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It has been the tradition of recent years that our regular debates on the Estimates of the three Services do not end in a Division pressed by the official Opposition. As that tradition is likely to be broken this evening—unless the Government prove a good deal more amenable to argument on the subject of defence than they have so far been—I should explain why we on the Opposition side are so concerned about the present and prospective state of the Royal Air Force and why we feel we must press this motion in the Lobby tonight.
I hope the House will forgive me if in so doing I go over some of the ground covered in the debate on the Defence White Paper on 6th and 7th May. It is helpful in one way that the Government have just issued a pamphlet which might be called a mini-White Paper. All hon. Members will have a copy. I have mine here with its covering letter which describes the document as
a pamphlet on British Defence Policy and the rôle of the Services. It provides selected information from my Defence White Paper"—
says the Secretary of State—
in a popular form, and has been distributed to schools, universities and young people generally…. The aim is to interest not only those who might join the Services but to inform them about the Government's Defence Policy.
I have no quarrel with the first of these aims or with the pamphlet itself, which seems to be excellently produced, but, having read it carefully, I am tempted to suggest that some, at least, of the £1,764 which it is costing the taxpayer should be debited to Transport House because it repeats the same somewhat complacent, somewhat misleading statements of self-justification with which
Ministers now try to sell their new defence policy to the nation.
We are told in the pamphlet once again that if the country's annual expenditure on defence is reduced to 4½ per cent. of the gross national product this will be more in line with the spending of our major European allies. We are told that the changes proposed in the new policy are being made in close consultation with all our allies, and we are told, finally, that the defence review emphasises the importance that the Government attach to the continued support of NATO. The object of these words is to persuade the impressionable reader that no one in this country or in NATO questions the reasoning of the Defence White Paper or its purported basis, although we here know that the spurious logic of the GNP argument was totally demolished by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) in his opening speech in the debate on 6th May.
In that debate the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force summed up his attitude and that of his hon. Friends in the same way, if not in precisely the same words, as the salesmen of a brand of shaving soap in praising their product: "Not too much, not too little, but just right." The Under-Secretary's argument may have this erasmic quality because he says, the Conservatives say the Government have cut defence too heavily, their friends of the Tribune group claim they have not cut it heavily enough, and therefore
the middle course which the Government have steered is the only one".—[Official Report, 7th May 1975; Vol. 891, c. 1442.]
In this, for what it is worth, the hon. Gentleman was later supported by the Liberal spokesman, who does not seem to think too clearly about these matters. If he did he would soon see that the Government's self-righteous attitude depends upon the assumption that all the critics of the defence review can comfortably be dismissed as extremists. No doubt the Under-Secretary privately holds that view of his hon. Friends below the Gangway whom I am pleased to see represented here today. In the light of the Pavlovian reactions of the hon. Members for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) and Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick) to the arrival of American U2 aircraft in this country last month, when they used words
like "provocative" and "sinister", I shall not waste the time of the House trying to persuade the Under-Secretary that he is wrong in regarding them as extremists or in disregarding them as extremists.
I should like the House to consider the argument from a different and more intelligent point of view—that of our NATO allies. It was a marked feature of our debate on the Defence White Paper in May that almost every Minister who spoke went out of his way to avoid any reference at the Dispatch Box to NATO's reaction to the White Paper. I am glad that the Secretary of State was more frank with the House this afternoon in response to a direct question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr and admitted what he had previously been at pains to play down, the serious disquiet which our NATO allies felt, and still feel, at the cuts which the Government have imposed on our defence programme.
But it is worth while and important that the House should be reminded of the full text of the communiqué that was issued by NATO on March 21st, following the Government's publication of their White Paper, Command 5976. This is how the three opening paragraphs of that communiqué read:
In accordance with the usual NATO practice, the United Kingdom Government, having reached provisional conclusions on their Defence Review, initiated the process of consultation with their NATO allies in December 1974. The implications of the changes proposed have been assessed by the NATO military authorities and there have been several exchanges of views in the Defence Plan Committee of the Alliance. These took place against the background of a statement that the British Government regarded their plan to reduce defence expenditure to 4½ per cent. of gross national product by the middle 1980s as a firm decision. The Alliance welcomes the assurance that NATO commitments remain the first charge on British defence resources; that no reductions are envisaged in advance of an MBFR agreement in the forces deployed in the Central Region; and that the United Kingdom will maintain the effectivenes of its present strategic and tactical nuclear contribution to NATO. The Alliance has nevertheless expressed its disquiet at the scale of the reductions proposed and their effect on NATO's conventional defence vis-à-vis the increasing capability of the Warsaw Pact. The changes of special concern are: the reduction of reinforcement capability in the Northern and Southern Regions; the removal of naval and air forces from the Mediterranean area; and the decline in maritime capabilities in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas.
The House reading between the diplomatic lines, will agree that that statement is highly critical. It expresses a criticism of the action of Britain as a partner in the alliance which ought to have been taken very seriously by the people of this country, if the Government were not prepared to take it seriously; and I fear it is a criticism that remains as valid now as it was when it was expressed. It is certainly not a statement that substantiates any claim at all by the Secretary of State or his colleagues that our allies think that our Defence Ministers have everything dead right.
It is on the basis of that NATO statement that I want now to try to identify the respects in which we find Government policy for the future of the Royal Air Force quite unacceptable.
The first is the reduction in our whole maritime capability which must flow from the drastic cut in the Nimrod force by 25 per cent. It is hardly necessary for me to remind anyone who takes an interest in these matters of the vast increase in Soviet naval forces in the past five years or so. Even hon. Members below the Gangway will have noted this Nor do I need to spell out the threat that this represents. I am sure that the Secretary of State understands it, and I hope his endeavours to make sure that the country understands it are not frustrated by anyone on his side of the House. We on this side will certainly not frustrate him in that.
It is worth recalling the comments made by General Steinhoff in March 1974, after he had served for three years as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. I take these comments from the June 1974 issue of the NATO REVIEW:
The growing Soviet strength at sea is possibly the most important military-political development of the second half of this century … I am almost more alarmed by Soviet power politics at sea than by the confrontation in Central Europe.
Those remarks are a year out of date now but they have certainly lost none of their force in the interval, and, since the NATO communiqué uses the word "increasing" of the Soviet naval strength, we can assume that the picture as General Steinhoff painted it has become darker in the intervening months.
Is it not astonishing that in the light of such comments the Government can ever have contemplated discarding one quarter of the Nimrod force, which is an integral feature of our maritime capability, particularly when we realise that the British contribution to NATO's maritime armoury is the most crucial of all the European partners in the alliance? Does not it become more extraordinary still when we recognise that
the key to the deterrent power of our armed forces is our ability to obtain early warning of an enemy's intentions through reconnaisance, and to strike at his offensive forces from a distance in case of need"—
to quote from the White Paper on defence produced by the Labour Government in 1966, when they were able to take a more intelligent view of these matters? I put that point to the House with all the more conviction since I have recently had the good fortune to see how accurate and effective a weapon system Nimrod provides—and I must express my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force for his part in making it possible for me to do so, and my thanks to all concerned at RAF Kin-loss, and, in particular, to No. 7 crew of 206 Squadron, who, I shall see to it, will get a complimentary copy of the Official Report.
So there is the first inexcusable decision.
The second comes in the proposals to leave the RAF with wholly inadequate resources, after the cut of 50 per cent. in the transport fleet, to meet NATO's needs for tactical reinforcement and mobility. I am content to leave aside this afternoon the fact that all the Comets and Britannias are apparently to be sold. More worrying for my immediate purpose is the fact that all the Andovers are also to be disposed of, and that the Hercules fleet is to be reduced to 40 aircraft, although we do not know the Government's intentions so far as the disposal of any surplus Hercules aircraft are concerned. This was curiously omitted from the Answer to a Parliamentary Question that was put down last week.
The RAF helicopter tactical transport force will also be reduced by about a quarter, and this in its turn must have a very serious impact on the mobility of the Army, even if the cut appears to be in part explained by a decision not to order medium-lift helicopters which have not in fact been ordered anyway. Disregarding that, we on this side of the House must once again endorse the reactions of our NATO allies. For my part, I must add that one of the most extraordinary parts of those cuts is that no attempt seems to have been made to consider the possible creation of reserves to compensate, if only partially, for the cuts in the front-line capability.
I put to the Minister and the House the question: is it really impossible, for instance, to expand the strength of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in a situation such as this? We are told that the RAAF now consists of maritime units which would be required to support Regular formations in an emergency. The Defence White Paper also reminds us that the RAAF celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on 9th October last year. But in paying tribute, as I do, to the record of glorious achievement of that force over the past 50 years, I must put on record that its strength now totals 238 officers, airmen and airwomen, a figure which is almost exactly half what it was 10 years ago and very much below the strength it had when it rendered its greatest services, a strength to which I believe it could be restored if the Government would recognise the need to build up an adequate reserve.
Before the hon. Gentleman goes too far from that point, has he calculated the cost in terms of fuel, apart from anything else, of an enlarged Air Force reserve? All these people have to be kept up to current training standards, and, in terms of fuel, that is extremely costly. It is very easy to suggest that but training is vastly costly.
