significantly, we unveiled at Farnborough this summer the Tempest jet fighter concept demonstrator—an aircraft with sixth-generation capabilities.
It is that investment and vision that will keep Britain at the cutting edge in terms of capabilities, bringing great benefits to not only the Royal Air Force but British industry, which is investing. We need to see Britain investing in these new capabilities to keep that cutting edge. The air sector is a great success in terms of our ability to export worldwide. In the last year, we have secured a £6 billion order from Qatar for Typhoon and Hawk trainers. That is vital for jobs and prosperity long into the future.
Anyone who has studied the RAF will know that our aircraft are only as good as the people who pilot them and the skilled crews that support them. We must keep doing everything in our power to inspire and attract a new generation of aviators and engineers. Britain’s first air chief, Hugh Trenchard, once famously appealed for those with “mathematical genius”, “literary genius”, “scientific brain”, “initiative” and “action” to come to the RAF. Today we continue that tradition, following in his flightpath. Not only is every branch of the RAF now open to women, including ground close combat units such as the RAF Regiment, but we are creating new RAF training, education and apprenticeship systems for the next century, with training academies planned around the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that our armed forces are the biggest employer of apprentices of any organisation in this country, with more than 20,000 apprentices employed in our armed forces.
But we must do more to enthuse. Our ranks have included incredible flying aces like Johnnie Johnson and remarkable inventors like turbo-jet pioneer Frank Whittle. We must tell their story. In 2018, once more under the banner of RAF100, we delivered the largest science, technology, engineering and maths programme of any Government Department, bringing the wonders of aerospace and science to more than 1.6 million young people. Who knows? The next Johnson or Whittle might have been among those 1.6 million young people, being inspired to contribute to our Air Force and aerospace sector.
I thank the Secretary of State for being even more generous than he was last time. On the subject of STEM, he may not be aware that in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of the Spitfire, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and I hosted a free science fair over two days for 1,200 local schoolchildren, with the help of Staffordshire University. Does he agree that that sort of partnership working with higher education and further education in our communities, under the RAF100 banner, shows some of the best parts of our RAF and what we can do together?
I absolutely agree. It is great how we can get the message out by working with partners, as the hon. Gentleman describes. It is great to see that success has many fathers in terms of the Spitfire; I am waiting for other cities to claim parentage of it.
RAF100 was never meant to be a celebration by the Royal Air Force for the Royal Air Force. It was meant to be a celebration for all people of all generations and all walks of life, reaching not only across the United Kingdom but right across the world, because it is truly a global service. RAF100 was meant to be a celebration of what the British people are capable of and a powerful reminder of what we can still achieve tomorrow. In that, it has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of those who created the RAF 100 years ago. As we look to spread our wings and become a truly global Britain, it has inspired our nation to soar to ever greater heights.
I hope the whole House will join me in thanking the Royal Air Force and all those who have served and continue to serve in it for everything they have done on behalf of our nation’s defence, and wishing them every success in their second century. The Royal Air Force’s famous motto has surely never seemed more apt—“Through adversity to the stars”.
Before I begin what I intend to make a very positive and constructive contribution to this debate, I must put on record my concern and that of other hon. Members about the disgracefully short notice for this debate. It is not as though we have not known for some time that 2018 was the centenary of the RAF—100 years in fact—but to give only one parliamentary day’s notice was very discourteous to Members. I hope that the Government will do better in future.
It is a real pleasure to open this debate for the Opposition and to celebrate 100 years of our Royal Air Force. I will try not to repeat too many of the Secretary of State’s remarks, but we in the Opposition are in a lot of agreement with him on this topic. In those 100 years, the brave, dedicated men and women of our Royal Air Force have worked tirelessly and made sacrifices—in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice—to keep us safe and to protect our freedom.
Although we are marking 100 years since the creation of the Royal Air Force, it did not come from nowhere. I would like to take a few minutes to look at what was happening before 1918. During the past four years, as we have reflected on the events of the first world war, the dominant image for most people has been that of the trenches on the western front—not least because so many families in all our communities have been able to trace family members who served in the Army on the western front. There has been some mention of the war at sea. In the Parc Howard Museum in Llanelli, we have an exhibition on the war at sea. We have talked about the blockade of Germany and the relentless attacks on ships bringing supplies to Britain. Indeed, we had a parliamentary debate on the battle of Jutland.
Many people are much less aware of the use of air power during the first world war. They tend to associate it much more with the second world war and, of course, with the outstanding performance of the Royal Air Force in the battle of Britain. However, the use of air power in combat goes back longer than one might think. Indeed, the use of a tethered air balloon for reconnaissance—to get a better view of what was happening on the ground—dates right back to the American civil war in the 1860s. Already during world war one, aircraft were used in many ways that we would recognise today—for reconnaissance, air combat, home defence, anti-submarine warfare and bombing—and they even took off from an aircraft carrier, with HMS Furious being the first aircraft carrier. The war also saw the further development of the use of wireless communication, aerial photography, tactics and organisation.
As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has mentioned, aircraft were flown by the intrepid members of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. They dealt with all the hazards of a relatively new and untried technology and the vagaries of weather, even before encountering the dangers of a mission. By the end of the war, that resulted in a combined total of some 9,300 killed or missing and some 7,000 wounded from the RFC, the RNAS and, subsequently, the RAF. We acknowledge their bravery and sacrifice.
This year, as has been mentioned, we have indeed enjoyed some spectacular events as part of the RAF100 celebrations, which have really commemorated, celebrated and inspired. I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to all those who have been involved in their preparation and execution. Up and down the country, the public have really appreciated the events, and a huge effort has been made to ensure that they have been truly open to the public. In one event in Cardiff, we had the flypast of a Lancaster bomber. We also had a fabulous display, in which the public could participate, with the opportunity to speak and ask questions about what they saw. Here in Parliament, we all enjoyed the RAF100 flypast, with the amazing participation of 100 aircraft.
The national Armed Forces Day event was held this year in Llandudno, where, being in Wales, we were of course blessed with perfect weather. The RAF pilots put on a spectacular air display, including by drawing a heart shape and of course the number 100 with their smoke trails.
Is it appropriate also to remember all those men and women who actually produced those aircraft? I am particularly thinking of the women at Broughton, who still hold the world record for building a Wellington bomber in 24 hours.
Indeed. My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. The contribution during the second world war of women in the construction of aircraft, with the skills they obviously had and developed, was absolutely magnificent, and I think very much overlooked. As he says, they actually broke the record with the most amazing construction work at Broughton.
I visited Broughton during the RAF100 celebrations. I was at Raytheon in Broughton on the 38th day of the RAF100 baton relay. The baton had been carried up Snowdon the previous day and it was on its way to the Defence Electronics and Components Agency at Sealand. I was very pleased to be there because north Wales has such strong links with the RAF. It was of course a north Walian Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who established the RAF. It was through his initiative and determination to secure victory in world war one that the RAF, the world’s first independent air force, was created on 1 April 1918.
I hope you will indulge me, Mr Deputy Speaker, with a little more latitude than is normal on the length of this intervention. My paternal grandfather, Arthur Albert Sherriff, died on 1 February 1945—he was in a Lancaster bomber—leaving my dad, who was two years old at the time. My grandma was in the cinema with a friend when she was called out and given the telegram saying that her husband was missing in action. Arthur Sherriff was later awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal, the DFM, posthumously, for his actions in a previous raid, when he had been shot in the shoulder but had continued the mission and brought the plane down safely. Will my hon. Friend join me in remembering the brave men and women—men like my grandfather, whom I sadly never got to know—and all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in fighting for the freedom that we enjoy today?
I thank my hon. Friend for sharing that with the House. Indeed, we would all like to pay tribute to her grandfather and all those who sacrificed their lives in that way.
I have to say that Dewsbury is not in north Wales; I will now return to my comments about north Wales. Lionel Wilmot Rees VC from Caernarfon was the first pilot to be sent to serve in a designated fighter squadron; it could be argued, especially by those in Caernarfon, that he was the first fighter pilot. North Wales has also been a hub of aerospace engineering. It remains so today, and will I hope remain so for a long time to come.
There has been a very long-standing relationship between the RAF and industrial partners. It has been encouraging to see the excellent work done for the RAF100 programme, through partnerships with industry and educational establishments, to promote the importance of STEM subjects to children and young people and to inspire them to consider careers in this sector. It is particularly important that we make young women, as well as young men, aware of these opportunities.
In my own constituency, my Assembly Member, Lee Waters, and I have used the landing of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, in my constituency on 18 June 1928—albeit by accident, as she was supposed to land in Southampton—as an opportunity to establish an Amelia Earhart Day to provide a chance for girls from local primary schools to participate in activities to inspire them to consider a career in science or technology.
Of course, women have made a very significant contribution to our Air Force, and I want to pay particular tribute to them. The Women’s Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918, and reformed again just before the second world war as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Women played a vital role in the Air Transport Auxiliary in world war two, ferrying aircraft across the country often in hazardous conditions.
Today, the RAF is outpacing the other two services on female personnel, with women making up 14% of regulars and 20% of reservists, compared with 15% and 13% for the maritime and Army reserves respectively. Not only that, but the RAF has the largest proportion of female officers: 16% of regular officers and 22% of reserve officers in the RAF are women. The current target for women in the armed forces is 15% by 2020, but the RAF plans to raise its target to 20%. And, of course, the RAF gave us the first female military two star, Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West.
As we celebrate RAF100, let us also pay tribute to the current work of the RAF in the complex task of defending our shores in the modern world. I thank the commander of RAF Valley, Group Captain Nick Tucker-Lowe, for a very informative visit to Valley to see the crucial work that he and his team do in training the UK’s next generation of world-class fighter pilots. I have also had the privilege of visiting RAF Akrotiri, where I met members of the RAF working relentless shifts to defeat Daesh and liberate Mosul and the surrounding areas, working in an extremely complex environment and taking the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties.
The Government have made progress in recognising participation in Operation Shader in the awarding of medals, but there is still concern about the criteria and whether there could be broader recognition of personnel. I wonder whether the Secretary of State would be open to looking at this again.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I was very proud that we were able to open up Operation Shader to medallic recognition, but we are conscious that we need to consider this further, and other Ministers and I are looking at it closely, so I thank her for raising it.
I thank the Secretary of State for that welcome response.
As if we needed any reminder, yet again in the last 24 hours we have been reminded of the vital role that the RAF is playing in Romania as part of NATO’s enhanced air policing to deter Russian aggression and improve security in south-east Europe. We must acknowledge also our gratitude to the quick reaction alert teams, who are in constant readiness to protect our skies.
The RAF has a distinguished past, and we as politicians have a responsibility to ensure it has the fully trained staff and equipment needed to defend our shores in the future, but the National Audit Office has found that among the redundancies made by the Secretary of State’s predecessors between 2010 and 2015 were air crew trades—specialisms that now have shortfalls. Furthermore, the 2015 strategic defence and security review made several commitments that increased the need for pilots, and the RAF was approximately 22% below its requirement for pilots in April 2017. The RAF therefore needs to train 180 pilots each year to meet the commitments announced in the SDSR, but it is unable to train more than 132 each year at present. What strategies is the Department employing to recruit and retain the brightest and best and to increase the diversity of recruits to ensure that talent is not being overlooked? In particular, what is the Secretary of State doing to increase the number of pilots being trained?
It is disappointing that the Government’s decision to scrap the Nimrod without a replacement has left us dependent on allies for submarine surveillance, so can the Secretary of State update us on when the P-8s will be fully operational? Can he also tell us when the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will be fully equipped with F-35s? Developing future technological advantage is crucial to our defence, particularly at a time when adversaries, including non-state actors, are catching up ever more quickly with technological advances, so I welcome the Government’s publication of the combat air strategy, but can he give us further detail about the discussions he has had with the Treasury on delivery of the strategy? Could he also elaborate on his Department’s plans for further investment in research and development?
I have been trying extremely hard not to mention the B-word, but, given the events of the weekend, the Secretary of State will be only too aware of the unique importance of Gibraltar. Can he give us absolute assurances that its status is not under threat?
I can give the hon. Lady an absolute and categorical reassurance that Gibraltar is never under threat, ever since the Royal Marines seized it all those centuries ago, and it will always be under the Union flag long into the future, so rest assured that we will always look after Gibraltar.
I am very pleased to hear those reassurances, as I am sure you are, too, Mr Deputy Speaker.
As this year of commemoration of the past and celebration of the present draws to a close, now is the time to inspire for the future. The RAF and its dedicated personnel have made an immense contribution to Britain’s national security thus far, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so well into the future.