I hope I may be able to help the hon. Gentleman. I hope he will concede that there is no shortage of surplus aircraft, whether military or civilian types. The hon. Gentleman may know, if he has read the answer to a Question that I put down last week, that the Ministry of Defence is already spending £2 million a year on civil air charter contracts, to North-West Europe, Berlin and Australia and in Nepal. Does he consider it out of the question that a scheme might be worked out, using surplus aircraft or dry-leasing civil aircraft, which would enable a reserve of skilled transport pilots to be built up and preserved and kept in practice, flying what are evidently essential military tasks which will be paid for anyway?
If the hon. Gentleman finds it extraordinary that such a proposition should be put forward, perhaps he does not realise that it is something which our American allies have been doing for some time. I would not dismiss out of hand as either hopelessly expensive or hopelessly impracticable a scheme of that kind, which would enable a working reserve to be brought into being.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. This is done in the United States in the Air National Guard. The Americans also have means of using such people in their coastguard. There is no reason why we should not have a Royal Auxiliary Air Force helicopter squadron. These things could be done very inexpensively compared with the Regular Forces or even commercial companies doing them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing my point. My experience of the civil helicopter work done by charter companies in coastguard operations does not suggest that the service would be in any way inadequate if it were taken away from the Regular arm and handed over to an active reserve. I hope that the Minister will agree that this sort of question should be examined thoroughly and quickly.
In the meantime, the RAF is being left virtually without reserves. This is wholly unacceptable at a time when the strength of the Services is being run down by no less than 18 per cent. Against this alarming background, with the prospect of further defence cuts as ominous as it is now, and remembering that we have yet to hear how the cuts of £110 million announced in the Budget are to affect the RAF or the other Services, I still do not believe that what we seek is beyond the nation's resources. I am not saying that there must not be cuts in defence, that every aircraft must be retained and that every RAF station must be kept in being—far from it. My argu- ment is confined to the Government's own chosen ground, our contribution to NATO.
Labour Members should not seek to answer the case by introducing inflated or unrealistic costs and plans which I am not advocating. But if the Minister's response is simply that it must be a matter of share-and-share-alike when it comes to cuts, we cannot accept that attitude either. In our view there is a point at which defence can no longer be cut if it is to remain credible. NATO has already made it clear that this country has not merely reached that point but has passed it.
In the last resort—and that seems to be where this unfortunate country has been driven by this most inept of Governments—defence must have priority over less crucial spending.
Will the hon. Gentleman make the Position of the Opposition quite clear? Is he saying that more should be spent on defence than is being spent now? If a Conservative Government were in power, would they step up the amount spent on defence compared with that spent by the present Government? Would the hon. Gentleman therefore be prepared to have additional cuts in other public service expenditure?
I am sorry to have expressed myself so badly that the hon. Gentleman appears unable to understand me. What I said was that there was a point beyond which defence could no longer be cut if it was to remain credible, and that it is NATO's opinion that this country has not merely reached that point but passed it, and that we agree with this proposition.
If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to suggest that that inevitably means that the only possible source of extra funds to redress the deficit on defence is the National Health Service or something of that kind, I must remind him, as I reminded him when we last debated the matter, that there are some other candidates for the chop which come much higher in the list of priorities. Nationalisation is one, whether the hon. Gentleman likes that or not. There are priorities which must be got right. I am sorry to have had so little success this afternoon in persuading the Secretary of State that it is more important to maintain the strength of Europe's aero-space industry than to waste time and money in fooling about with nationalisation.
If the hon. Gentleman will do me the kindness of reading what I have said today and recalling what I have said previously, I do not think he will feel that the question has been dodged. If he does not like the proposition that less money could be spent on nationalisation, I am sorry for him, but the electors of West Woolwich are more likely to agree with me than with him.
We condemn the Government again today because their policy has put the security of the United Kingdom and the integrity of NATO in grave jeopardy. More than that, we condemn them because they have persisted in judging the scale and nature of our contribution to NATO in financial terms, rather than
in terms of its total value to deterrence and defence throughout the Alliance".
Those are the words of the NATO statement. I believe that the Government have so weakened the conventional strength of the alliance that the scope for flexible response has been reduced.
If that is so—and the flexible response has been the aim of the alliance in recent years—there must be a corresponding increase in the danger that any conventional conflict or confrontation may escalate into a nuclear one. That brings us back to the days of the tripwire theory, with all that that entails. I hope that even the hon. Gentleman, who is so concerned with costings in these matters, will not welcome any development, particularly if his Government are responsible for it, which brings us closer to the danger of a nuclear conflict. Those are the reasons why we shall divide the House tonight unless the Government are able to satisfy us.
Before leaving the subject of money, I asked the Minister to clear up the matter of offset costs of British forces in Germany. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army told us this afternoon that this was a matter to be taken into consideration fairly soon. I was not clear what that meant, although I hope that the House accepts the need for action to be taken when we bear in mind the effect on the costs of our forces in Germany of the fall in the value of the pound, a matter that was underlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). When can we expect a clear statement of the position, and particularly the effect of this increased cost, on the money available to the defence budget?
I turn briefly to other serious matters which concern the RAF and which I know some of my hon. Friends are anxious to raise in the debate. The first is the subject of procurement, and in particular the status of three projects that are vital to the future capability of the RAF—the MRCA, the airborne early warning requirement and the short-range air-to-air missile.
Can the Minister tell us what decision has been reached about an air-defence version of the MRCA? Can he expand upon his earlier answers about technical teething troubles? What is the effect on costs of the proposed slow-down by one-third in the delivery rate to the RAF? How far have our talks with our German and Italian partners got on securing that slow-down?
Why is the RAF apparently to be the only air force without a short-range high-g missile for air-to-air combat, or can it look forward to the placing of an order fairly soon?
On the subject of airborne early warning, what is being done to ensure that the fullest consideration is given in NATO to the development of a Nimrod-based AWACS system, which would by all accounts be a much cheaper and entirely adequate alternative to the Boeing E-3A project?
Those questions bring me straight to my next main point, which concerns defence sales. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr has described the situation here as a complete shambles. If it is not a complete shambles, the House has certainly no information on which to base a conclusion, because it is extraordinarily difficult to obtain hard or worthwhile information from Ministers about anything connected with defence sales. I realise the difficulties of confidentiality and commercial negotiations. However, I should have thought that the Government might have been ready to be as forthcoming to the House as they appear to expect the rest of industry to be to the world at large under the provisions of the Industry Bill.
Please may we soon have a statement on accountability in defence sales? It may be in the form of a White Paper, but certainly we want a statement—not just as sauce for the gander but so that we can know the standards by which the Government and their agents, MODPE, are prepared to be judged, and the objectives that they have set themselves. Unless and until we know that, the House can do nothing to exercise its duty of trying to keep the administration up to the mark. I fear that we are operating in a vacuum, with all the undesirable consequences that flow from that.
In the meantime, may we please have from the Minister today a clear outline of the relationship, as the Government see it, between the search for standardisation in equipment purchases by NATO and the preservation of a British or a joint European industrial capability in the developing technology of defence equipment of all kinds? There are openings here which must not be missed. It is even possible that the outcome of the so-called "Sale of the Century", with the contract going to an American firm for the Starfighter replacement, will be that there is a French requirement for the MRCA. It is doubtful, to say the least, whether the Eurogroup has the authority or, indeed, the political momentum to operate successfully in this very difficult area.
I believe that part of the reason why MRCA did not get the fullest possible consideration in a strip-down version, or whatever, in the recent competition was that there was nobody there who was really charged with seeing that all the facts were put forward at an early enough stage to keep the project in contention. It is no use bringing it forward at the last minute—it should have been there at the first. I am sure that this important subject will be raised again and again today by Opposition Members, if not Labour Members.
I turn to another subject which in its own way is just as vital, namely, the current state of the morale of the RAF and particularly of those who are facing the bitter prospect of redundancy. The Defence White Paper tells us that there are to be 4,000 RAF personnal made redundant in the next 18 months or so, including 800 officers. A high proportion of these must be transport aircrew, not helicopter pilots who I understand have been told that they may not even apply for redundancy even though there is to be a 25 per cent. cut in RAF rotary-wing aircraft strength. Very few of them can have any hope of finding civilian jobs in aviation, at least in the air—although they may be able to get jobs on the ground.
Dealing with flying, we know that there is already a world surplus of airline pilots. There are a great number of ex-Court Line pilots who are still unable to return to a flying career and there is some doubt whether some of them will ever be able to do so. The White Paper tells us:
Full facilities for resettlement advice and assistance will be promised for those returning prematurely to civilian life.
That is an unlovely phrase. It is vital that these facilities should be really effective. We owe a moral debt to the men whose chosen careers are to be destroyed. This debt must be paid in full, not merely for their own sake or for that of their families, but for the morale of the Service as a whole and the reputation of the House as their employers.
This is a matter which has already caused concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) and to other hon. Members who have RAF stations, such as Brize Norton and Thorney Island, in their constituencies. Those hon. Members may find it rather ironic that the Armed Forces of the Crown are evidently the only areas of public employment where overmanning is not tolerated, let alone encouraged. It may be right that the judgment should be as it has been in this case, but if it has to go that way there is most certainly a duty which must be discharged, and we look to the Minister to tell us this afternoon what he has done and what he intends to do—it may be that this will need to extend over a year or so ahead—to keep faith in this matter and to ensure that those who are to be declared redundant get the fullest possible chance of a second start in their working lives.
Only two matters remain. First, I should briefly but sincerely like to commend the Secretary of State on his success in persuading his Cabinet colleagues to approve the order of Harriers for the Navy. I realise that discussion of this should be deferred until we debate the Navy Estimates, but it would be ungenerous of me to miss this opportunity of telling him what a very sensible decision Conservative Members believe he has taken, even if we are not necessarily convinced that it is totally in accord with the strategy in his Defence White Paper. However, that does not make it any the less sensible, and in some respects it makes it even more sensible.
Secondly, I must put on record our sincere thanks to the men and women of the Royal Air Force for all that they have done to serve our country since we last had the chance to debate this Service. In particular, I should like to pay a tribute to all who were involved in the difficult business of the Cyprus emergency. The RAF played a leading part in the relief operations and in the evacuation of British dependents and civilians—as the Defence White Paper says—
with the highest order of efficiency and professionalism".
It is ironic that the aftermath of those unhappy events has been to leave Akrotiri as one of the RAF's smallest stations when once it was the largest.
However, perhaps that is all the more reason for our praise of those who have served there and everywhere else at home or overseas in the RAF. It is certainly no fault of theirs and no reflection upon them in any way if we find ourselves compelled to vote against the Government tonight.
At least at the start of my speech I can find myself in accord with the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) in that I should like to record my appreciation of the efforts and achievements of the RAF.
In the 16 months in which I have been in office I have tried to make it my business to visit as many stations and units as I could. I believe that I have succeeded in seeing and speaking to as many as possible of those who are serving in the RAF. Where ever I have visited, whether in Cyprus at the height of the emergency or in recruiting offices, where they have been superintending the entry of further young men into the RAF, the men and women of the RAF have impressed me enormously. They are intelligent, realistic, keen and dedicated and, above all, they are loyal. Though everyone is in some way affected by the uncertainties of the times, I believe that the young men and women who I have met have performed magnificently. In short, we are very lucky to have people of their calibre in our forces.
It must be said—because it is a restatement of positions that the hon. Member for Woking and I have taken up in past debates and will take up in future debates—that we shall not agree on our central view of the rôle of defence in modern society. I know that no one works harder at his spontaneous quips than does the hon. Member for Woking, but he singularly fails to recognise that defence in a modern society is always a combination of, on the one hand, the arms and the forces that are provided to defend that society and, on the other hand, the quality of the society itself. If one is unduly represented at the expense of the other, it fatally weakens the total defence effort.
This is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) said, it is no good the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner), in weekend speeches, in the vivacious way that we know so well, calling for cuts in public expenditure of £4,500 million, whereas in fact what he is calling for is a cut much nearer £5,000 million, the extra £500 million made necessary to cover the additional proposals for expenditure on defence instead of maintaining the present level of defence expenditure.
If the hon. Gentleman wants me to be absolutely frank, yes, it is. In any event, it throws a curious light on his ability as a mathematician to suggest that we should immediately make cuts in public expenditure on proposals where no money has yet been nor will be expended for some years.
I would rather develop this point. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later, if he wishes.
Inevitably, as I said, the Defence Review has cast its shadow over this debate. I would merely point to the one decision which, in my view, is central to the whole argument today. That is the deliberate choice that we made in the Defence Review that henceforth we would increasingly concentrate our defence efforts where we conceived them to be most important to us—namely, the United Kingdom, the Eastern Atlantic and the Central Region of Europe. I believe that if the correctness of that judgment is accepted, everything which follows for the Royal Air Force is logical. I suspect that, whatever the hon. Member for Woking may say, it is his unwillingness to concede that central judgment which makes him so unhappy this afternoon. It must be so if the Opposition make, as they do, the reduction in the transport force such a central plank in their attack this afternoon.
I repeat that this reduction follows directly from our strategic decision, for so large a transport fleet was rendered necessary by our worldwide rôle. We shall therefore be making a 50 per cent. reduction in the fixed-wing element of this force in the next year, which will bring its total strength down from 115 to 57. The rundown will be synchronised with the withdrawal of forces from overseas and will take full account of the need to support that withdrawal.
The reduction in strength has already begun with the withdrawal from service of five Andovers and six Britannias, which will be followed by the Comets of 216 Squadron at the end of this month. The remaining Andovers and Britannias will follow towards the end of this year, and the rundown will be complete in the early part of 1976 with the withdrawal of part of the VC10 force.
Cutting by half, despite what the Opposition may pretend, is not the complete removal of the force, nor of the capability. We shall still have a large and powerful capability led by the remainder of the VC10s together with the Belfasts and, as the hon. Gentleman said, a Hercules fleet of 40 aircraft. I would comment, because it was absent from what the hon. Gentleman said, that, even after the reduction, we shall have the largest transport force amongst our European NATO allies. The Royal Air Force will therefore be able to discharge its future strategic and tactical transport roles. It will, as the hon. Gentleman said, be marginally less able to carry out some of the routine trooping tasks, though much of it will remain an RAF responsibility. We shall, however, be increasing slightly the rôle of civil charter in this area, and one new contract has already been put out to tender. The use of civil charter is not new. Certainly in North-West Europe we have used it for troops and families for some time, so there is no room for criticism on a matter of principle there.
Is the Minister aware that those of us who went on a recent visit to the Royal Air Force in Germany heard on a number of occasions how worried personnel there were at this cut-back in the Air Transport Command, bearing in mind the need to reinforce our troops in Germany quickly? Is it likely that air charter planes will be available at a short notice in an emergency?
As I said, we are talking about routine trooping of troops and families. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient for a moment, I think that I can satisfy him on that point. Basically, I have already assured him that we can carry out our tactical and strategic roles with our transport force.
Looking back at the airlift operations undertaken by the RAF in the last few yeas, I agree with the hon. Member for Woking that the magnificant Cyprus operation stands out as the major transport task. The precision and skill of that operation, which I was privileged to witness, earned us the plaudits of the world. I can think of no more graphic illustration of our remaining powerful capability, which we shall retain, than to say that I am advised that we could, if necessary, with a reduced transport force, mount this operation again without significant overstretch. In a large-scale emergency, of course, the RAF can be supplemented from civil resources. But there is nothing new in that. That is enshrined in the Civil Aviation Act, of which the hon. Member for Wokingham and I are fully aware.
I repeat, we retain a transport force which is capable of serving our needs, both actual and foreseen, given the new concentration of resources that we have adopted. I hope that that will take some of the synthetic heat out of hon. Gentlemen opposite.
If, as I have shown, the charge of destroying the capability of the transport force is untrue, there is not a scintilla of evidence to support that charge when the front line in the United Kingdom and Germany is considered. This is the contribution to the defence of the West which will make the greatest impression upon other countries, and it is one upon which I think any responsible Opposition would put most weight.
The present strength of these combat forces is not being reduced at all. Indeed, we are going on with improvements already planned, such as the replacement of the Phantoms by the Jaguars, which will mean that in quantity and in quality our Air Force in Germany will be improved. I do not think that anyone in this House will dispute that the Jaguar aircraft is outstanding amongst the present generation of aircraft in ground attack and reconnaissance rôles.
Coupled with this, the conversion of the Phantoms to the air defence rôle, the modernisation of the tanker force, the plan to introduce an airborne early warning aircraft and improvements in the United Kingdom air defence ground environment will put us in a better position effectively to defend the United Kingdom and the seas around.
Without going into the figures, because I do not think that we have got to that precision in official discussions yet, whenever one buys foreign there are penalties across the exchanges. This matter will have to be considered in weighing up the suitability of whichever aircraft we choose.
I have just given way. I must be allowed to develop my points. I will give way at a later stage if the hon. Gentleman feels that he must intervene.
We have now redeployed the Vulcans and Lightnings from Cyprus. Although they have maintained their rôle to reinforce the base there, in the meantime, they are available to give direct support to NATO. That is another qualitative improvement in our contribution to NATO.
No. The right hon. Gentleman must be patient. He can make his own speech, and I will respond to it later.
The appointment of Commander-in-Chief Strike Command as a major subordinate commander under SACEUR will not only improve the lines of communication greatly but will enable us to allocate to SACEUR in an emergency significant additional aircraft, including an additional squadron of Harriers from the Operational Conversion Unit and, it is hoped, more Jaguars from their OCU in due course. Therefore, the picture being painted, contrary to what is being said, is one not of doom but of a strengthened capacity to help in defence where our help will be most effective in the Central Region of Europe and elsewhere in NATO.
I turn to our maritime rôle, which is another subject to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Woking referred. Here it is true that there is a planned front-line reduction of strength of some 25 per cent., but that stems—I ask him again to cast his mind back—from the crucial decision we have made concerning the area in which we shall place our defence effort in the future. There are no surplus Nimrods at the moment, and there will be no Nimrods surplus until the agreement with Malta expires in 1979. It is only then—if and when no other role exists for those Nimrods—that there will be any surplus to RAF requirements and any possible sales considered. We already have 24 Nimrods based in the United Kingdom and will retain these numbers. Four more of the employment addition aircraft will be introduced into service and fitted for the maritime rôle.
I can see that the hon. Gentleman is puzzled, but we know that he has a low rate of puzzlement, and if he raises the question of the maritime rôle he must expect it to be dealt with fully and not in the rather grasshopper-like manner in which he flits from point to point.