As the shadow Secretary of State pointed out, this is the third defence debate in less than a fortnight. For the defence team, it must be as if all their ships are sailing home at the same time. Anyone would think that the House of Commons had nothing other than defence with which to occupy itself. Let us take advantage of it.
It’s the most important subject.
Indeed it is the most important subject.
It is a privilege to follow two such positive and upbeat speeches from two such positive and upbeat Front Benchers. Both our parties are lucky to have them holding the positions they do. The moving intervention from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) was especially important. It is so important in such debates to humanise the general subject by reminding the House of the real identities of individuals and what they went through in the course of conflict. She should be very proud that her grandfather’s award of the Distinguished Flying Medal, won for actions before he lost his life, came through, although sadly only after he had died.
The original thought that crossed my mind was: why hold a debate of this sort in November? But of course it was in November 1917 that the Air Force (Constitution) Act was passed, which led to the establishment of the Royal Air Force on 1 April the following year. I will come back to the circumstances that led to that in a few moments, but first I want to personalise the debate a bit myself. Only last month, I went to Millbrook industrial estate in the neighbouring constituency of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), where the defence company Leonardo has a major establishment.
Leonardo was renaming one of its buildings, which had been rebuilt, after Flight Lieutenant James Brindley Nicolson, who, as many Members will know, was the only member of Fighter Command to win the Victoria Cross during the second world war. James Nicolson flew with 249 Squadron and was in one of three Hurricanes ambushed over Southampton. Sadly, he was not the only pilot to be shot down. Hon. Members will be aware that, while his aircraft was ablaze and he was about to bale out, he saw an opportunity to fire on an enemy aircraft. Even though his hands and face were burning, he stayed in the blazing aircraft until he had shot down the enemy. In an act of bathos that bordered on a war crime, he was further injured by being shot while parachuting downwards by an over-enthusiastic member of the Home Guard.
At the ceremony to name the building in Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s honour—sadly, although he survived that encounter, he did not survive the war—I met his nephew, who told me about the other Hurricane pilot who was shot down and whose grave I had seen in my constituency, in All Saints’ Church, Fawley, without knowing the story behind it. Martyn Aurel King, it now emerges, was the youngest pilot to fight and fly in the Battle of Britain; he was just 18 years old, and he died on that day in the same incident. After he baled out successfully, his parachute collapsed and he came down on the roof of a house in Shirley, Southampton, and died in the arms of the householder. We still do not know whether the reason that his parachute collapsed was that it was shredded during the attack on his aircraft, or that he too was the victim of whatever foolish and criminal people on the ground thought it fit to fire on descending pilots, whether the enemy or our own people. A terrible tragedy.
I had seen Martyn Aurel King’s grave because it is in the second of two rows of such graves in the churchyard. The first row contains the remains of Flight Lieutenant Samuel Marcus Kinkead DSO, DSC and Bar, DFC and Bar, whom I have occasionally mentioned in this House as an outstanding pilot in the first world war, the Russian civil war and the middle east, and ultimately one of the Schneider trophy pilots. He lost his life in 1928 trying to break the world air speed record. He was attempting to become the first man to exceed 5 miles a minute—300 miles an hour—in a forerunner of the Spitfire, an S.5 seaplane.
Through researching and eventually writing a book about Kinkead’s life, I came to understand more about the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1917 and 1918. I realised that it had grown out of Parliament’s need to react to the increasing terror raids by Gotha bombers on London in particular, which greatly exceeded in terms of casualties the previous and much better known Zeppelin raids. Lieutenant General Jan Christian Smuts had been charged by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to look into the question of the aerial defence of London in particular and to make wider recommendations. A report by Smuts placed before the War Cabinet on 17 August 1917 was later described by the official historian of air power in the first world war as
“the most important paper in the history of the creation of the Royal Air Force”.
What Smuts said was this:
“Nobody that witnessed the attack on London on 7 July could have any doubt on that point… the day may not be far off when aerial operations, with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale, may become the principal operations of war to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.”
We have heard about how the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps played their separate parts in the formation of aerial tactics and strategy during the first world war; but what is interesting is the way in which the new Royal Air Force, created in April 1918, by August 1918 was so much more fully integrated with operations on the ground. Of all those events whose centenaries we have been commemorating over the past four years, only one was really positive: the centenary of 8 August 1918, the battle of Amiens, of which hardly anyone had heard—even though German military historians and German generals define that date as
“the black day of the German Army”
and British historians regard it as the start of the 100 days campaign that led to the collapse of German resistance and the Armistice in November.
What was significant was that the RAF operated in such close support of the troops on the ground that, for the first time, with the combination of armour, the vital element of surprise, and the extremely effective use of ground forces in complete and total co-ordination with air forces, the breakthroughs that had so long eluded the allied armed forces—leading to such catastrophic casualties at the Somme, Passchendaele and other, equally infamous, battles—turned into a successful and decisive result for the allied cause.
After the end of the first world war, the new air arm flexed its muscles. In my research into the life of Kinkead, I learned about the way in which it was used to try to exercise air control—to some extent by itself, but more effectively, once again, in combination with ground forces—in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1920s. In the 1930s, we see a very different view of air power: a belief that air power, coupled with the use of poison gas in particular and high explosive, would lead to the collapse of civilisation. That was what people then anticipated. Air power in the 1930s was very much regarded in the way that we regard nuclear war in the post-second world war era. As it happens, air power was not as powerful as was predicted, and gas was of course not used from the air in the second world war. Why? Because Winston Churchill had made it abundantly clear that any use of gas, either against our own forces, or even against the forces of our ally Russia, would be met by overwhelming response in kind from the Royal Air Force. That was an early example of deterrence preventing a dreadful weapon from being used at all. Poison gas was used in concentration camps because there was no deterrence there; the victims could not hit back.
During the war, there were arguments about area bombing and attempts to bring about the collapse that had been predicted in the 1930s, but it did not work. History has not been kind to the architects of aerial bombardment where whole populations were targeted for strategic reasons. Precision bombing proved to be far more effective and to a considerable extent far less costly. I think it was the historian A.J.P Taylor who described the loss of life in RAF Bomber Command during the second world war—more than 55,000 Bomber Command personnel died on operations—as “an aerial Passchendaele”. That, I feel, is no exaggeration.
When the war was over, the RAF was involved much more selectively in counter-insurgency campaigns in places such as Malaya, where, I cannot resist pointing out, my partner’s father, Frank Souness, won the Distinguished Flying Cross during those operations. He is 88 now and we are very proud of him. The purpose of what the RAF was doing was to try to help those countries that had been British colonies and were ceasing to be British colonies to establish themselves independently without falling victim to communist insurgencies. That was a very different role from what the RAF had been doing during the war, although it bore some resemblance to what it had been doing in between the wars.
Let me move on to the dawn of the British nuclear deterrent. It was the V-bombers, Victors, Vulcans and Valiants, that were responsible for carrying the nuclear bombs that constituted the strategic deterrent. Once again, we see the huge range and versatility of the different tasks that the RAF was called on to perform. We have heard from those on the Front Benches about the precision airstrikes that are being used in Iraq and Syria against Daesh. I supported the use of precision airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq, but I voted against it in Syria; not because I disapproved of it, but because it failed to acknowledge the fact that, apart from the Kurdish forces, there were not moderate forces on the ground in whose support that air power could be used. Time and again, we have seen that it is the combination of air power with troops on the ground that proves so vitally effective.
I conclude my remarks by saying, in relation to the RAF, something that the Secretary of State for Defence has heard me say many times in relation to defence generally—usually about warships: quantity has a quality all of its own. There is no doubt about the calibre of our personnel. There is no doubt about the sophistication of our equipment. What there is doubt about is the size and quantity of our armed forces. So I wish him luck in his continuing fight to get the percentage of GDP spent on defence back towards a level commensurate with the levels of threat we face. If he can supply the money, the people of Britain will supply the personnel and the ingenuity to see that the RAF is as effective in the future as it has been for the past 100 years.
I have had to follow the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) in these defence debates many times, and it never, ever gets easier. He is New Forest East’s answer to David Starkey when it comes to these affairs. The House is furnished with much knowledge as the result of his contributions. I pay tribute to him, on behalf of Scottish National party Members, for the sterling job he does as Chair of the Defence Committee. Despite our many disagreements, he is immensely fair to all the voices that make up that Committee.
I welcome the fact that this debate has been brought forward in Government time. Those who attend defence debates regularly will know that they are often requested, particularly by the Opposition. In fairness to quite a few Government Back Benchers, we do have more defence-related debates in Government time. Although this debate appears to be more of a tribute exercise as opposed to a defence debate, I will try to crowbar in some points that I think those on the Treasury Bench would do well to consider.
Before getting into that, however, I want to pay tribute to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force 602 Squadron in Glasgow, which is based in my constituency. It was a pleasure to spend a Saturday afternoon with its members a few months ago. It had been scheduled in my diary for an hour. It lasted five hours. That is no complaint: it was useful for me and I hope it was useful for them. I would like to pay particular tribute to the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Archie McCallum, who does a fine job at the base in Carmunnock Road representing the base and the RAF to the local community and the city of Glasgow.
Right next door to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force base in my constituency is Cathcart Old parish church, whose minister has done a lot of great work with veterans and members of the armed forces. In particular, there is a real focus on supporting those who served in the RAF. Indeed, I was actually selected as the SNP candidate for my constituency in the RAF café in Cathcart Old parish church, which is very active to this day. As Members would expect, in paying tribute to everyone who has served in the RAF over the past 100 years I want to pay particular tribute to the Scottish effort and contribution to the history and the future of the RAF, much of which we will hear about from others.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to family members who served in the RAF? My grandfather, Hugh Bowman, served in the RAF out of Glasgow. He used to tell me many stories when I was growing up about his time in the RAF, including how they would fill bullet holes with chewing gum.
Yes, is the answer to my hon. Friend’s question; I do not think that needs anything further from me.
The Royal Auxiliary Air Force base in Carmunnock Road in my constituency is not our only affinity with aviation, Mr Deputy Speaker. Indeed, if you were to come back to my constituency—you were kind enough to come, I think, around about this time last year—and take part in the Pollokshields heritage trail, you would walk down Fotheringay Road, which is not very far from my house, and come across a Historic Scotland plaque which marks the birthplace of the pioneer aviator James Allan Mollison. He was the first person to fly solo across the north Atlantic in a westerly direction, in August 1932.
I expect someone to jump to their feet when I mention that the connection to air defence at RAF Leuchars goes back to before the creation of the RAF.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
My hon. Friend might want me to make my point first. [Laughter.] I think the balloon corps was based there from 1915, but I am probably about to get corrected by the MP for RAF Leuchars.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I actually will correct him. It has been based there since 1911, so there is over a century’s association between Leuchars and our air services, if I can call it that. If I could further explain, Leuchars, although a military base—we are looking forward to the investment from the Ministry of Defence over the coming years—is a jewel in the crown for the MOD, given that it retains that fantastic runway and so has the ability to continue to serve the RAF and the rest of the military to this present day.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know he has a very good relationship with the base there: it is a solid part of the local community in his constituency. I am sure there are many great jokes to be made in future SNP adoption meetings about his being the MP for the balloon corps. I would not be so unkind as to illustrate them on the Floor of the House.
It was of course a tremendous act of foresight by this place—something it does not always get right—to create the Royal Air Force, the only one of the forces created by an Act of Parliament. The RAF went on to play a vital role in securing the security, dignity and freedom of millions not just in this country but across the world. I want to pay particular tribute to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which will be known to many Members, and the excellent work it does to support RAF families and veterans. It was an honour to join it in Edinburgh this year as part of the RAF100 celebrations, with other hon. Members.
To turn to more contemporary matters concerning the RAF, it is true that SNP Members have not always agreed with the decisions made by this and previous Governments on how they have chosen to deploy military force, but for the purpose of this debate, we can sit that to one side. However, we need a serious discussion and all wish to see serious progress on morale among those serving in the forces. The last continuous attitude survey showed that only 41% of those serving in the RAF were satisfied with service life and only 32% reported having high morale. The armed forces charity, SSAFA, found in 2016 that 40% of working-age veterans said that they were suffering from depression, 36% felt that they had a lack of hope or purpose, and 30% said that they had a mental health issue.