If the hon. Gentleman had allowed me to continue—he is rather quick on the trigger—I should have made it clearer that the surplus to maritime requirements is dictated by the expiry of our agreement with Malta. But I am not saying that those aircraft in another rôle would not have a use in the Royal Air Force. That is what I am trying to point out. As I have said, four employment addition aircraft will be fitted for the maritime rôle and four will be delivered without modifications for that rôle. But there are other possible uses for them, such as oil rig surveillance, where we are studying what is the most appropriate aircraft for the task, and possibly—and here I come back to my hon. Friend's point—airborne early warning.
We are proud of the position of Nimrod as a long-range maritime patrol aircraft, and to keep it in the forefront it will shortly undergo extensive modernisation. Improvements to its communications equipment have already begun, and for the purposes of cost effectiveness this work will be combined with major routine servicing. As the modernisation programme builds up, spare aircraft will therefore be needed to support the front line, and here, too, the Malta and employment addition Nimrods may have a use. Once again, as I have said, in this rôle there is a picture of planned improvements being maintained.
Is it not a fact that a very substantial proportion of the Russian submarine contacts in the Mediterranean are made by the Nimrod squadron based at Malta—largely because this is a very effective aircraft, as the hon. Gentleman says—and have we not gravely weakened the NATO Alliance by withdrawing them from Malta at a time of ever-increasing Russian naval activity in the Mediterranean?
The agreement ends in 1979 and not today. Secondly, there must also have been a feeling that Malta was dispensable when the noble Lord. Lord Carrington, in the previous Conservative administration, prepared to, and did, pull out all military troops from Malta. As I have said, the area in which we believe we can play the most effective part in the future is the Central Region and the Eastern Atlantic, together with our own air space. In those areas the Nimrod will be as effective as ever, and enhanced by the improvements being made to it.
The hon. Gentleman based his whole thesis earlier on the point that the nation's defence also depends on the quality of life in this country. I think he was trying to justify the reduction in expenditure on this force. Will he agree that it is not so much the quality of life in this country that matters as the force against which we are likely to be deployed? It is that which determines the size and efficiency of the force which we are required to produce to back up NATO.
This is a point which the hon. Gentleman constantly makes in defence debates, which is perhaps my reason for not giving way to him earlier. As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said in the last defence debate, no Government in this country builds up a defence programme by totting up the possible threats to security and meeting the bill on such threats. A compromise is always reached, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said, between the needs of defence and the proper needs of other spending Departments. In fact and in practice all Governments carry out this sort of compromise, and if the hon. Gentleman disagrees with me on that he disagrees no less with his own party when they are in office.
The MRCA is to continue at the planning requirement of 385, and although its delivery is to be re-phased, it still occupies a central position in our plan. I will turn my attention in more detail to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Woking when I wind up the debate, but let me tell him that the air defence variant is still completing its project definition stage. We hope to be able to have an assessment of that by about the end of the year. Certainly that is proceeding.
As I tried to tell the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) at Question Time today, there are always snags with a new project, and it is perhaps unfortunate that all this is taking place in the bright glare of publicity surrounding this aeroplane. We hope that the difficulties encountered are in no way inordinate in relation to other comparable projects.
Another major plane project which will go ahead is our purchase of the Hawk, so that fast jet training in the Royal Air Force will now be planned around two aircraft, the Jet Provost and the Hawk. This debate is about the capability of the Royal Air Force, and the gravamen of the Opposition charge will be seen to have disappeared when the facts are studied—if they are to be studied—by Opposition Members. If they want to divide the House—thereby taking what is not only a very unusual step in a single Service Estimate debate but a unique step for the official Opposition—they will have to put up a very much more convincing case than they have advanced so far to justify them in their fit of spleen later in the evening.
Far from saying that the Defence Review has had no effect, I should like to single out two questions as being worthy of mention in this connection— first, the question of stations, and, secondly, that of personnel.
The closure of the 12 stations will concentrate more of the RAF activity on the larger stations, in which there has already been extensive capital investment, in order to maximise the use of those facilities. Although such measures can be overdone, it is part of a process which has been going on for many years. Looking back 20 years, hon. Members will see that the number of airfields then open was many more than it is now. It is a continuing process, and it has been accepted—albeit with some reluctance—by the localities concerned.
But again I make the point which has been made in previous debates that the closure of an RAF station does not necessarily mean the end of its Service use. The Army, in particular, needs to replace some of its hutted camps by modern facilities. The Services are examining their needs urgently, but even with the utmost good will, it will not always he possible to dovetail the requirements, and the RAF redeployment cannot be deferred if we are to achieve the Defence Review savings. However, I can promise that all three Services will do what they can to minimise the disruption and the interruption of civilian employment.
The most significant effect to the RAF, however, is the effect of the Defence Review on Service personnel. The Review led us to the conclusion that, with its new tasks, the RAF needed to reduce its manpower by 18,000. We were determined that redundancies should be kept to an absolute minimum, and therefore we started immediately to adjust our recruiting intakes in anticipation of the outcome of the Defence Review decisions. This has already reduced the strength from about 100,000 to 95,000, and we hope, by wastage and by restrictions on intake, to effect 14,000 of the total 18,000 reduction in personnel. But some redundancy, totalling about 4,000, was necessary because wastage and recruiting restrictions could not succeed by themselves within the time-scale and within the categories needed.
Our big surplus in aircrew came in the main from the reduction of the transport force. There, some 600 to 700 officers in the General Duties Branch and 100 airmen aircrew will be made redundant, in addition to some 200 other officers in ground branches and about 3,000 ground tradesmen.
For most categories, the scheme is based on an initial call for volunteers, with powers of compulsion should the numbers and types of volunteers prove to be inadequate. Most of the officers, all the airmen aircrew and about one-third of the airmen redundancies were included in the categories announced in March. For the most senior officers in the General Duties branch, redundancy was wholly compulsory. For the remaining categories—that is to say, officer aircrew of the rank of squadron leader and below, all ground branch officers and all airmen aircrew—I am pleased to say that the number of volunteers covered the redundancies required. There will therefore be no need to resort to compulsion in these categories.
The number of volunteers was by no means excessive, and this suggests to me that the redundancy terms offered were judged to be just about right. Moreover, the officers and men who will be leaving the Service represent a fair cross-section in terms of quality. There is no mass exodus of our most able officers and men from the Service. I will not disguise the fact that people who have been made compulsorily redundant will feel pain and will be going out into civilian life at a bad time, but I can assure hon. Members that in general a special effort is being made to resetttle aircrew and to prepare them for other careers.
As the hon. Member for Woking said, civil aviation is itself suffering from a surplus and it is not likely that many of the aircrew being made redundant or who have volunteered for redundancy will be absorbed in that way. Nevertheless, we are making special efforts to fit them for other careers. This is a continuing process upon which I hope to keep the hon. Gentleman informed as it goes along.
For the other Service men involved, we tried to remove uncertainty as quickly as possible by saying that no one below the rank of sergeant or who had served for less than 16 years would be affected, nor would any of the WRAF. So, although some uncertainty must persist, especially amongst chief technicians and to a limited extent in three officer branches, that is now at a minimum.
I must say frankly that some of the chief technician redundancies might have happened without a Defence Review. Over the years, and even during the period in office of the last Conservative Government, it was apparent that we were overborne in these ranks in the technical trades, which meant that they had to do jobs below their level of skill and that younger men were being denied proper career prospects because of the clogging at that level. I hope that these measures which the Government have taken will rectify the situation, which was probably as productive of premature release for younger men in the past as it is for chief technicians now. We have to bear in mind the number who were not allowed to extend their engagements beyond the 12-year category simply because there was no promotion ladder up which they could go as a result of the blockage in the chief technician rank.
I have spoken often on the subject of low flying, and I know that hon. Members, to judge from my correspondence, take a particularly keen interest in it. The fact is that, in order to perform the tasks which the RAF has to perform, to evade radar and to have a chance of completing missions successfully, pilots not only have to learn the skill when they are training but have constantly to exercise the skill so that they maintain a high level of proficiency. I believe, therefore, that the arrangements that we have made, which mean that low flying is carried out over half the surface area of the country but where only 5 per cent. of the population live, are necessary to take account first of our defence needs and secondly of the fact that people must not in peace time have their lives unduly disrupted. Additionally, minimum heights and maximum speeds reduce the nuisance that it causes.
These arrangements are kept under continuing review. Last year, a fatal accident occurred between an RAF Phantom engaged in low-level training and a civil crop-spraying aircraft. The accident has been investigated by the Chief Inspector of Accidents. But, none the less, I felt that the occurrence of this accident, although it was the first to happen within the low-flying system, called for a special review of procedures and regulations to see whether any changes could be made in the interests of flight safety.
I announced the result of my preliminary review on 13th June, and, as I said then, we have introduced certain new measures which I believe could be of real and immediate value in terms of flight safety. First we are inviting all civil pilots who are planning to fly at 500 ft. or below to give us advance warning of their intentions. All they will need to do is to telephone the Military Air Traffic Control Centre or one of a number of RAF stations specially nominated for this purpose. This information will in turn be passed to the military aircrew who will maintain a special watch for civil aircraft in the area concerned.
The new scheme will become operative on 17th July and will run initially for a trial period of 12 months, after which it will be reviewed in the light of experience. This will involve consultation with the civil flying organisations who will also be able to comment, should they wish, during the course of the trial period. As this will be a voluntary system, I should like to take this opportunity to express the hope that the civil pilots will cooperate fully with us in order to ensure its success. For its part, the RAF will be taking active steps to promote closer liaison. Major flying stations will contact civil operators and flying clubs in the general neighbourhood both to explain the new procedures and, where possible, to give advance warning of any unusual military activity.
As a further measure, I have decided that in future no military aircraft will undertake low-level training at weekends unless there is prior notification to the contrary, although this rule will not apply to elementary flying training carried out in the immediate vicinity of training airfields. Finally, we are at present engaged in a detailed study to see what can be done to make military aircraft more conspicuous in the air, such as through the introduction of an improved lighting system.
Clearly, the need to camouflage operational aircraft limits what we can do to make aircraft more conspicuous, but it may none the less be possible to improve upon their present conspicuousness. I hope that this scheme will represent a real step forward in the concern for flight safety which we all feel. I think that it would he wrong to underestimate the dangers, because any accident is one too many. But this was the first accident to have occurred within the military low-flying system, and I hope that hon. Members will not be tempted to exaggerate the danger.
This is the RAF as it stands after the Defence Review, faced with the differing tasks now placed upon it. The attitude of the Opposition is unique for a single Service debate. In the major areas of European defence and United Kingdom defence, our front-line and transport forces remain quantitatively strong and qualitatively improved by the measures we have taken. It would be wholly wrong for the Opposition to divide the House on the spurious grounds that they have so far given.
There must obviously be on the part of any Opposition the need intelligently to check and question the priorities which the Government have set. But since this House has approved the Government's central strategy and since the measures announced for the RAF follow that central strategy, I see no good and sufficient reason why the RAF should be singled out for this unique occasion. I hope that the Opposition will, even now, reverse their decision and allow the Estimates to go through unchallenged.
We have been treated to what I would call a soothing speech by the Minister. I had the impression that he was acting like the wise father trying to sooth the nightmarish fantasies of an over-nervous child.
We meet against a particularly sombre background. We are aware that our main potential adversary is increasing in military strength on all sides. We are aware that in the Defence Review we have cut our capability to the extent that our NATO allies have seen fit publicly to criticise us. If they have said this publicly, I can imagine what more colourful language they may have used privately.
We had the even more sombre information this afternoon in response to a Question put by me that there can be no guarantee that there will not be further cuts if the economic situation demands it. I find this a most frightening reflection, especially as we were told that the Defence Review was so carefully planned to meet our requirements and to match our financial responsibilities. If we do have further cuts, it will make mincemeat of that assertion. I greatly fear that we shall place ourselves in an unenviable position.
I simply cannot understand the position of the Government who maintain that we should always bear in mind expenditure in other areas. It seems that defence expenditure falls into a category of its own. Unless we are able to defend ourselves and deter would-be aggressors, it matters little how elaborate the spending may be in other spheres. It goes for nought if we find ourselves being invaded or threatened. I do not understand why the Government do not learn the lessons of history. We have had only too many examples.
We were starting from a higher level. The lower we go, the less room there is for manoeuvre because we are cutting nearer the bone and into the bone. I do not think that is a particularly valid point. I do not accept it at all.
I turn now to two points I wish to make in connection with the RAF. The first concerns the Transport Fleet. We have received a number of assurances from the Minister that all is well and that we have no need to concern ourselves because our commitments have been cut down in the far-flung parts of the world and we are therefore able to meet present requirements. I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) in his intervention. There is considerable concern in Germany. I was one of those who made the visit to which he alluded, when we dealt with the cuts in transport and the effect that they might have.
I do not pretend to any expertise in these matters. Therefore, the questions I put to the Minister may be considered somewhat simple and naïve. Let us suppose that there is an emergency in the central area and it becomes necessary rapidly to fly out X number of troops to reinforce our position. Is the Minister quite satisfied that this can be done without calling upon civilian aircraft? What length of time does he suppose this might take? As I understand it, the essence of modern warfare is the speed at which it moves.
I would like to know how many hours the Minister envisages it would take to move a given number of troops. Perhaps we can have an answer to that in the ministerial reply. The question of civilian aircraft was specifically mentioned since it was suggested that we could not take over civilian aircraft without some kind of order or permission. I would like to know how long that might take in an emergency.
I come now to the cuts in personnel. Looking at the figure of 18,000 in the Service, which represents an 18 per cent. cut, it can be seen to be a savage reduction in comparison with those being borne by the other two Services. For example, in the Navy and Royal Marines there is to be a 6 per cent. cut while the Army is to have an 8 per cent. cut. I do not imagine for a moment that the RAF was particularly over-staffed before. It has, therefore, taken a particularly severe blow. I suspect that it is suffering from its own earlier attempts to streamline. It is now being asked to make further cuts.
I am not very happy about the manner in which redundancy arrangements are being carried out. The Minister seems to suggest that there is a large voluntary element here. That is not what the White Paper said. The White Paper said that it was largely compulsory. I fail to understand why it should not be possible for the scheme to be made wholly voluntary, at any rate in the first stages, with the Government holding the trump card of making the final decision about who should go and who should stay. As it is, I suspect that we shall end with the extraordinary position of those who would not mind being made redundant staying put and those who desperately want to remain in the Force being made redundant. I hope that we can have some information about this later.
I would also like to know about what I describe as the hidden costs. As I understand it, training of RAF personnel is an extremely expensive business. I would be interested to know what it represents in training costs to make redundant the 4,000 men and 800 officers who are to go within the next 18 months. I would like to know what would be the additional cost of offering them redundancy payments.
I am not very happy about this question of recruitment. The White Paper says:
We shall not therefore relax our recruiting effort and will continue to provide full and worthwhile careers for all those who enter.
I would suggest that any young man or woman thinking of entering the Service might well think twice in the light of the current redundancies.
I was not best pleased to receive an extremely glossy magazine sent out by the Secretary of State dealing with British policy and the rôle of the Services. It was apparently intended as an inducement to recruitment. I suggest that those made redundant would look askance at the point about offering a worthwhile and full career when they see their own careers cut off in full flight.
I am disturbed about the line we are taking with regard to the RAF. We are in danger of cutting not simply near the bone but right into the bone. If, as I hope, we decide to divide the House tonight, that will be an indication of the Opposition's deep concern about the effect of Government policy.
At Question Time we heard the Secretary of State rebuke my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), saying that he should know that the Treaty of Rome had nothing to do with defence. At one level, that is true. I suppose that it is fair to score such points. At another level, we know that there are momentous arguments with which we should be dealing. This debate should be partly about the future of the European aircraft industry—whether, indeed, Europe will have an industry to talk about at all. Any military commitment and military expenditure is inextricably bound up with that crucial question, of industry and employment.
I should have liked to hear the Under-Secretary say a good deal more about the F16 episode and why there is to be a major European purchase of American aircraft. I hope that the Minister will deal with that subject when he winds up the debate.
Like others, I am increasingly fascinated by this episode of the late General Stehlin, at least as I read it in the European Press. This is an incredible story for those who started out of curiosity and who have become intrigued with it. Critical defence issues arise out of it, not least for us British.
I first ask why the Belgians have opted for an American aircraft rather than the MRCA. Did they do so because they supposed that the MRCA was deficient for its rôle? If not, why was MRCA not preferred?
I should like to know what is to be our future relationship with France. It is clear that the French, having received this rebuff, will try to sell the F1E in overseas markets. It would be uncharacteristic of the Dassault firm if it did not at least make the attempt. But the French will be faced with a very different issue if they go ahead with the ACF, the advanced combat aircraft, as a rival to the MRCA. I should think that it would be absurdly costly for the French to do that.
Granted the MRCA rôle is central to the RAF, what efforts are the Government making, in the light of the Belgian rejection, to bring France into the MRCA project? Of course, French industry would have to be involved with current and future development. Yet any rivalry between the ACF and the MRCA would seem ludicrous from the European point of view. Can we be told what has been said on these matters in the Eurogroup, of which my right hon. Friend is currently chairman?
My hon. Friend has boasted, probably rightly, about the technical success of the Jaguar project. In that case, in the light of that experience, why do we not cooperate with the French, on the basis of the Jaguar experience, over MRCA? Whether it was right to go ahead with the MRCA in the first place is a different question. However, we are now so far advanced that it is difficult to put the clock back, even if that were desirable which I personally doubt.
I relate my remarks to what the Secretary of State said at Question Time about the two-way stream between America and Europe. The existence of a two-way stream presupposes the existence of a thriving European aircraft industry, whose future must be in some question, in the light of the acceptance of the F16 by some of our partners.
My second issue is of a technical nature. It concerns the airborne early warning system. There exists a new generation of long-range Soviet aircraft. That is an uncomfortable fact. Some of my Friends and I find it distasteful to face the fact that there is an increased requirement for an airborne early-warning system. If that is not the case, we must ask the Russians why they are going to the expense of making a new generation of long-range aircraft. We must put this matter to our Russian contacts, who, while they are candid on many issues, are less than candid on this than on others.