Somewhere around the beginning of the debate, it was mentioned that the Government brought forward a debate on the new veterans strategy. It is a good strategy and I sincerely hope that it delivers, but there has to be an acknowledgement of the lack of joined-up working and joined-up thinking on how we can tackle these issues. At Defence questions this afternoon, we heard about the work that is done, for example, by armed forces champions in different local authorities. I am not entirely sure what the make-up is in the rest of the UK, but in Scotland we have 32 armed forces and veterans champions in 32 different local authorities, and in some cases, we can have 32 different people doing 32 different jobs, because the role is not clearly defined. It seems that it is really what the champion chooses to make of it, and I think that those who have served in the RAF and the other forces deserve a bit more than that.
We have to consider these issues when we look at the larger issue of the recruitment crisis. I do not have the exact figures in front of me concerning the RAF, but I know that the House has shown great concern about this in the past.
The hon. Gentleman is raising an important point about morale. Alongside the difficulties that he raises, does he agree that many people in the air force have very transferrable skills that are worth a huge amount of money in the private sector, and that as they get towards the mid-levels of their careers in the air force, the pressure on family life and the alternatives that are available mean that they move on and we end up with a deskilled air force? We still have top-quality people and top-quality equipment, but we are perhaps not as match-fit as we should be in the current climate.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to raise that point. Indeed, the continuous attitude survey even found examples of large numbers of people in not just the air force but the other forces joining up for the purpose of getting a skill to then move out into the private sector. This cannot be a taboo subject that we dance around in such debates; we need to have a serious discussion about this and tackle it head on.
Let me turn to how we make the armed forces a more attractive career and a place that does not have such a movable workforce, with people going in to get a skill to then go into the private sector, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Scottish National party has introduced one proposal in particular that we believe could help to not just resolve some of these issues, but show that there is real political will to make the armed forces an attractive career prospect—it is on the issue of an armed forces representative body. This often causes some Conservative Members in particular to get a bit hot under the collar, but it is an entirely normal practice in several other NATO countries, in many of their armed forces, and it operates in different ways. The model that we suggest as a starting point is based much on that of the Police Federation.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—the Minister for defence people and the armed forces—said at Defence questions earlier that the reason we do not need to have a body or a trade union, or whatever we want to call it, is that the armed forces have Members of Parliament to do the bidding for them. Look around you, Mr Deputy Speaker—if this is the backstop for members of the armed forces, then my goodness, we are in much more trouble than some of us suspected. If we go back to video footage of the parliamentary debate on the veterans strategy, we see that we could have fit every MP who was here for that debate on to the Treasury Bench alone.
I see that the Minister is anxious to come in, and I will let him. We are not proposing in the Armed Forces Representative Body Bill that we give members of the armed forces the right to strike—we do not agree with that—but we do think it is right that members of the armed forces should have a body on a statutory footing to make the case for the best possible terms and conditions as public sector workers who do the most extraordinary job in the public sector.
Will the hon. Gentleman share with the House what evidence he has that there is any call from members of the armed forces for such a move?
We put this in our manifesto at the last election—we put it in our manifesto for the election before that as well—and we returned 35 of the 59 Scottish seats that were up for grabs. Look, I am not sure to what extent there is polling on this—[Interruption.] Well, the Minister asked for evidence, and that is what I have got, but I am quite sure that he and those who sit on the Government Benches behind him want to take this issue seriously. I say this as no criticism of the shadow Front Benchers, but we have brought forward a proposal. Let us get something together so that we can start to have a serious discussion. At the end of the day, we all want the armed forces to be a serious and attractive place to go. My goodness, it has many, many problems, so let us have a discussion. The Scottish National party—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) introduced this Bill—will aim to produce a Bill, and I will make sure that it gets sent directly to the Minister, as a starting point for where we can take things.
My hon. Friend is being generous by taking a second intervention from me. I stress to the Minister that a good idea is a good idea that is worth exploring, and I know that he will do this in good terms. I have even spoken to Ministers about families as well, because when we talk about backstops and support, we have to remember military spouses. On that, I recommend Leuchars co-working hub, where some of the military wives—it does tend to be the military wives—have worked together to provide support for businesses. The best back-up that our military and RAF personnel have is their families. They deserve our support, and my hon. Friend’s idea is an excellent one, which is supported by a number of families, too.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: a good idea is a good idea. It has been introduced with the genuine best of intentions, and I hope that the Government will see it in that spirit.
The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), mentioned the issue of funding, which also plays into the whole notion of whether a young person today would choose to sign up to the armed forces. If they were to spend any time at all looking into how the armed forces are funded—the pages of The Times newspaper are usually where someone can read all about this—it would cause them some concern. SNP Members have offered to the Secretary of State and his team of Ministers to try to get to a sustainable level of funding for the MOD, because that is clearly not there now. The shadow Secretary of State mentioned the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee reports that show that the affordability gap in the equipment plan has got worse, not better—indeed, the best-case scenario has got worse by around £3 billion.
We can really only hold our fingers in our ears about this issue for a certain amount of time. Again, we have brought forward another good idea. Indeed, the former Minister, whose constituency has gone right out of my head, but who chose to resign from the MOD over the Brexit issue, said that he would consider our proposal of multi-year defence agreements to try to bring some sustainability to how the armed forces, such as the RAF, can be funded. Again, this is an entirely normal practice in other NATO member states and in other European countries. It helps to take the heat out of how defence is funded—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) shouts that the Minister was the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). The proposal could help to take the heat out of some of that discussion and put some proper weight behind what the MOD want to achieve.
In that context of what the MOD wants to achieve, what is the role of the armed forces, and what is the role of the RAF to be? We thought we would all see that in the modernising defence programme, a programme that is now so steeped in controversy that I am not sure whether anyone will be able to take it seriously when it is published. We were supposed to see something earlier this year that would be linked with cyber-security and cyber-defence, but that was hived off in about April, which I think was a sensible decision.
The Government then promised to produce the programme before the summer recess, but instead the House was treated to—I think—four or five paragraphs in a written statement on the day the House rose for the recess. My nephew could have written that in a couple of hours, and he only started high school this year. It is really not on. If I were in the armed forces, looking on, I would be thinking, “What on earth is going on at Government level to ensure that we have the necessary equipment and funds so that we can continue to have the fine armed forces that we deserve?” When will the modernising defence programme be published so that the House can consider it?
I said earlier that creating the Royal Air Force was a tremendous act of foresight by Parliament. I think that we now need to revisit these questions: what is the modern Royal Air Force set to achieve for the United Kingdom and its allies, and what is its role to be in a changing threat picture involving kinetic and hybrid threats? I accept that we cannot give any serious answers in the time that remains this evening—
There is plenty of time.
I do not want to prevent others from showing their worth, Mr Deputy Speaker.
That is the level to which Parliament needs to take this debate. I think that Parliament is up for it; I just hope that the Government are as well.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), both of whom made knowledgeable, relevant and eloquent speeches.
“Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.”
As I am sure many Members will know, it was Pericles, the 5th-century Greek statesman, who said that. I think the House is united in recognising that for the last 100 years the Royal Air Force has been at the forefront of that defence on our behalf, along with the Royal Navy and the British Army. In that role, they have acquitted themselves with a terrific record of courage, sacrifice, innovation and service.
I am proud to say that much of that innovation, and much of the early development of the Royal Air Force, took place in my constituency. Farnborough had a critical role to play in the genesis of the RAF, partly through its role as the birthplace of British aviation. Samuel Cody, a tremendous pioneer, conducted the first British flight in October 1908. The flight, which lasted not much more than 20 seconds, concluded with his crashing into a tree, but it was nevertheless the first British flight, and was the start of a tremendous sequence of innovation whose legacy still exists today. Everyone will be aware of the terrific biennial air show, when the numerous defence and aviation industries cluster around Farnborough and the Blackwater valley. This year’s show saw the unveiling of Tempest, which represents the future of air combat.
Farnborough’s role in the genesis of the RAF was connected not just with the first British flight but with its position as Lord Trenchard’s headquarters, where he formalised the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps as a battle-winning force. What had been a battle-winning force in the first world war had, by the second world war, developed into a war-winning force, in the form of both Fighter Command, which in the summer and autumn of 1940 prevented the invasion of this country by the Germans, and Bomber Command, which smashed Germany’s means of war production with extraordinary losses to its flight crews. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East mentioned that the Bomber Command air crews suffered devastating losses: a total of 55,573 perished during raids. As Members will know, Churchill said:
“The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”
I think it a fitting testament to their sacrifice that that is inscribed on the Bomber Command memorial in Hyde Park, which most Members will have visited.
It is absolutely right for my hon. Friend to pay tribute to the crews of Bomber Command, many of whom flew on their own in the dark at night, despite being part of large formations heading for Germany, and who showed exceptional bravery. Does he agree that it is a shame that it took so long to secure that fantastic memorial to those who have lost their lives in the service of this country?
We waited too long for that memorial, but I think we all agree that, now that it exists, we wholeheartedly support it, and recognise their sacrifice and their valour.
May I commend to the House Air Chief Marshal Sir “Stuffy” Dowding, who ran Bomber Command, and who was unjustly dealt with at the end of the war?
I am grateful for that intervention from my hon. and gallant Friend. As he says, the record and the history of Bomber Command created a great deal of controversy, but it is good that we now have the memorial, and a more widespread recognition of its role and its contribution to our efforts in the second world war.
If I happen to catch the eye of the Chair later, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make this point more fully. During those difficult early years of the war, it was only Bomber Command that took the war to the fascist enemy that we eventually overcame. I join the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and others in paying tribute to the men of Bomber Command, for whom the recognition that they thoroughly deserved came so late.
It came late, but it was wholehearted and sincere. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that Fighter Command was our salvation, but Bomber Command alone was the means for our victory. That, I think, is a fitting testament.
As I listen to my hon. Friend, I am struck by the fact that the Royal Air Force did what was necessary and right, using the weapons that were available at the time. I hope he agrees that we are blessed indeed that at this time the RAF is equipped with precision weapons that will ensure that we do not face such tactics again.
Absolutely. Those who fly in the world-leading Typhoon and F-35 platforms are the same in spirit, but they have remarkably more precise weapons. It is to the credit of the early innovators of the RAF that our own military establishment can develop such means of precision.
The war experience of many of those pilots was very poignant, especially because of their youth. Many of them were extremely young, and because of their inexperience they had no real conception of the strategic importance of their role. Many were simply interested in flying. They were not really interested in the politics or the strategy of the war as a whole; they were simply drawn to the near-magical experience of flying.
I am sure that many Members will be aware of the way in which W.B. Yeats gave voice to that sense in his famous poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, in which he wrote:
“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds”.
I think that that is an eloquent description of the motivation that many of those young pilots experienced.
Another poetic voice was that of Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, who described his experience as a Spitfire pilot with the following famous words:
“with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
—Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
This is all the more poignant because it was written very shortly before his death, aged just 19, in 1941.
We are conscious that it is that same impulse today that drives pilots in our modern Royal Air Force, twinned with a remarkable tradition of courage, sacrifice and service, and we must note that, currently serving in all platforms, such as Typhoon, F-35, even the Chinook regiment in Odiham, Hampshire, we have a very large number of RAF pilots engaged on operations across 22 countries doing their utmost to keep us safe. Since 2014, there have been 1,750 airstrikes across Syria and Iraq as part of Op Shader, and this is the work of the RAF being conducted to the highest standards of tradition and courage, which we have come to expect. I will give one example: Flight Lieutenant Thomas Hansford, a Typhoon pilot, was last week happily awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for conducting a nine-hour mission to destroy an ISIS convoy out of his base in Cyprus.
So the tradition that we have been describing, and which had its genesis in the first and second world wars, is alive and well, and I think the whole House is conscious that people like Flight Lieutenant Hansford inherit this tradition. He is an extremely brave young man, but we should also note that the 32,000 personnel in the RAF serving alongside him are also loyal and brave, just as he is.
These are people who serve as individuals, but who together in their teams, regiments and formations, and as our Royal Air Force, have a strategic impact and a remarkable reach around the globe. As we celebrate 100 years of the RAF, this House owes them all our gratitude, our respect and our thanks.
Order. As colleagues will see, a fair few Members want to contribute to the debate. I will not impose a time limit, but if contributors can stick to just under 10 minutes we can get everybody in.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), a fellow member of the Defence Committee, and the Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
I speak as chair of the all-party group on the Royal Air Force, an alumnus of the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the RAF, chair of the all-party group on reserves and cadets forces, about which we have heard a lot, and, very proudly, co-chair, with former Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup, of the Royal Air Forces Association parliamentary branch here in Westminster.
We have heard a lot about this year being the 100th anniversary of the RAF, but we have also been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first world war. It is coming to an end, but I urge people if they have time to pop down to Porthcawl and see the fantastic display both commemorating the events of the first world war and showing the connections of Porthcawl and south Wales to the RAF.
I have a poster in my office that was put out in the first world war encouraging people to join the new Air Force. It is a wonderful inducement to join, saying, “If you volunteer to join, you will not be forced against your will to join the Army or the Navy.” I can see people thronging to join up on that basis alone.
We heard early on about the RAF being formed on 1 April 1918, with the merging of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. That partnership endures and is still important today, and those of us who are following events on the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier can see how vital that synergy continues to be through to today.
Right at the start, the RAF was a service that embraced new technology and techniques, and it has been that way ever since. The new air service fought all over and in every aspect of the battlefields of the first world war, providing invaluable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability, as well as carrying out what we all know in terms of its bombing missions, and that was vital to the eventual victory.
After the war, innovation moved into civilian life. A department of civil aviation was created within the Air Ministry to regulate aviation in the UK in 1919, the same year that two RAF officers, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic ocean, a seemingly impossible task.
During the interwar years, the RAF began its long tradition of training apprentices in the skills of aircraft engineering and maintenance, setting them up for great careers both in the service and in the growing aircraft industry, which was vital for the regeneration of the UK economy. During those interwar years, the RAF became a true national institution. With the outbreak of the second world war, the RAF once again stepped up to defend the country; it fought valiantly, defending our skies and our shores from invasion.
I want to talk about two things. The first of them is the way the RAF has always been willing to absorb people from across the world. The RAF’s No. 145 Squadron consisted of men from Belgium, Australia, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Trinidad, Poland, the US, Canada and South Africa. The fantastic Air Transport Auxiliary consisted of 166 women pilots who often flew a plane after getting just 15 minutes to read a manual. They had no navigation capability; they literally had maps on their laps and navigated themselves around the country. But it attracted pilots from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US, Poland and the Netherlands, again coming to Britain to fight on our side, but coming to Britain also because of the chance to fly with the RAF.
Since I have been chair of the all-party group, we have taken to having a battle of Britain dinner. I want to tell Members about the first of them, because it was one of the most moving experiences I have had in this House. I asked those pilots and aircrew who were with us if they would each give us just three minutes of their memories. The first man said, “I want to thank the merchant navy. Without the merchant navy and their bravery, we couldn’t have flown. So that is my memory: the death of all those men in the merchant navy.” Everybody was rocked.
Then the second man stood, and he said, “I want to thank the French civilians. My plane came down and I walked for two days. I did not know where the heck I was, and eventually in desperation, I knocked at a door and a family took me in. They hid me; at risk to their own lives, they fed me, they dealt with my wounds, and then they moved me from family friend to family friend until I actually made it to Portugal. And I got back, and I had the chance to fly again.”
The whole history of the RAF is about amazing people. I cannot tell hon. Members how wonderful everyone from the RAF I have ever worked with has been and how willing and open to new ideas and innovation they are.
During the cold war, the RAF played a critical role in keeping us safe. We tend to dismiss the cold war now, but it was the deterrence represented by the RAF that kept us safe. Because people knew the risk of challenging the Royal Air Force, the cold war remained a cold war and never became a hot war. Even today, the RAF remains one of the world’s most capable and respected air forces. Its fighter capability and its intelligence gathering are huge.
During its first 100 years, the RAF has shown the spirit and invaluable service that our air force provides to this country, not only in defending our skies but in innovating, adapting and improving and in making use of new technology in combination with the skill and professionalism of its servicemen and women to create a national institution that we are all rightly proud of. That challenge continues and faces us every day.
The Secretary of State talked about Carbonite-2, the satellite capability launched recently by the RAF, along with its range of sensors and ground stations. Carbonite-2 is huge by comparison with some satellites that we see nowadays. It is about the size of a washing machine, but its telescope and high-definition video recording will provide critical information for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—ISR—purposes. That information will be sent into the cockpits of our fighter jets before we know it.
In 2017, I presented a report to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on “The Space Domain and Allied Defence”, in which I said:
“NATO needs a whole-of-alliance approach to protect its interests in space to enhance resilience and deter any threat to its space-based capabilities.”
I am very proud that the RAF takes on that challenge.
It would be remiss of us here in the House not to record our congratulations to the hon. Lady on becoming President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. We are all greatly encouraged by her elevation to that position, and we wish her well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments.
We have a problem within the NATO alliance, however. At the moment, there are just six postings in NATO, in six different departments, that are designated as space operational positions. That is not good enough. We must all welcome the development of the bi-strategic command space working group, which has recommended the creation of a NATO space operational centre of excellence to offer expertise and experience that will benefit nations across the alliance. We are fortunate here in the UK, because we have a very capable space technology community. Not everyone is so advanced in that field, and we need to spread that expertise.
NATO’s joint air power strategy is dependent on national space-based capabilities to support air, maritime, land and cyber domains, and for early warning, ISR, communications, positioning, navigation and timing information. We are at a time when the treaties and regulatory and legal frameworks relating to space will have to change. We have always argued that space should not be weaponised, but the threats that are coming our way indicate that other countries will not abide by the existing rules, and we need to be ready to face those threats.
The Secretary of State talked about the RAF already being engaged in 15 missions across 22 countries, the majority of which are alliance missions. We all have a responsibility to ensure that they have the money, the personnel, the training and the best technology to ensure that the RAF’s edge is maintained and that its ability to command the air environment continues.
One of the most amazing things about being a member of the Defence Committee is that we have the capacity to drill down into areas that other people do not always understand. An example would be the RAF rules of engagement. When I was doing a report on behalf of the Committee on remotely piloted air systems—known as drones to the rest of the world—it was fascinating to see the rigorous nature of the rules of engagement and of the tests that everyone going in to pilot a drone in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world is required to go through before they can go on duty. It was fascinating to see the checks and balances involved, and the requirement to ensure the safety of civilians, which was central to everyone’s thinking. I do not think that we speak enough about that. We do not tell our public how high the level of integrity is of the people who serve this country, how that manifests itself day after day and how respected it is around the world.
I want briefly to mention the importance of the defence industry. The combat air sector has contributed 80% of the total defence exports over the past 10 years. It has an annual turnover of £6 billion and supports 18,000 skilled jobs. That vast network is part of the RAF legacy and an offshoot of this national institution.
I cannot finish without speaking about the people of the RAF. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and I share a great friend. When I became the chair of the RAF all-party parliamentary group, a liaison officer was appointed by the Ministry of Defence to ensure that I understood things and perhaps that I behaved myself—he did not do very well at that—as well as to ensure that I was accurate in the things that I said and did. That man was Wing Commander Philip Lamb. After being a parliamentary liaison officer, he went on to be the station commander at St Mawgan and then to become our defence attaché in Sweden. It was there that he became ill. On the day—in fact, at the very minute—that I was told I was to be the next President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a text appeared on my phone. I opened it, and it told me that Philip had died. Philip was a man who, like so many in the RAF, served his country with distinction, commitment and integrity. Like so many others, he was a man who let the world know that the RAF still attracted the best people. They are people who really do go through adversity to the stars in protecting this country.
It is an immense and humbling privilege to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), and so many other hon. Members who have made such knowledgeable and insightful speeches. I possess neither the insight nor the first-hand experience to measure up in any way to those speeches, so I stand sincerely and humbly as the Member of Parliament for Stirling simply to pay tribute to the Royal Air Force on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. The RAF was formed, as has been mentioned, as a result of the amalgamation of a number of entities, including the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps. They came together to create the world’s first independent, stand-alone air force.
I have no personal or family connection with the RAF, but I honour all those who do. My emotions towards the RAF were first stirred—I feel confident to talk about this now, having heard the Secretary of State say how much he is looking forward to seeing the film “Hurricane”—by the boyhood experience of going with some friends to the Regal cinema on East High Street in Forfar—it is no longer there—to watch the 1969 epic “Battle of Britain”. That film and the heroics therein displayed made a great impact on me: feelings of appreciation for the sacrifice of those who serve our country in uniform were kindled, and feelings of deep patriotism were stirred.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and everything he said about the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) is absolutely true. Does he share my appreciation of the women who worked in the Gloster Aircraft Company during the second world war? They often travelled for many hours to get to work, from places such as the Forest of Dean. They manufactured all the Typhoons made in this country and most of the Hurricanes, but I feel that their contribution to the RAF is sometimes overlooked.
I add my sentiments to those expressed by my hon. Friend about all those who contributed to the war effort, men and women, because the heroics of the few will never be forgotten; they saved our country and our freedom in the summer of 1940 and thereafter. Although there are few left of the few, our indebtedness to the air crews and ground crews of the wartime RAF is immense and in no way diminished by the passage of time.
I wish to pause at this point to express my appreciation of the modern-day RAF and particularly of those responsible for the quick reaction alert Typhoon aircraft stationed at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, who stand ready to defend our airspace 24 hours a day, every day of the year. They have been called upon to do so with increasing regularity in recent years, as the Russians become more audacious in their incursions.
It is important not to let such an important anniversary go by without taking the time to reflect on it. The RAF has served the people of these islands with great distinction. It is right that we, as a United Kingdom, should be proud of them. That brings me to two of the great pioneers in the field of aviation, who lived, worked and did great things in Stirling: Captain Frank Barnwell and his brother Harold Barnwell, who were the British equivalent of the Wright brothers. They established the Grampian Engineering and Motor Company works in Causewayhead in Stirling in 1907, at the foot of the Wallace monument, where they achieved the first powered flight in Scotland. It was very similar to the experience described by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). The brothers were in fact Londoners who became great Scottish pioneers—a fitting symbol of the great Union between Scotland and England.
Harold tragically lost his life while testing an aircraft during the first world war, and Frank served his country for many years, gaining the Air Force Cross in 1918. Frank’s three sons all served in the RAF during the second world war, and tragically all three were killed during the battle of Britain or shortly thereafter. I would like to mention their names for the record. They were: Pilot Officer David Usher Barnwell DFC, RAFVR, of 607 Squadron, who died aged 19 on 14 October 1941; Flight Lieutenant Richard Antony Barnwell, of 102 Squadron, who died aged 24 on 29 October 1940; and Pilot Officer John Sandes Barnwell, of 29 Squadron, who died aged 20 on 19 June 1940.
That capacity for service exemplifies so much about the Royal Air Force, and about how bravely those early aviators took to the skies in defence of their families, their communities and their country. That is the type of service that the Royal Air Force has given us as a nation, and we know that we can rely on its vigilance in the skies above us to protect and defend us.
Stirling has a proud connection with the Royal Air Force. The RAF had its Scottish headquarters in Stirling. In fact, the RAF command for Scotland based itself in the Station hotel for the first five years of its operation.
It had a good bar, probably.
The record does not show which part of the hotel was occupied. The hotel was demolished many years ago and the site is now occupied by a branch of the Clydesdale bank and a McDonald’s.
There is a memorial to the establishment of the RAF in the field under Stirling castle, where the planes took off and landed in the early days. In fact, it was noted by RAF officers at the time that Stirling had much to commend itself as an airfield, if only the castle rock was not in the way. Given that the Army was already entrenched in Stirling with its headquarters, it is quite possible that some early rivalries were at play, but thankfully the castle and the rock upon which it sits were never removed—that would have been quite a feat, even for our armed forces.
Stirling maintains its connection with the Royal Air Force to this day. In 2005, 43 Fighter Squadron was give the freedom of Stirling and paraded through the city. The “fighting cocks,” as they are commonly known, were the first RAF squadron to be given such an honour by a British city. They were stood down in 2009.
The battle honours on the standard held in the church of the Holy Rude in Stirling are a testament to the sacrifice of 43 Squadron, which served on the western front, 1917-18; Ypres, 1917; the Somme, 1918; Dunkirk and the battle of Britain, 1940; north Africa, 1942-43; and Anzio, France and Germany, 1944.
We should be proud of our history, and in Stirling we are—we honour the Royal Air Force and our connection with it. The RAF must be resourced to continue to serve our United Kingdom well into the future. The term “futureproofed” was used earlier, and it is a good measure against which to judge the investment we make in our air and space defences.
My hon. Friend is kind in giving way. On the future of the RAF, does he agree with me—I speak with some interest, because I was once a cadet pilot in the Oxford University air squadron—that the university air squadrons have an important role to play in training both future RAF pilots and future champions of the RAF?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for his intervention.