The 12 Shackleton aircraft, which are old and vulnerable to electronic countermeasures, must be replaced. A question on that matter was asked by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). I ask it again. Is there to be a replacement for the Shackleton? I know that Nimrod is being considered. Should we take the American option, AWACs, we would need between 30 and 36 Boeing 3A aircraft, which cost at least £26 million each. We can work out that figure in terms of foreign exchange and what such a purchase would mean to the European aircraft industry. Therefore I hope there is no question of going ahead with the purchase of American AWACS.
On a related Nimrod issue, the hon. Member for Woking said that the decision to withdraw Nimrod from the Mediterranean was inexcusable. Strong language! Was there any pressure from our NATO allies or from any European country against the withdrawal of Nimrod from the Mediterranean capability? If so, on what grounds was that objection lodged? I am sceptical whether our NATO partners even privately are as angry as the Opposition seek to make out. I do not regard this as a yaboo debate, and I cannot imagine why they are dividing the House.
Thirdly, we must take on board the point about the fuel costs of an aircraft with a convincing capability. Those costs are enormous. That is why I interrupted earlier when training was being discussed. Reserves must be trained and kept up to date. That is costly in terms of fuel alone.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Woking about the availability of aircraft. But my point is that fuel costs are rising in terms of volume and price. This is the most important consideration.
What research is being done on aircraft fuel for the machines of the late 1980s and 1990s? What research is being carried out into liquid hydrocarbon fuel? Liquid hydrogen has been manufactured, handled and used safety in large quantities on manned space programmes. I understand that there are great difficulties in incorporating liquid hydrogen into existing small combat aircraft. On the other hand, I am told that it is within the range of possibility for bigger aircraft.
What attention are project design teams giving to this matter, especially in relation to wind tunnels, one of which McDonnell Douglas has already started. Liquid hydrogen is the cleanest burning of all fuels, and at any rate for larger aircraft should not be laughed out of court. But it has to be faced that the air forces of the world by the late 1980s or the 1990s will be in great trouble because of oil consumption. Not all of us have the geographical good fortune to be living over oil wells in the North Sea or anywhere else. I couple this with the hope that we shall hear in the winding-up speech something about the Government's philosophy on the training of reserves.
On North Sea protection, I realise that my hon. Friend the Minister did not have time to go into detail about the surveillance rôle of Nimrod. Those of us who have had the good fortune to fly in a Nimrod from either Kinross or St. Mawgan know the plane's capabilities. It is a major anti-sabotage aircraft which can be used to solve some of our worries about North Sea defence.
On VSTOL, I welcome the decision to go ahead with the maritime Harrier, but are we not on a technological plateau? What is being done to develop VSTOL techniques for civil purposes? Only five years ago many of us thought the VSTOL was a major project. Perhaps I might have my hon. Friend's attention. I take the view in these debates when comparatively few hon. Members wish to speak and the speeches are fairly short that we are entitled to put serious questions to the Minister. Given that there is a substantial potential for civil VSTOL, which was the darling proposition of the mid-1960s, what is being done to develop VSTOL techniques in a civil capacity?
I have two questions to ask on sales. Is there any proposal for the maritime Harrier to be sold to Iran? Would that he a package deal on the basis of the availability of a ship, for the Shah, such as HMS "Invincible". If so, will the Government tell us what they intend to do about it? It seems to some of us to be an exceedingly expensive operation for us to have a one-off through-deck cruiser, and that we might cover design and overheads by sales.
My second question is on the Diego Garcia base. Until recently we thought that this was simply a matter of allowing the Americans to use the mid-Indian Ocean atoll for their own purposes. Like many of my hon. Friends, I am strongly against the militarisation of the Indian Ocean against the will of the littoral States, particularly Sri Lanka and India. On the other hand, that is a message which might also be conveyed to the Russians. I hope that this matter will be put strongly to the Russians in our talks with them and that it is made plain that their policy as well as ours and that of the United States is against the wishes of the littoral States.
Finally, I ask a question of philosophy. These days we have unending competition to build on the latest scientific and technological knowledge in the effort to have weapons systems which will not be outmatched by those of a potential enemy. Every step that is taken becomes more demanding technologically than the one that has gone before. For a country such as ours, the line surely has to be drawn somewhere. We cannot go on to ever more sophisticated and more expensive techniques. So I ask my hon. Friend where he thinks the line should be drawn in relation to discussions with any potential adversary, and what the Eurogroup or the combinations we now have with our European partners will do about this central question. It makes multilateral arms agreements all the more urgent.
The Minister referred to the withdrawal of the Vulcan and Victor squadrons from Cyprus. I sought to intervene at that point to ask him a question, but he brushed me aside and said that if I were lucky enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye I could make my point known. As I have been lucky enough to do so, I shall now refer to this matter.
The V bomber squadrons in Cyprus provided the only tactical nuclear backing to the CENTO Treaty. I am not clear how far this has been replaced, or in what way. I do not wish to ask for a public explanation of the details, but I should like to know whether any provision has been made for an adequate substitute for the forces that were there.
My main reason for intervening in the debate is to mention a matter on which the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell touched in his opening remarks, that is, the recent Belgian decision about the re-equipment of the fighter side of their air force. This highlights the central problem of procurement in the NATO alliance. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on this when he winds up the debate.
I understand that there was no clear operational requirement laid down by NATO as to what the Belgian Air Force should seek to buy. Is this so? The two aircraft which were competing—the French aircraft and the American aircraft—were of quite different performance types. The Dassau French aircraft was an interceptor with a high interception capability and a very limited ground attack capability. The American aircraft had virtually no interception capability and a rather limited ground attack capability.
A strong case could have been made for the Jaguar as having a very powerful ground attack capability. A case was put forward—and I dare say it was put forward by the Secretary of State for Defence—for a two-aircraft solution, the Jaguar for ground attack and the French aircraft for interception, if interception were needed. A strong case could also have been made for the MRCA which, although primarily expensive, would have been available in about the same time scale as the American aircraft. As I say, the MRCA is expensive to buy. But we know something about the costs of American aircraft, which include not only the more dubious salesmanship practices to which the American aircraft industry is accustomed and which have been referred to in recent Congressional hearings, but also the high cost of spare parts which is charged to customers.
Did our industry press hard enough for a Jaguar solution, or a Jaguar cum F1 Dassau solution or for the adoption of the MRCA? Did the Government press hard enough? There is an impression in aircraft industry circles, and indeed in Europe, that because we were hesitating about the referendum and our general attitude towards Europe, we did not press as hard as we might have done for the sale of these aircraft.
A special responsibility here rests upon the Ministry of Defence, and not just on the procurement branch of the Ministry. The Air Staff of the Royal Air Force, along with the American Air Staff, remain by far the most experienced in the Western Alliance. They alone have a continuity of experience stretching right back before the war, through the war and into the post-war perid. Were they enabled to bring their influence to bear on Belgium and similar European countries in determining the right operational requirements? Was their voice properly heard in NATO, and was any attempt made by us in the Eurogroup or elsewhere to determine the operational requirements? The problem is one of some urgency.
Although we have confidence in our American allies, we must realise that we are looking a long time ahead. Defence problems take the best part of a decade to mature. I think we all feel that we cannot rely indefinitely on American supply or on American presence. There should be a European procurement programme for the European branch of NATO. Of course, it would be ideal to have a reciprocity arrangement with the Americans whereby they bought things that we made and we bought things that they made. But in four years as Sec- retary of State for Air and Minister of Aviation I never succeeded in getting anywhere along those lines. I do not know that anyone else has done much better since in getting any real reciprocity with the Americans as regards procurement.
Does my right hon. Friend think it unreasonable for NATO to buy aircraft that are made by a NATO country when the argument that he is putting forward presupposes that NATO should buy aircraft from a country that has decided unilaterally to stay outside that grouping in defence terms?
Perhaps I have not made myself clear. I was not advocating that the Belgians should have bought the French aircraft. On the contrary, I was saying that as far as I can see the French aircraft is an interceptor and does not conform to the admittedly very sketchy operational requirement for a ground attack aircraft. I am not in the least advocating that the Belgians should have bought the French aircraft. I am trying to advocate that there was a strong case for buying Jaguar, which is a better ground attack aircraft than the American design which is still on the drawing board, or better still the MRCA, which although more expensive would have been far superior to the American aircraft to which the Belgians are now apparently committed.
We must have a certain caution in all these matters. But I believe that we must create a European defence industry based primarily on the technology of this country and that of France. Of course, there are big political difficulties in regard to France to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has adverted, but I am sure that with good will they can be overcome. What is tremendously important is that there should be a clear definition of the operational requirements of all the NATO countries that are buying aircraft. That was the main point of my intervention.
The Minister has criticised my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends for proposing to divide the House. I think that his own speech provided the best justification for doing so. The Minister made it clear that there is an essential difference on strategy between Government and Opposition as regards the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. This is expressed primarily in the cuts which are being applied to the Royal Air Force. I do not think the Minister can be surprised if we find ourselves in opposition to those cuts, which strike fundamentally at the root of what we believe should be Britain's world strategy.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) in his belief that at some stage there should be, and the sooner the better, a European procurement agency. I developed that point in the debate that took place last week on the Army. It is very important that France should agree to such a proposal. I would have thought that some initiative from France is required before we can achieve such an agency.
I respond in the very short contribution that I wish to make to the Minister's appeal that we do not deal with general strategy but concentrate on the rôle of the Royal Air Force. I thought that what was missing in the Minister's speech was an attempt to deal with that very question—namely, the role of the Royal Air Force in this country's present defence effort.
It is my impression that the Royal Air Force is almost a force in search of a rôle. It seems that in the reassessment of its position it is virtually ancillary to the other Services. For the sake of morale in the Royal Air Force I would have thought it necessary in the long term for the Ministry of Defence to spell out much more clearly the RAF's rôle.
That brings me to the matter that has been referred to already—namely, the North Sea and its general surveillance. That matter has never been dealt with in any detail by any Minister from the Dispatch Box, yet it is of vital importance. Clearly our oil interests in the North Sea have added to the importance of the North Sea, but it is also the direct route from the Soviet Union. By now we should have had set out in much greater detail the steps that are being taken by Great Britain, and particularly the rôle of the RAF, in the surveillance of the North Sea.
For example, how many patrols take place? We know that there is a helicopter stationed at Prestwick and that one or two other aircraft carry out general patrols in the North Sea, but there have been many incidents, and one or two specific incidents in the past couple of years lead us to suppose that the surveillance is very much short of what it should be.
Clearly there is an important rôle not only for Nimrod but for vertical take-off aircraft. Surely the vertical take-off aircraft will be able to alight on and take off from some of the platforms in the North Sea as well as helping with an early warning system. I should like to hear the Government spell out how they envisage a developing rôle for the RAF and the integrated services of the other forces as regards the North Sea.
I understand that the Andover aircraft is being phased out of the RAF transport section. It seems that a minor but important rôle that the RAF has played very successfully has been the carrying out of relief operations in various parts of the world. I always understood that the Andovers had been particularly useful in that respect. Is it sensible for the Government to do away with all these aircraft? Obviously they carried out many other functions, but disaster relief in different parts of the world has provided valuable experience quite apart from anything else. I should like the Minister to deal with that matter in greater length.
I have only one other point to make although in general I agree with the Government. If there is a vote this evening I shall be voting with the Government.
In fact, I have heard every one of the Government's recent defence speeches. The hon. Gentleman should take care what he says from a sedentary position.
I deal with a totally different matter, on which I have been in communication with the Minister—namely, the low-flying aircraft to which my part of the world is subjected. I and my constituents appreciate the need for air crew to be trained in that way, but it is a matter of relief to know, as far as I understand it, that there will be no weekend flying. But what is "weekend" in this parlance? Perhaps the Minister will tell us about that.
I have had a case in my constituency where two animals died as a result, without any doubt, of low-flying aircraft. A pony was found embedded in a fence of barbed wire following the passage of a low-flying aircraft and a bull calf was found dead 40 or 50 yards away on the very same day. The farmer was unaware of the procedure which had been agreed between the National Farmers' Union and the Ministry and as a result has received no compensation, although he has lost a valuable pony and certainly a commercially valuable bull calf several months old. I have been unable to get any satisfaction from the Ministry of Defence on this matter and I have handed over the file to the NFU Parliamentry Committee which met the commission yesterday on the subject.
Unfortunately, the farmer and his wife did not know the procedure and were too late in calling on the services of a veterinary surgeon. They thought it obvious that both animals had died following flights by low-flying aircraft. They did not know that a procedure had been agreed with the NFU. By the time they were told about it a couple of weeks had elapsed, and therefore the Claims Commission was unwilling to entertain the claim. If such a case had come before a civil court on a balance of probabilities, without any doubt the farmer would have been able to establish his claim.
It is bad enough to live in an area where one is constantly subjected to the disturbance of low-flying aircraft, even if such flights are necessary for the defence effort of the country, but it is very much worse when it gets round in a farming community that a farmer who has lost two valuable animals has been awarded no compensation at all. It is a matter of red tape. In the end it boils down to the question: how can anybody judge such a claim unless he sees the farmer and knows what kind of man he is, or speaks to people who know him and is thereby able to judge for himself whether it is a proper and valid claim.
I hope that the Minister will deal with this matter since it is a matter of importance in an area such as ours—namely, a hill area where many farmers bitterly complain about low-flying aircraft but learn to live with the situation and to tolerate it. It undermines their morale considerably when they hear of such a case. The Ministry has made a great mistake in not dealing far more sympathetically with that claim.
I wish to deal briefly with four points. First, I wish to draw attention to the fact that we have had no statement in Parliament so far on the U2 aircraft at Wethersfield. The House has had no opportunity to discuss this important matter. The arrival and use of five aircraft at Wethersfield was concealed. Extra security was applied at the air base and the matter came to light only because it was disclosed by an alert local reporter. It has subsequently emerged that one aircraft during one part of its flight was only six seconds' flying time from the East German frontier. Does the Minister regard such a flight as wise at a time when we have hopes of a relaxation of tension—indeed, on the eve of three international peace conferences?
These aircraft have the whole of the United States in which to practise. Why pick such a sensitive area for their operation?
I maintain that the flight was provocative and that some military gentleman—I know not who—deliberately wanted to sabotage the peace talks this summer. That may be a strong charge to make, but we all remember the Gary Powers flight in 1963, when his U2 aircraft was shot down over Russia. That incident wrecked the 1963 summit conference. I hope to goodness that the flight to which I have referred will not wreck this year's peace conferences.
Certainly. The hon. Gentleman should know me well enough to realise that I do not oppose military moves by NATO without equally opposing military moves by Warsaw Pact countries. A few more seconds and that aircraft could have been shot down over East Germany and we could have had a repetition of the 1963 fiasco.
There are one or two questions which I should like the Minister to answer. Was permission given to the United States Government by the United Kingdom Government before the U2 aircraft arrived in our country? Was it discussed with the United States Government? Was advance permission given to the United States Government to use those aircraft—based in Britain—so near to the frontier in the heart of Europe? Will the Minister ask the United States Government to remove those aircraft before any more damage is done?
Next, I wish to refer to the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence this afternoon at Question Time, on the subject of arms cuts. There are no cuts in arms spending. The Minister has admitted that our arms spending, in real terms, will increase by £200 million a year within the next two years and will stay at that plateau, in real terms, over the next seven years. God knows what that means in terms or inflation. We know that there will be a cash increase of £900 million this year.
I was sorry to hear the Secretary of State merely repeat a spurious argument which has already been disposed of. He talked about vast savings of hundreds and even thousands of millions of pounds. He well knows that such a saving is in relation not to current spending but to what might have been spent by a Conservative Government—although I doubt whether that Government would have been able to put that plan into practice in 1973.
It is similar to a man going home to his wife and saying "I have saved you £2,000." The man's wife replies "But you have just bought a car." "Ah, yes," says the husband "but I intended to buy a Jaguar and instead have bought ony a Mini. Therefore. I have saved you £2,000." That is a completely false argument, and there is some parallel with the current situation.
Conservative Members are saying openly—indeed, the hon. Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett) said it only last week—that they would cut public spending on housing, pensions, education and health but would increase the spending on arms. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister, and, through him, my right hon. Friends in the Government, that the Labour movement will not take that line. There are rumours that in the next few weeks there will be serious cuts in social spending. I hope that the Minister will convey to the Cabinet the view that some Labour Members will oppose social spending even by a penny—and certainly if that happens before arms are cut, as we promised as a party to cut in our election manifesto.
I turn to the subject of the sale of arms, of which there are two recent and alarming examples. I believe that arms exports in general are a dirty business. It is one export we do not want. It increases world tension, and involves a moral issue. Human life must come before profit. We should be switching military exports to civilian exports and following the example of Japan, which has captured world markets because it exports no arms at all.
Consider the two recent cases. The first is the proposal now under discussion—I was told by a Minister yesterday that no decision has yet been taken on it—that we should sell £450 million-worth of arms to Egypt. At the same time, we have been selling hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of arms to Israel, including Chieftain tanks.
What is happening? America is selling arms to Israel. Russia is supplying arms to the Arabs. And we are busy flogging them to both sides. There is something disgusting about profits being made out of men slaughtering one another with arms sold them by firms in other countries.
A serious contribution towards ending the war in the Middle East could be made if the Big Four—Britain, France, America and Russia—said "We will impose an embargo on all arms supplied to the Middle East". In the meantime, Britain should give a lead by contracting out. It will be argued that this would be costly to our exports. Perhaps it would. However, if the Middle East war recommences, it could become the third world war, and that would be far more costly to the people of Britain and of the world than losing the revenue from exports of weapons.
The second recent example of the sale of arms concerns nuclear weapons. I believe that all hon. Members, whatever their political views, are nervous about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which vastly increases the danger of war by accident. The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the greater the danger, one day, of such weapons falling into the hands of a fanatical dictator prepared to use them even if he knows that the other side will immediately retaliate in kind. Hitler would have been prepared to do this. If he had had the bomb he would have been prepared to use it, because he was prepared to commit suicide in the Berlin bunker. There are some fanatical dictators in today's world.
Recently there have been sales of nuclear reactors, nuclear technology and the ability to produce plutonium and enriched uranium. I have in mind two examples—first, the supply of nuclear plant by West Germany to Brazil and, secondly, the supply by Canada to India.
I very much welcome the confidential conference which took place in London last week. Perhaps my thought is an unworthy one, but I hope that America was genuine in its approach and not motivated by the fear that the West German undertaking was getting the market in Brazil. I hope that that was not the case, because much more important issues are involved than that of who gets the contract.