I conclude by simply saying that I believe we can count on the Royal Air Force, and on the men and women who serve in the uniform of the Royal Air Force, to continue to serve our nation, and the wider world, both in times of conflict and in providing humanitarian relief throughout the world.
I am honoured to speak for a few minutes in tonight’s important debate marking the 100-year anniversary of the Royal Air Force. I am humbled to follow such incredible speeches, particularly the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon).
I have a few words to say about my constituency link with the Royal Air Force’s history. As we all know, the Royal Air Force is the oldest independent air force in the world, and it has a significant place in British military history.
The Royal Air Force actually celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this year, and it has marked that occasion throughout the year with a series of events, the centrepiece being the centenary service in Westminster Abbey, the parade on the Mall and the flypast over Buckingham Palace. Those events were followed by many people in my constituency of Feltham and Heston, many of whom have their own connection, but the constituency also has a connection with the development and growth of the Air Force.
My constituency has played an important role, with Hanworth air park having been a hub for the Air Ministry. It was also home to Whitehead Aircraft Ltd, which was contracted to make more than 820 Sopwith Pups and 500 Airco DH9 bombers. Some of that history is now being brought to light— we have not really known about it or talked about it for a long time—because of local residents who are keen to bring out that history, some of which has been unearthed by the exploration of what happened during the first world war, the centenary of which is also being marked this year.
I pay tribute to local historians Eddie Menday, Roger Cowing and others from the Feltham history group, and also to Katy Cox and Richard Griffiths who have done an amazing job as Friends of Hanworth Park House and who recently supported a play organised by Terri Creaser and others in my constituency that brought local history, including military history, alive to help connect young people with their sense of local place. The play was taken from school to school, and it reached more than 1,000 primary schoolchildren, along with materials to help them to understand how their local area has developed and to give them a sense of pride in place, as well as a connection with and context for what is around them today.
I also pay tribute to our cadets. Our air cadets, sea cadets and army cadets now play an important part in much of our civic life in the constituency. They play their part admirably and gracefully every Remembrance Sunday, and they help with stewarding at other civic events. They are in uniform, and they are proud of their connection with our armed forces.
This debate and the way we have marked the centenary of the RAF will have made a real impact on those cadets who are coming through today. They have big shoes to fill and a great sense of history and pride, and they are now the future. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s speech, which focused on the future. That is an important part of what we do as we mark the history—we not only recognise, but encourage and engage people to understand and appreciate the sense of purpose and patriotism that comes with serving our country in such a way.
Let me say a few more words about Hanworth and its contribution. Hanworth Park became known as the London air park in 1917. Aircraft were tested there before being accepted and a flying school was developed there where pilots could be trained. On 8 August 1915, the mothers of sailors, soldiers and servicemen gathered in Hanworth for their very own mothers day, which was a celebration of the mothers of those serving in the war, with prizes, food and a special aircraft display. I understand that that was the start of mothers day as we know it today.
The first air ambulance, named “Florence Nightingale”, was christened in Hanworth in 1936 by female aviator Amy Johnson. The pilot Lettice Curtis flew a Mk.1 Hurricane to Hanworth before it was converted into a Sea Hurricane. The park is now largely a public space, containing Hanworth Air Park leisure centre, where I was quite good at squash in my younger days, and a library, which is used by many of my constituents. The park’s history should not be forgotten. I am proud that it is still home to a flying club for those who are interested in flying model aircraft and staying connected to our history and to what is an important hobby. So I am proud of the role of the people of Feltham and Heston in the formation and development of the RAF.
Before I conclude, I wish to make a couple of points that I made to the Secretary of State earlier about the resources in place now. He mentioned that there may be some more up-to-date data on the last month or so but, according to the Library briefing, the full-time trained strength of the RAF is currently 30,070, which is a deficit of 6.4% on the target of 31,750 that was set out in the 2015 strategic defence and security review for 2020. In addition, only 41% of RAF personnel described themselves as “satisfied” with service life in general, and only 32% reported having high morale in the most recent armed forces continuous attitudes survey. I know that there will be other data and figures to look at, but it is important to recognise that morale; the pressures of change, which can also have an impact on morale; the retraining that may be needed and the support for that; and the impact that low morale can also have on the families of those who are serving, are important issues. It is important for us to keep them in mind as we both celebrate and recognise the changes that are coming through with new technologies and how we need to prepare better for defence and combat in the future.
On behalf of all my constituents, I am very proud to be able to be here to pay tribute to all the pilots and RAF staff who served to defend the UK. We owe them all the deepest of thanks.
I had better declare an interest: I am an honourable companion of the RAF Regiment officers’ dinner club. I was brought up in the RAF, so I have a real soft spot for it and particularly for the RAF Regiment, of which my father was an officer. I am going to talk about the RAF Regiment, because only my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has mentioned the rock apes—which is what they are called colloquially because one shot another on a shooting expedition and said, “I thought it was a rock ape.”
The rock apes—the RAF Regiment—were formed on 1 February 1942. They had come from various armoured car squadrons—Nos. 1, 2 and 3, which had beautiful Rolls-Royce armoured vehicles—but fundamentally they were to become the infantry of the RAF. They were there to protect the RAF’s assets—the aeroplanes, the personnel and the airfields—and they did that spectacularly well. During the second world war, their numbers grew to 80,000. They operated in all theatres and took part in many battles, perhaps the most famous of which, from their point of view, was Meiktila, where in an area of 900 square metres in the middle of the Burmese jungle, a handful of RAF personnel, with Army personnel and Americans, held off the Japanese for three weeks. Each morning, they had to clear the Japanese from out of their lines. That is a battle honour of which the RAF Regiment is rightly proud.
RAF Regiment personnel were always up front, either directing aircraft for strikes or looking for airfields so that they could keep the momentum going for the ground forces, and that is what they did. Indeed, RAF Regiment personnel were among the first people into Paris and Brussels—nothing to do with the bars, I suspect. They also took over something like 16 airfields in north-west Germany very quickly. Squadron Leader Mark Hobden of the RAF Regiment captured Grand Admiral Doenitz, who was going to be Hitler’s successor. I knew Mark Hobden—he was my father’s commanding officer at one stage—and it was a real honour to meet him.
This is kept too quiet, really, but during the 1950s, the RAF Regiment operated a force called the Aden Protectorate Levies in a country that is now called Yemen. The force was based in Aden, and my father and fellow officers, warrant officers and senior non-commissioned officers of the RAF Regiment operated in the Aden Protectorate Levies. The force saw huge active service—so much so that at one stage the RAF Regiment was the most decorated regiment in the British service.
Let me give an example. On 15 June 1955, some 100 Aden Protectorate Levies personnel mounted in three Land Rovers and nine trucks moved into a wadi south of Fort Robat. Despite a little bit of sniping, the convoy got through to the fort, delivered its supplies to the people there and turned to come back. The personnel started back at 1.30 pm, by which time the local terrorist commander Salem Ali Mawer—a Houthi, by the way—was ready for them. Within a few minutes, the force of 100 people was heavily engaged from the sheer slopes of the wadi. Almost immediately, a young British RAF Regiment officer was killed, and so was an Arab soldier. Several others were wounded.
The commanding officer, Wing Commander Rodney Marshall, ordered my father, a squadron leader, to evacuate the wounded. My father did that. He took them down in a truck, all the way down the wadi—about 2 miles—but then some retreating soldiers, coming out of the wadi, said, “There are no officers left. The commanding officer is dead.” My father knew that he had to go back into the ambush to get everyone out. Meanwhile, in Aden, signals were coming back and I, as a little boy, with my mother, was told by the padre that my father was dead. The story was that all the officers had gone. What happened was this: the senior Arab officer and the commanding officer were killed. In total, eight people were killed, and another eight were wounded. My father received the Military Cross, as did, posthumously, Rodney Marshall, and the senior Arab officer.
I will just read a little bit from the citation in the London Gazette about my father after he learned that the commanding officer had been killed.
“Squadron Leader Stewart assumed command of the Force and immediately organised the volunteer party. He led them back into the area which was under heavy and accurate fire, in an attempt to recover the dead bodies and wounded. Unable to locate the dead body of the Wing Commander, he recovered a three ton vehicle which contained a dead guard and had one tyre deflated by rifle fire. He personally drove the damaged truck back under fire, twice stopping to pick up wounded. More casualties were inflicted during the return passage through the Wadi. In all there were eight killed and seven wounded. Having assumed command of the Force he moved it tactically to an emergency airstrip and organised the evacuation of the most seriously wounded. Sniping ensued during this evacuation and hostile and accurate fire was encountered.”
That is typical of the RAF Regiment. It is a superb, outstandingly professional force and a joy to be with. I often, every year, have dinner with them in the RAF Club.
My hon. and gallant Friend has made a remarkable tribute to his father in the RAF Regiment. Will he allow me just to mention my step grandfather who fought in the first war with the Royal Flying Corps and was then seconded to the fledgling Estonian air force to be its chief flying instructor for some years? When he died in the 1980s, he said to me that his only regret was that three countries that he knew well—all three of the Baltic States—no longer existed. Times have changed, fortunately.
It is a lovely time to remember our families and to attune that with the history of the RAF.
Let me bring the House up to date. In Iraq, five RAF Regiment personnel were killed. Actually, I was present when three of them were killed because I was doing a film. I was cowering in a bathroom when the rockets came in and three RAF Regiment personnel were killed. Therefore, five were killed in Iraq and five more were killed in Afghanistan. These people are right on the frontline, and the RAF realises that. Three Military Crosses were awarded in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is pretty good for such a small number of squadrons.
I hope that I have highlighted, in the short time I have spoken, what a wonderful force the RAF Regiment is, how vital it is to this country, particularly to the Royal Air Force, and how it has a huge part in the future of the Royal Air Force.
I will finish by congratulating the RAF Regiment. The RAF may be 100, but the RAF Regiment, such a crucial part of the RAF, is 76, so well done the RAF Regiment.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I congratulate him on his excellent tribute to his father and the RAF Regiment; I would say 76 not out—still going.
We find ourselves celebrating 100 years of the RAF, and the men and women who have served to defend this country and our freedom. As we have heard today, the RAF also brings aid and assistance to those in urgent need all around the globe, and takes what is best about this country out to people who are suffering.
I remind the House of the RAF100 celebrations, when a specially designed baton was taken to 100 places associated with the RAF around the UK and overseas for 100 days. That included celebrations in my constituency of East Lothian. East Lothian plays a vital part in the history of the RAF, so it is appropriate that I stand today to remember those from East Lothian who served with the RAF since its founding years. I sincerely hope that there are Members in this House who are aware of East Fortune airfield in East Lothian. The airfield was used from 1918 to 1920, and then again in world war two from 1940 to 1947, when it operated first as a flying training establishment and eventually became the station for a group of de Havilland Mosquito aircraft.
There were also airfields at Macmerry and Drem, which were vital to the RAF during world war two. This is particularly true of RAF Drem, which was the most active fighter station during the war. It was the defence fighter unit for the city of Edinburgh and the shipping area around the Forth, providing first line cover for the city, the Forth bridge and the very important naval base at Rosyth. These three stations brought many RAF personnel to East Lothian and many stayed after the conflicts to bring up their families and become part of the community, so the RAF is closely intertwined with our local history.
East Fortune is now part of the National Museum of Scotland and is one of the best preserved wartime airfields from the first world war across the world. The museum has plans for a sympathetic extension next year to better tell the story of flight in Scotland and around the world, and—more importantly—to tell the history of the RAF. I give credit to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for reminding me of the Vulcan bomber, because the Vulcan bomber that took part in the Falklands conflict and spent some of its time sitting in Brazil is now resident at the airfield, and can be visited and touched by young children.
That brings me to one of the really important things about the RAF. As has been said today, it is one of the largest employers of apprentices, but the RAF and those aeroplanes also spell an imagination and a charge to children who see them, and give them a drive for future learning. We have spent this Year of Engineering seeking to inspire both boys and girls to a future in technology and mechanics, and the RAF does that day in, day out with fly-bys, visits and more.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that technology can be seen today in the helicopter fleets, particularly in the way in which the Puma has been used in the Caribbean to tackle the problems that arose from the hurricane? That technology is inspiring apprentices all the way through.
Indeed, the multifaceted skills and techniques in the machinery and in the individuals who make up the RAF do inspire and save. To use an old phrase, the RAF is one of the greatest ambassadors that this country has at times like that of the recent hurricane.
Time is quite tight, so I will use my small conclusion to make mention of one local group, the Aviation Preservation Society of Scotland, which personifies all the elements of the RAF that are so important. Over 17 years, the volunteers of the APSS have undertaken to build a replica Sopwith 1½ Strutter biplane. They have used original plans and materials, investing thousands of hours’ work to recreate a flying replica of this world war one plane. The volunteers, many of whom come from the RAF and the aviation industry in and around Edinburgh, have worked without grumble—but with plenty of tea and a lot of huddling around heaters in freezing cold warehouses—to bring this aeroplane to life. In doing so, they have done something much more: they have forged a friendship and a bond. They have given each other support that has generally been good. Their interconnection with each other shows what the RAF does when men and women are serving with it: they act as a family.
The Secretary of State and other right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the duty that we owe these people with regard to their wellbeing and health. It is imperative that we remember this, because while they serve with the RAF, in whatever job, from the very smallest of opening the doors for someone, all the way through to those at the top—everyone puts pilots at the top, but I think there are others with equal right to claim superiority—they find they have the support they need. It is important that as they move out of the RAF and into other industries, we find a way to offer that support into the future.
I am very impressed by what the hon. Gentleman said about his volunteers on the Sopwith Camel in East Lothian. This would be a good moment also to remember the amazing volunteers at the Jet Age Museum just outside Gloucester, who have recreated a number of aircraft and are working on a Typhoon at the moment. If he ever has a chance to visit, I would be very happy to take him round.
I am very grateful for the invite. I will now leap back before I feel my phone ringing to say that it was of course a 1½ Strutter, not a Camel, in this case.
The work on the aeroplane was completed in time for this year’s Armistice Day, so 100 years after the end of world war one, these men—and some women—pushed out a replica aircraft from world war one. It truly was a fitting tribute to those remembrances. The plane is dedicated to First Lieutenant Richard Bell Davies VC, who came to prominence after the untimely death of Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning in his attempt to land a Sopwith Pup on the foredeck of HMS Furious for the third time. That fatal accident led to the building of the first flat top across a length of ship. People came across the problem that the funnels on the ships still needed to expel the poison gases, and so they built the island design that is still used on aircraft carriers today. Bell Davies was the first pilot to successfully take off and land again a 1½ Strutter on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
This shows that it is individuals who make up the RAF. Their dedication, perseverance, bravery and humour reflect all that is good about the RAF. The dedication of those in this country in honouring the RAF with acts from simple remembrance once a year, to dedicating time to building a replica of a plane that technologically led the world when it first flew, is testament not only to the role of the RAF but to how dearly this country holds the RAF in its heart.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. It is particularly welcome to have this debate today because someone with very strong links to my constituency celebrated his 97th birthday yesterday—Johnny Johnson, the last surviving British Dambuster. Many will know him for his bravery, along with that of his 617 Squadron comrades, in 1943. After the war, he lived in Torbay for many years. He became a councillor for a period of time. He was also the chairman of Torbay Conservative Association at the time of the Maastricht votes, so he had a very interesting time and had some wonderful tales he could still tell many years later, particularly when he did a TV interview about why the then Member for Torbay had not attended one rather crucial vote. I must tell my chairman that he need have no worries about me this time.
The RAF had a very big impact on Torbay, particularly during the war. Many of our hotels were requisitioned to become RAF hospitals, including the Palace hotel, where I had my wedding reception. That hotel operated as an RAF hospital until it was bombed in 1942, with a number of service people being killed in the raid. Many people developed an abiding link with Torquay—and with Torbay, in particular, due to the time they had spent there recovering from their injuries of war.
That link with the RAF continues today. We have the Royal Air Forces Association club in the heart of Torquay, with Steve Colhoun as branch chairman and Linda Tombs as branch secretary. It is extremely active in supporting the veterans community and acting as a champion for the RAF by encouraging people to think about it as a career. We have a thriving air cadet corps. The 200 Torquay Squadron of the Air Training Corps is a vibrant branch. We see it at every Armistice event, and it is out there making a real difference in the local community. The air cadets are not just a recruiting arm of the RAF; they teach the RAF’s ethos to so many young people, to give them success in whatever career they choose—although we particularly welcome it when people decide that they want to carry on wearing light blue for a much longer period. I pay particular tribute to the squadron’s commanding officer, Michael Gormley.
It was great to see the RAF in action when I spent a year in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I saw a whole range of things, from Fylingdales, where RAF personnel are on permanent watch as part of the ballistic missile warning system, to Akrotiri, whose RAF forces have been critical in hitting Daesh. The 84 Squadron, a helicopter squadron, is also based at Akrotiri.
We all know about the divide of Cyprus and the very difficult situation there, which we hope one day will be resolved by peace talks and negotiations. I saw something quite telling there about the role the RAF plays. In the squadron’s mess room, there were two letters on the noticeboard: one from the Greek Cypriot authorities, thanking the squadron for its help during recent wildfires, and one from the Turkish Cypriot authorities, to which it had also provided assistance. That highlighted the way the RAF provides not only a force against our country’s enemies but a visible sign of Britain supporting and assisting. Of course, a constant watch is also kept over our skies by the quick reaction alert crews.
It is encouraging to look towards the future, in particular to the F-35, but also to Tempest. People might wonder why on earth we are talking about an aircraft that probably will not see operational service until I am not far off the age when I get my bus pass, but there are long lead-in times.
I hope we will continue to work with our traditional allies, particularly given the rising threat in Russia. That not only makes sense in terms of spreading costs, but it makes eminent sense that we have similar planes and aircraft, so that if we ever need to operate completely interdependently, we can literally operate on the same platforms. The RAF will be managing not only the challenge of working across the world, but the challenge of working with the Royal Navy, as it looks to operate off the Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
It is great to have this opportunity to reflect on the last 100 years of the RAF, even if it is a relatively brief chance to do so. This force not only served our nation with great distinction in 1940 but continues to do so today. A whole new generation of children and young people from Torbay will hopefully look towards it as part of their future—a future that will not depend on someone’s gender, now that the services have completely opened up all roles to men and women. It has been a pleasure to talk about the phenomenal contribution of the RAF in the past, the present and the future.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), as I do on a regular basis; I am always glad to hear his careful comments. It is an honour to speak on this momentous occasion, and it is great to follow such incredible and emotive speeches from right hon. and hon. and gallant Members, who, with their knowledge, make a fantastic contribution to these debates.
I take this opportunity, as others have, to begin by thanking every serving, retired and former member of the RAF. We thank you for your service and sacrifice. The sacrifice was great when the RAF was formed. We all know Winston Churchill’s wonderful grasp of the English language, which is much better than mine will ever be; I often quote him in this House because of his grasp of the English language. He noted in this hallowed Chamber that
“the ‘Battle of France’ is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin.”—[Official Report, 18 June 1940; Vol. 362, c. 60.]
This was fought and won by a fledgling Air Force. We always admire his inspirational words:
“Never…was so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Official Report, 20 August 1940; Vol. 364, c. 1167.]
In those few words, he wonderfully summed up exactly what the battle of Britain was about, with young men giving their lives with regularity at that time.
As I said earlier to the Secretary of State about the RAF cadets, we have very active RAF cadets in Northern Ireland, particularly in Newtownards in my constituency. It is good to know that what they do there may be the beginnings of a career in the RAF, and many have walked out of Regent House and gone on to serve in the RAF. We are also very aware that many have joined the Army and many have joined the Navy as well, so the cadets are very active in my constituency.
May I thank those involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme? The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) is the chair of that group, Johnny Longbottom helps to keep the wheels turning, and we had Vasco from the RAF. When I look across the House, I see Members who have done that course, including the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) and others on the far side of the Chamber. I believe that every one of us learned so much from that RAF part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which was an absolute pleasure to be on. They brought it alive.
We were very privileged to have the opportunity to go to Akrotiri in Cyprus, but also to Gibraltar and on Operation Biloxi in Romania. The Secretary of State referred to Romania in his introduction. Having visited Operation Biloxi, it was incredible to see the relationship that the RAF has with the Romanian air force. When we saw those from the Romanian air force, its aeroplanes, let us be honest, were not of the most modern standard, but their energy, interest and commitment were incredible and equal to those from the RAF who were there as well. I just want to put on the record our thanks to them.
It is very nice to see the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Armed Forces in their places. If ever there was a tag team that works well, there it is. We are very pleased to see them both in their places and doing well. I say the same to the shadow Ministers, who have a deep interest in this subject matter, and we look forward to their contributions.
As a small boy, along with the many other things a young boy wants to do, I remember always wanting to be the driver of a train, to join the Royal Marines or to be in the Air Force. All those things go through your mind when you are under the age of 10, but then you suddenly find that you wear glasses, your eyesight is not too good and you know that your chances of joining the RAF are gone.
Did the hon. Gentleman ever have the delight of meeting Colonel Paddy Mayne, DSO three bars, who was from Newtownards?
No, I did not. I think he had just passed away at the time I was brought into this world.
I thought you were older than that.
No, no. I am not older than that. I am not quite sure how to respond to that, but I do know Paddy Mayne’s history—I know it well. We have a statue of him in the square in Newtownards. I was on the council at that time, and I was able to be involved in that particular project. He is a son of Newtownards, and a terribly courageous person. His books are “Boys Own” books. If Members have not read the Blair Mayne story, I can tell them that he was the only man—not the only man, because there were probably others—who did not receive a VC. I would say that he should have had a VC, but we know that he unfortunately had a bit of a problem with authority sometimes, and with that came objections from those at a higher level. If we continue with our confidence and supply arrangement—we will see how that goes—it may yet happen. I have asked my guys to look into that posthumous VC for Blair Mayne. It is something I would be pleased to see.
Why was I interested in the RAF as a small child? It was because there was an RAF squadron base only a few miles from where I lived, RAF Ballyhalbert, and obviously there was the one at Newtownards as well. Today, only the runway lighting and the control tower remain at Ballyhalbert. The stories and the legends were well known and fed many a young man’s dreams of service for Queen and country and the open skies. I did not serve in the RAF, but I was pleased to serve in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Artillery for 14 and a half years. The RAF has a squadron at Newtownards airport, as well, and there is a strong history of service in the RAF, the Army and the Royal Navy in my constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) was here earlier, and there is a base at Aldergrove in his constituency. The Secretary of State referred earlier to 28 bases across Northern Ireland, but I think we should round it up to 30. That is probably about right. It is something we are all very proud of. We are also very proud of Shorts, as it was known before it became Shorts Bombardier, which built the planes in Newtownards. On the plane over today I read in the Belfast Telegraph about Joe Hendron, the SDLP MP for West Belfast, who told the story of when he was a young boy during the bombings in Belfast and how when he was about to leave the bombs were falling. It is a coincidence that his story was in the paper today.
Ballyhalbert opened provisionally in May 1941 as an RAF Fighter Command base and officially on 28 June of the same year. The primary weapon was the Supermarine Spitfire. A few weeks ago, we had a ceremony in Newtownards, but I will come to that in a second. Suffice it to say that everyone is captivated by Spitfires. The base provided local protection from Luftwaffe raids on Belfast and the rest of the Province. I understand that Belfast was the seventh-most bombed city in the whole of the UK. Other aircraft operated from the base: the Hawker Hurricane, the Bristol Beaufighter, the North American P-51 Mustang and the Boulton Paul Defiant night fighter. Many fighter planes were active there.
During its lifetime, Ballyhalbert was home to personnel of the RAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the British Army, the Royal Navy and the United States Army Air Forces, and servicemen from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Poland also saw duty there and at Newtownards. By the summer of 1941, RAF fighter group No. 82 had become operational, with exclusive responsibility for the defence of Northern Ireland, and its group headquarters was at Stormont. The bunker at Kircubbin, just down from where I live in the Ards peninsula, was the operations room for the Belfast sector, but there is speculation that it was designed to accommodate last ditch defence requirements in the event that Great Britain had been invaded and Westminster had ceased to be the seat of government—that did not happen, thank goodness.
In October 1942, No. 82 group was abolished and the then Senate Chamber at Stormont, now the Northern Ireland Assembly, became the location of the headquarters of the RAF in Northern Ireland. All operational personnel, including those who had been at Kircubbin from the outset, were transferred to Stormont and the sector operations rooms at Kircubbin closed. The Stormont facility was operational until the end of the war.
If right hon. and hon. Members get the opportunity to go to the Northern Ireland Assembly and enjoy one of the tours, they will get the history of Stormont. At the time of the second world war, it was a very big white building, so it was covered in tar, cow manure and grass to make it blend in. With the main driveway up to Stormont and the two arrows—two roads—coming off it, it looked like a bombing run for the Luftwaffe, so it was important to camouflage it. After the war, German prisoners were given the task of removing the tar, cow manure and grass. I am not sure which was longer, their time in prison or the time it took them to take all that there off, but I know one thing: it is a marvellous history for the people there.
The Senate Chamber, too, had an important to play in the story of the RAF. It was used as a war room, and anyone who has the opportunity to tour beautiful historic Stormont should take it, as footage of the Chamber being used as a war room will be there. Northern Ireland also had a significant role during the second world war in that it was Catalinas and Sunderlands flying out of Fermanagh that spotted the Bismarck on the west coast of Ireland. The cat-and-mouse operation in the Atlantic to catch the Bismarck went on for some time, and we played a small role in that.
The week before last, at our cenotaph and memorial garden in the main town of Newtownards, my local borough council unveiled a memorial to the Polish pilots. We have had strong contact with Polish pilots, to whom the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) referred, and we are particularly proud of that. They were stationed at Ballyhalbert and Newtownards. The unveiling was attended by Air Vice Marshal David Niven, who retired just last week. He spoke eloquently about the necessary involvement of Polish expertise and experience, saying that the battle of Britain might have ended differently had it not been for the close co-operation of the Polish men, who left all they knew and gave their all to halt Nazi Germany during the second world war. Some of the pilots who came to Ballyhalbert and Newtownards flew their planes from Poland to the UK and some made their way by other means.
The Polish pilots played a significant role in my constituency, and we recognised that through that memorial. Some of them settled with their families in the Ards peninsula, such as the Denkoskis and the father of my constituent Vanda Henderson. We have a lot of thanks to give to those Polish men and women, and the memorial at Ards is a token of recognition of their great sacrifice.
We owe a great debt to our incredible RAF, which in the second world war and every conflict since has shone as a beacon and inspired new generations, including the RAF Air Cadets at Regent House School, to wish to serve their Queen and country in the open skies. Our freedom always comes at a great cost, and we are eternally thankful for the formation of the Royal Air Force, and eternally grateful to every person who wore its uniform and those who wear it today.
It is always an honour to speak in this House. It is humbling, too, especially on a day such as this, when we have heard so many extraordinary speeches from hon. Members and hon. and gallant Members in all parts of the House. I am grateful to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who quoted Winston Churchill. I have the honour to live in the village in which Churchill is buried. Churchill famously spoke of “the few”, and we tend to think of the few in 1940 as fighter pilots, but of course Churchill was at pains to point out that he was also referring to bomber crew. That is where I first became interested in the Royal Air Force.
When I was young, I became aware that my grandfather had done something remarkable during the war. He, typical of that golden generation, vehemently denied that he had done anything remarkable at all, but he was a navigator on Wellington bombers in 1940 and 1941. While the few in the fighter squadrons were defending this country above our heads, he was taking his Wellington bomber to bomb invasion barges on the Channel coasts, and he later took his bomber to the first raid on Berlin —a raid that caused little military damage, but did cause Hitler to switch Luftwaffe attacks from Fighter Command’s air bases to London, which gave Fighter Command the space it needed to get back to full strength.
Lest we think of the Bomber Command of later years of the war, with 1,000 bomber raids and bomber streams, let me remind the House that in the early days of the war, when my grandfather was going off in his Wellington, the bombers went off alone, as single aircraft, albeit in a squadron, which was strung out over many miles, so that in the event of attack from night fighters or ack-ack, they were alone. We should all think about the particular kind of psychological courage it took to take the battle to rampant evil in the freezing skies over occupied Europe.
Later in the war, my grandfather was reinforced by his brother, my great uncle, who flew as a bombardier in Lancasters in No. 5 Group, which was involved in special operations—U-boat pens and the like. They were known as the bomber brothers. Their influence was strong in the early years of my life, as I became aware of what they had achieved. Superlatives are thrown around quite easily in this place, but there is a reason why we come back to 1940. The Royal Air Force has achieved extraordinary things during the past 100 years, but it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of what it achieved in the second world war. It really did, along with many others, save the world at the moment of its greatest threat, particularly in 1940, and keep democracy alive for us all.
Having had that family interest, I now have the enormous honour of representing Royal Air Force Brize Norton in my constituency. No speech I make about the Air Force in this House would be complete if I did not mention RAF Brize Norton. It is commanded by new station commander Dan James. It is quite simply the pride and joy of west Oxfordshire. It is the very best of our country and our county. Everything that the RAF does is made possible by RAF Brize Norton. Nothing would happen without it, but luckily it makes everything happen. In Operation Ruman, for example, the A400Ms took part in vital humanitarian work. That was only possible because RAF Brize Norton was able to respond highly efficiently at late notice and with high speed.
The Typhoons taking off from RAF Lossiemouth or RAF Coningsby to tackle the Russians as they probe our air defences are refuelled by Voyagers from 10 Squadron or 101 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton. The Secretary of State, in his opening speech, kindly referred to global reach. The only global reach in Europe is provided by the C-17s from 99 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton. NATO air policing in eastern Europe is resupplied by the Hercules, the C-17s or the A400Ms from RAF Brize Norton. The aircraft taking the battle to Daesh are also supplied by those same transport aircraft and are refuelled and tanked en route by the Voyagers from RAF Brize Norton.
I apologise to the House—actually, on one level I do not apologise—for making quite clear exactly what the Royal Air Force does and what RAF Brize Norton does to facilitate everything it does.
I think that I am right in saying that my hon. Friend has omitted one element of RAF Brize Norton: the parachute jump instructors of the RAF are there, too. I seem to recall that I had to jump out of an aeroplane from Brize Norton 50 years ago.
My hon. Friend is correct. I gave way to him out of deference, but I was about to mention the military training that takes place at RAF Brize Norton. We always think of the RAF Falcons, the wonderful display team, but everybody who learns to parachute jump in the British military will do so at the parachute training school in Brize Norton. The Airborne Delivery Wing supplies all the aerial drops. I thought my hon. Friend was going to admonish me for not having mentioned the Royal Air Force Regiment. We have 2 Squadron, which has just come in recently. It is also assisted by some of the auxiliary services as well.
I will not trouble the House for much longer, as I know other Members wish to speak, but there are two or three other things I would like to mention very quickly. First, I have talked a lot about units and aircraft, but let us not forget that it is the people who make the Royal Air Force work. That was as true in the past as it is today. We have a number of excellent auxiliary Air Force units at Brize Norton in pretty much every trade that can be imagined: movements, regiment, air crew and aeromedical. These people give up their free time to train, travel and serve at weekends and during their time off. They really make the modern Air Force work, particularly with the whole-force concept.
The second thing is air cadets. We have three excellent units in west Oxfordshire—at Brize Norton, Witney and Chipping Norton—who are enthusing for the future, particularly in introducing the concept of STEM skills, which we have talked about a great deal in the debate.
Lastly, looking to the future, I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for bringing forward the combat air strategy, which I pressed for and which I welcome warmly and wholeheartedly. Perhaps in due course he can give us an update about the progress on that, and I am thinking particularly of national partners. We have talked in the past—this has been trailed in the press—about the possible involvement of Japan, Sweden, obviously the Americans, and others. While I am talking about the combat air strategy, I press him to start thinking about helicopters. If we start thinking about what we need in the future, we need to think about all aircraft types, and of course, I have to think about transport as well as fast jets.
I am grateful for the time that the House has given me. The Royal Air Force has had an incredible 100 years, but those proud years are only to be succeeded by even prouder years.
It is an honour to speak in this debate to commemorate 100 years of the RAF. Like many hon. and right hon. Members, I have some RAF history, in that my dad’s father served during the second world war in RAF Middleton St George and RAF Croft near Durham. In my constituency, I am lucky to have not one or two, but three RAF bases: RAF Barkston Heath, RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby. Lincolnshire has a very proud military history, and Waddington, Coningsby and Syerston are just over the borders of my constituency.
RAF Barkston Heath provides an elementary training facility. We have heard how the RAF started its life here in the House, but my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) spoke about how it had been drawn from the Navy and the Army. In fact, Barkston Heath is where the Royal Navy and Army air squadrons learn their basic flying training. The Secretary of State talked about the future of the air force. I was pleased to see that the investment in the new aircraft—the Grob Tutor being replaced by the Prefect—is providing modern technologies to ensure that the pilots of tomorrow have the best possible learning experiences.
RAF Cranwell is—I contend to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts)—the most famous RAF base in the country. It, too, started its life as a Navy base—as Royal Navy Air Station Daedalus—on 1 April 1916 before it was turned into RAF Cranwell on 5 February 1920 by Sir Hugh Trenchard when the RAF was formed. The future of RAF Cranwell, like the future of RAF Barkston Heath, is very strong. Currently, RAF Cranwell does officer training, so all the officers become officers at RAF College Cranwell, but in the future, all service personnel of whatever rank will begin their training at RAF Cranwell and receive all their basic training there. There is also fixed-wing flying training, and it has a strong medical link. Recently, a g-force centrifuge has been built—a very high-tech piece of equipment—so that pilots can experience g-force on the ground and practise the skills that they need to help them to retain consciousness while they are under g-force. The RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine will also follow to Cranwell in the future.
Finally, we have RAF Digby, which is one of the oldest RAF bases in the country and is home of the Joint Forces Intelligence Group of Joint Forces Command, which I visited a few weeks ago.
I took part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), who champions and organises the scheme, along with Lieutenant Colonel Longbottom, Wing Commander Smith—mentioned as “Vasco” earlier—and Mr Fico. This has been one of the most amazing experiences for me. I came into Parliament with a general public-level knowledge of the RAF, and representing a constituency with such a proud military history and three RAF bases, it was very important for me to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could, about the RAF. The AFPS has greatly facilitated that.
I have visited the bases around my constituency, but also others around the country, including Valley, Benson, Brize Norton and Shrivenham, where we learnt about how all the forces work together. I have visited Waddington, Coningsby, Marham—to see the new F-35—and Honington. We also travelled to the Falklands and Cyprus, and visited the air policing mission in Romania. I will not say more about those visits, because I am aware of time and the fact that others wish to speak.
Another visit that we made was to RAF Scampton, to see the Red Arrows. What a fabulous experience that is! Like other residents of Lincolnshire, I am often lucky enough to see them practising their loops, twirls, and other tricks over our home and from the car as we drive around the county. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the Red Arrows remain in Lincolnshire even if Scampton is closed. As part of the RAF100 celebrations, they came to London along with all the other aircraft and made a spectacular display in the sky.
Lincolnshire has had its own way of commemorating the centenary, however, on both a large and a small scale. For instance, the International Bomber Command Centre has opened on Canwick Hill, in my constituency. It overlooks Lincoln Cathedral, which the pilots would have used to help them to fly back home. Its education centre, the Chadwick Centre, is named after Roy Chadwick, the designer of the Lancaster bomber. It has collected more than 1,200 personal experiences, so that in the future people will be able to learn about what happened during the second world war. A memorial spire is encircled by walls carrying the names of the 57,871 who gave their lives as part of Bomber Command, or in support of it. It is a very moving tribute.
There is also the Bomber County Gateway Trust. A project that is currently in progress is the building of a fully sized Lancaster bomber at the side of the A46, so that people who drive into Lincolnshire will be immediately reminded of its RAF heritage. There is a beautiful picture of what it will look like: tilted slightly, with poppies like a carpet falling from it. The trust has raised a considerable amount, but more is needed. If the Secretary of State can spare any money from his budget and would like to contribute, that would be extremely welcome.
Today’s debate has given us an opportunity to commemorate the sacrifices and hard work of the servicemen and women who have gone before, to thank the servicemen and women of today and to think about the future. There have been 100 years of the RAF, but, as many other Members have said, the next 100 will be just as good, if not better.
It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson).
Stafford has been a centre for the RAF for 80 years. It was in 1938-39 that 16 MU, a maintenance unit, moved to the newly constructed RAF Stafford. It remained there for many decades, until the RAF base became a Ministry of Defence base in the mid-2000s. But we still have a strong RAF presence through the tactical supply wing, which is based at MOD Stafford. That wing goes all over the world to refuel rotary-wing helicopters— whether in the Falklands, Cyprus or Kenya, where I came across it a few years ago in Nanyuki on a training exercise with the armed forces parliamentary scheme.
I pay tribute to the Royal Air Force for all it has done for Stafford over so many years. We are greatly honoured to have large numbers of former and current RAF service personnel in my constituency. There are, of course, some other connections. There are airfields at Hixon and at Seighford, which was a back-up base for Wellington bombers during the war. Those airfields are no longer in use, although Seighford is still used for gliding. Of course, we also have the RAF Museum reserve collection, which I and the Secretary of State for Defence had a wonderful visit to. We saw such things as Douglas Bader’s artificial legs and Lawrence of Arabia’s record collection from when he served as an aircraftsman in the RAF. I hope that some of the exhibits can be put on public display. They are very well looked after in my constituency, but it would be nice for more people to see them.
I would like to conclude with a personal recollection or reminiscence. My grandfather, Benjamin Lefroy, was a Canadian, born in Vernon, British Columbia. He was in 43 Squadron, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) mentioned, when the RAF was founded 100 years ago. He joined the Army and then the Royal Flying Corps, and then became a Sopwith Camel pilot in 43 Squadron.
On the first day of the battle of Amiens, the RAF, as the RFC had become, was trying to knock out bridges near Peronne. The RAF lost 60 aircraft that day, 8 August 1918—an astonishing rate of loss that shows just how much they were in a ground attack role; they were very exposed to enemy fire—and one of them was my grandfather’s. He later wrote—this is in the history of 43 Squadron and I am grateful to my step-uncle, Bob Lefroy, for some of this:
“I had done my work for the day, two sorties, and was reading my mail in the mess. An orderly came haring in and asked for volunteers as a pilot in A had gone sick. As the only person in the mess—it was me! The only machine I could get was ‘R’, the target practice machine, a slow and bad machine. My own Camel was being repaired, having collected some bullets on my previous sortie. Soon after coming out of cloud, we ran into fifteen German fighters. My engine was not good, and trying to get more out of it I ‘choked’ it. At this time, I saw Cecil King with a couple of German aircraft on his tail and so pulled up to give ‘em a squirt and down they came on me. The universal joint was shot off the joystick, my rudder wires cut and petrol was squirting all over the cockpit. With the throttle I kept pulling the nose up until, at 300 feet, I went into a spin and went in. I came to four hours later, in our barrage, with a German at my side. I had three bullet holes in me, both knees out of joint, fractured skull and fractured wrist—and of course was a P.O.W.”
As Germany began to fall apart at the end of the war, he was taken to hospital in Germany so that they could make a better job of repairing his wounds, for which I give great credit, but civil order broke down and an orderly, who believed he was doing the best thing for my grandfather, as he abandoned the hospital cut the traction ropes on his legs, and he was left for three days utterly immobilised and completely unattended. In the end, the British sent trains throughout Germany to collect such people at the end of 1918, many of whom were stuck without any care in hospitals. After the war, my grandfather stayed on as one of the Dominion scholars and then met my grandmother.
I want to finish by going back to Cecil King, whom my grandfather was up in the air with at that time. They were both 19 at the time. Cecil King was an RAF fighter ace—one of the real aces of 43 Squadron—who shot down 22 aircraft. He was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the Croix de Guerre from the French. He was killed in a flying accident in January 1919; he was just 19.
As we remember the huge heroism of the men and women of the RAF over the years, we remember those who survived into old age, like my grandfather, who died in his 80s, and those such as Cecil King, who died as a 19-year-old, hugely decorated.
It gives me great pleasure to respond to this excellent and on numerous occasions very moving debate, and to join colleagues in acknowledging and celebrating 100 years of the RAF, the world’s first independent air force. I am also pleased to echo what the Secretary of State said about Sir Stephen Hillier’s leadership of the RAF generally and about his consummate skill in organising the celebrations that have been taking place. For me, the highlight of the last few months was the flypast of aircraft old and new over the House of Commons and, more importantly, over Buckingham Palace. It was wonderful to see the large crowds of people out in the Mall paying their respects to the air force. It was especially pleasing to see large numbers of young people present, and I wish to reinforce the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) about the air cadets, of whom this country should be very proud indeed.
We also heard fine contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and the hon. Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), made the point that it was important to acknowledge the role that key personalities and individuals have played in the history of the RAF. A number of Members have referred to close relatives, including the hon. Members for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Witney (Robert Courts). The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) referred to his father, a distinguished squadron leader who gave so much for his country.
I, too, should like to refer briefly to my father. David Haydn David was not highly commended or given many medals, but he nevertheless made a huge contribution to the war effort. He was an engineer on Lancaster bombers and served much of the war in the far east. It is important to remember that thousands of people like him—women and men—made vital contributions to our war effort in a whole host of different ways.
I am also pleased to be a member of the RAF section of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Like other Members here, I pay tribute to the work of Vasco. Those Members who are in the scheme will know exactly who I am talking about. Although I have been in the scheme for only a few weeks, I have learned a great deal about the working of the RAF. I have been extremely impressed by the kit, the stations, the organisation and, above all else, the people I have met and their unstinting commitment to the work of the RAF and the defence of this country.
As we have heard, the RAF has a long and proud tradition, but it is also important to look to the future. I am pleased that the Government have produced a combat air strategy, which was published in July this year. This comes at an important time. We will see the first of the new, fifth-generation Lightning F-35 aircraft coming into service in the new year. As we know, they will replace the ageing Tornado GR4 aircraft in March 2019. Those F-35s will partner and complement the Typhoon until 2040. It is important to have a long-term perspective, and that is something that the RAF teaches us.
I am also pleased that the Tempest project has been recognised as a vital part of the forward projection of the RAF. A number of partners have been stated by BAE Systems and the Ministry of Defence, including countries such as Turkey, but we should not forget that, as the project develops, it will become essential to have a close working relationship with the French and the Germans, irrespective of what happens with Brexit. We need to remember that the Typhoon has been a big European success story, of which we have been an essential part, and I hope that that European co-operation will continue to be a central part of the RAF’s work. Europe is also important for defence generally. We have heard today about the Galileo project, and although the negotiations with our partners in Europe appear to have been successful, we need to be mindful of how much it would cost for us to go it alone in the future. Co-operation will have to continue with our allies, both in Europe and, critically, in NATO.
It is important to recognise that the RAF has been enormously successful in its recent work in Syria and Iraq, with many successful sorties. I pay tribute, in particular, to the professionalism with which it conducts its work, ensuring that airstrikes are carried out, as far as is humanly possible, with pinpoint accuracy. I am also pleased that, in our own backyard, with the situation in central and eastern Europe, we see the RAF playing a prominent role, alongside our NATO allies, to ensure that any potential Russian threat is thwarted.
It is important to take this opportunity also to express some concerns. One of our concerns is about personnel, which the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) discussed in his speech. There is currently a deficit of 6.4% against the RAF’s staff target—full-time trained staff of the RAF currently number 30,070, but the figure set out in the 2015 strategic defence and security review is 31,750. That is a cause of concern. The situation might not be as bad as it is in the Army and the Navy, but the number is significantly below what it should be. It is also concerning that, according to the most recent armed forces continuous attitude survey, for 2018, only 41% of RAF personnel describe themselves as satisfied with service life in general, and only 32% report having high morale. We all know why morale is not as high as it should be.
Our second concern is about equipment, particularly the replacement of Sentry, the RAF’s airborne warning and control system aircraft. The concern is that the Ministry of Defence is having single-source discussions, with one company, Boeing, for its E-7 Wedgetail aircraft. The concern has been expressed by the Defence Committee, and it is shared by the Opposition. Our concern is essentially that there is a lack of openness and basic competition. Of course, in some circumstances, it is not appropriate to have competition, but in many circumstances it is entirely appropriate, and this is a case in point. It would be far better if we could see what the options are and then decide what the best one is. I would welcome any assurances from the Minister on future single-source contracts and on how exactly the MOD will do these things in future.
I conclude by paying tribute once again to the RAF in this extremely important year. In his overview of the defence combat strategy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier made absolutely clear what the RAF’s mission has been historically, what it is today and what it will be in the future. He stated that the RAF’s mission is to provide:
“An agile, adaptable and capable air force that, person for person, is second to none, and that makes a decisive air power contribution in support of the UK Defence Mission”.
I think that is a good summation of what the RAF should be about, is about and will continue to be about.
What a pleasure it is to wind up this fantastic debate. I am under strict instructions to sit down at five minutes to 10, so I can only apologise in advance to any colleagues I do not respond to. I offer the assurance that I will write to them.
I am grateful for the contributions to this debate on the centenary of the Royal Air Force. I declare my interest as a former air cadet who went on to do a Royal Air Force flying scholarship. I have very warm memories of the Royal Air Force, although I fear it does not have such warm memories of me as, having got my pilot’s licence, I promptly joined the Army.
I join hon. and right hon. Members in offering my congratulations on what has been an outstanding and very well run campaign this year. RAF100 has been a great success in reaching out to communities across the United Kingdom. This has truly been a celebration for everyone, from all walks of life, and has provided the British public with a real insight into what it means to be part of the Royal Air Force. Some 165,564 people came into contact with the Royal Air Force baton as it toured the country.
I cannot overstate the valuable contribution that the brave men and women of the Royal Air Force have made to the defence of this country over the past 100 years. As the Defence Secretary said, the flypast represented the impressive past and current capabilities. The Royal Air Force is already looking to the future beyond conventional capabilities to cyber and space. It is only fitting that all of us in the House take the time to thank the RAF for what it has achieved and to wish it well for the future.
Looking to the future has driven much of the debate. It has given us a glimpse of the huge range of tasks and missions that the men and women across the Royal Air Force conduct on a daily basis. It has also given us an opportunity to reflect on the proud traditions and achievements that the Royal Air Force is built upon. Of course, we have also considered what the Royal Air Force of the future will look like.
I will now comment on just a few of the contributions. The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) asked about our maritime patrol aircraft. As she knows, the UK is investing in nine Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft to further improve the protection of our nuclear deterrent and our new aircraft carriers. [Interruption.] I realise she is not listening to my response to her speech. We are also on track to achieve the initial operating capability for carrier strike operations by the end of 2020, and the inaugural operational deployment is planned for 2021. Finally, she asked about pilots. The military flying training system has experienced the biggest transformation in a generation, and we will provide a world-class global exemplar for the air training solution.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) rightly paid tribute to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in his constituency. Indeed, he mentioned that the origin of RAF Leuchars was, of course, the Royal Engineers balloon corps. It is interesting how, 100 years on, we go back because 71 Engineer Regiment is currently headquartered at RAF Leuchars—I am a fellow Royal Engineer.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the British Armed Forces Federation. When I asked him for evidence, he said the proposal was in the manifesto on which his party returned 35 Members of Parliament at the last general election. I gently point out that that is a reduction of 21 Members on the previous Parliament, when it was not in his party’s manifesto.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) highlighted the importance of Farnborough and how the biennial air show acts as a focus for innovation in his area. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), or Madam President, rightly highlighted the international composition of the Royal Air Force. I took great pleasure in accompanying my Polish counterpart to the Polish war memorial at RAF Northolt, where 303 Squadron did so much in the second world war.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) summed up the feelings of so many who may not have a personal connection with the Royal Air Force but who have a deep-seated admiration for it. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) spoke fondly of her constituency’s association with the Royal Air Force, particularly the historical manufacturing links, and her constituents’ eagerness to maintain those links, which I know is mirrored across the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) rightly highlighted the contribution of the RAF Regiment, which since 1941 has so successfully acted as force protection for the RAF. Only last week I met members of 7 Force Protection Wing at RAF Coningsby, and I met the joint terminal attack controllers who provide the critical link between air and surface forces, and who achieved such success in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) reminded us of the celebrations and the travels of the RAF baton, and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) highlighted the great role of Johnny Johnson, the last of the dambusters, and the vital contribution that air cadet organisations make to the lives of young people. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), next to the hon. Member for Bridgend, is one of the RAF’s great champions, and he will be delighted that as of 2019 there will be a Northern Ireland university air squadron. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) highlighted not only his strong family links, but the importance and enabling function of RAF Brize Norton, and the global reach of the C-17.
In opening, the Chairman of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), made the incredibly valuable point that the RAF is all about people. On that note, may I simply congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed. I will write to any hon. Member who has not—
Is the Minister giving way or has he finished? I think he has finished.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the 100 year anniversary of the Royal Air Force.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am slightly disappointed to note that on a social media platform a newspaper in this country is tweeting out that only Conservative Members took part in this debate. How can I put it on the record that Members from all across this House, on both sides, contributed to this debate?
I think the hon. Gentleman has found his own salvation. Any such report suffers from the disadvantage of being wrong.
Delegated Legislation (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority)
That the Motion in the name of Andrea Leadsom relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority shall be treated as if it related to an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice has been given that the instrument be approved.—(Paul Maynard.)