I should like to refer to the frenetic attitude of some gentlemen, both inside and outside this House, to Soviet Russia and its armed forces. I repeat that I have no love of armed forces. The Daily Telegraph has been running a daily series on its editorial page entitled "The Threat to the West". Some warmongering articles and letters have been published in that series. It leads me to believe that we are almost back in the age of the unlamented Senator Joe MacCarthy.
It is time that we talked of the real military situation and not in terms of the nightmares of Conservative Members and Press lords. I refer these gentlemen to the Pentagon Report of 1973. We have been told that we are overwhelmed 2:1 or 3:1 by Soviet forces. That is just not true. The Pentagon Report of 1973 declared that there was parity in conventional weapons on both sides in Europe. The report stated that the NATO Alliance has twice the naval resources of the Warsaw Pact. It said that there are more Soviet tanks than NATO tanks. However, there is more NATO anti-tank artillery, and the NATO forces have vast numbers of tactical nuclear missiles already targeted on Soviet cities. We must not believe that only one side is threatening the other. Both sides have huge military forces.
A mistake has been made in calculating the number of Soviet tanks. That mistake may have been accidental or deliberate. To arrive at the number of Soviet tanks the number of tank sheds has been counted. We now know that many of those tank sheds are empty and. therefore, a greatly inflated number of Soviet tanks has been estimated.
Do the war hawks really want to avoid war, or to win a war? No one will win a third world war. Our job is to avoid it. If they want to avoid war, I should point out that war is more likely to arise from an accident—such as a border incident along the vertical frontier through Europe escalating into a world war—than from planned aggression by either side.
The hon. Gentleman has always been critical of Russian military spending. I agree that to some of us this is disconcerting. The fact is that the Russians are building up and increasing a vast naval capability in the Indian Ocean and are also spending resources—resources which could be used elsewhere in the Soviet Union—on developing long-range aggressive aircraft. In these circumstances, should not those who have many Soviet friends indicate that we find it difficult to understand why they should be developing their forces in this way? Should the Russians not understand that some people in the West, who want to be friendly with them, are disconcerted by this?
I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said. Those of us who are genuine about this matter do not have double standards. Certainly, there are vast Soviet forces, but my hon. Friend must remember that there are equally vast American forces, and that when we ask our Government—and they are the people with whom we are most closely in contact—to cut arms spending and to devote the money to other and better things, we say precisely the same to the Soviet Government. Indeed, I have attempted to do this.
I welcome the progressive step that is being taken this summer in Europe. It appears that we are on the verge of agreement between East and West on the question of advance notice of military manoeuvres within a given distance from the East-West frontiers. It is only a small step, but someone once said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This step will lessen the danger of war by accident, which threatens us and the whole of mankind. I hope that the Government will pursue this kind of policy rather than fall into the trap of saying that we can prevent war only by having larger and larger armed forces.
I must first declare an interest. I am an aeronautical engineer by profession. When I sought to try to compare the Air Estimates in the Defence White Paper with the threats which the United Kingdom and NATO face, I am afraid that I found tremendous discrepancies between the kind of statistics which Her Majesty's Government were deploying and statistics available from other unbiased sources. I do not know from where the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) obtained his figures on artillery. No doubt he will take up that matter with his Ministers.
The statistics tell us that there are twice as many artillery weapons facing us from the Warsaw Pact countries as we have pointing back the other way. It is without doubt necessary for us to dive a little more deeply than the White Paper allowed us to dive if we are to arrive at any understanding whether the defence estimates for the Royal Air Force meet the threats which are facing us.
In terms of the White Paper we are told that there are 1,600 NATO aircraft facing 3,680 Warsaw Pact aircraft, but the Stockholm International Peace Re- search Institute whilst agreeing about the 1,600 NATO aircraft, tells us that there are 4,350 Warsaw Pact combat aircraft facing us. Therefore, 670 aircraft have gone missing in the White Paper. That is more than twice the front-line strength of the RAF today.
Indeed, the RAF itself is in a very puny state. I admire the courage and skill of its officers and men for being able to mount the kind of air defence they can offer. But they are outnumbered by more than two to one in front-line strength by the air force of East Germany alone. Therefore, we are in an extremely dangerous situation.
I hope that the Ministry of Defence will consider the need not only to reexamine its own statistics but to consider the rigidity with which the NATO forces believe a Russian attack will take place. I believe that there are far too many generals, air marshals and admirals around who have not had the up-to-date experience that is essential if we are to face the Warsaw Pact threats. None of these people appears to have gone either to the Middle East, to find out what was happening there, or to Vietnam. Much as I abhor war, the fact is that one ought to learn from what is going on where the Russians have so successfully deployed vast weights of arms.
I am concerned that the Herman Kahn escalation theory has been sitting rigidly in the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, in the headquarters of NATO when it is completely out of date. We have had demonstrated repeatedly the fact that Russian or Communist aggression appears as and when opportunities can be taken to erode the strength of the West. It is phased in intensity and in time to a level which the public in the West will accept as tolerable.
If we look in a little detail at the kind of aggressive forces being built up by the Russians—to which the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) so skilfully referred—we find a tremendous growth in the air support available to the Russian navy. It is worth detailing the numbers of aircraft they have which are actually facing us. Against our shipping lanes in the Atlantic and the Northern Approaches, their strategic striking power is, as the hon. Gentleman said, composed of a whole new generation of long-range Soviet aircraft. There are 280 Badger aircraft, fitted out with air-to-surface missiles. These are supported by 150 tankers of a similar type. There are 50 very-long-range Bear aircraft, and 55 Blinder supersonic bombers, plus numbers of other aircraft. Therefore, the Soviet air arm supporting their navy now numbers 715 combat aircraft. Against this our deployment is pathetic.
I welcome the purchase of the 25 Royal Navy Harriers, but it is not matching, on the scale we need to match, the threat which is coming upon us. The Russians are building three aircraft carriers. They have nine others planned. It is my fear that the Russians are developing a sea stranglehold and an air stranglehold which will close rapidly around our throat. In fact, we might not even fight a war at all before we are defeated.
Our whole strategy is based on NATO's ability to be supplied, in time of our choosing, from the United States. But NATO has been outflanked, particularly in the air. The bases at Conakry, Socotra and Somalia, built up by the Russians, are hardly likely to be considered by anyone—I hope—to be bases designed to defend either the Black Sea or the Baltic. In fact, we have seen, particularly in the Russian air force, a move from defensive systems to offensive weapons systems.
I am very concerned not to see that cheerful chap the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy present at this debate, because I find him a charming man to have around—except when I read what he is reported to have said, which I should be delighted if he denied in due course. He said that he was considerably concerned because the United Kingdom presence at Simonstown was provoking the Russians to deploy vessels in the Indian Ocean.
Today the Minister, quite rightly, concentrated our attention on the need to defend central Europe. Against the array of might that we have facing us across the Iron Curtain, I think we generally accept that we are outnumbered right across the board in everything, whether it be on land, sea or air, by weapons outnumbering ours by about two to one. But I fear that the ratio is far worse than that. The lack of standardisation in NATO makes me believe that that outnumbering is as bad as four to one. In the Second Tactical Air Force, for instance, there are four different types of bomb, five different types of gun ammunition, six different napalm containers and 16 different types of drop tank.
People outside the House, who have the ability to watch television programmes which Members of the House do not have, saw a very worrying feature on Panorama this week showing how to supply fresh water to ships and how many couplings there are. Those are details which might worry anyone. However, when one finds Dr. Luns, Secretary General of NATO saying that there are 130 different types of aircraft in NATO, and Admiral Sir Peter Hill-Norton saying that in a recent exercise 60 NATO aircraft were shot down, metaphorically, by our own side because the systems of radio communication were different—and this number added up to half of the total forces deployed—one realises that we really have big problems and that we are wasting a lot of money by failing to standardise equipment.
It seems to me that after 25 years of NATO, we have not only still got a collection of countries separated by passports and body checks; we have a collection of national air forces built up with only one common feature—that they share a common potential enemy. Each air force in NATO has its own weapons inventory, studied, specified and selected by its own national staff officers. Collaboration exists, but let us see what kind of collaboration it is.
I often think that it is nice to ask a general question, such as "What goes on in the Ministry of Defence?", hoping that no one will answer because the answer may worry one even more in terms of the standardisation of aircraft, systems, maintenance and training. As mentioned this afternoon, we have for instance, Nimrod. It is a remarkably fine aircraft, unequalled anywhere in the world. I fully understand the reasoning and pacifism of the hon. Member for Salford, East, and I admire that, but when he says that we should contract out of arms sales I wonder whether he has suggested that to the Hawker Siddeley workers at Woodford.
That is right. They told me that the hon. Gentleman had done so. They also told me that the alternative that the hon. Gentleman had suggested was that they should make caravans instead.
I am very glad that that point has been raised. I visited the factory and met the shop stewards and workers. I put to them the point—with which they fully agreed—that it would be very much better if their firm were employed on the HS146, which had been put on ice. After all, the HS146 is a civilian aeroplane, which would bring in money and would not be helping to spread dissention in the world.
I am sorry that the hon. Member was unable to deal with the caravan story, but perhaps the shop stewards can enlighten me later on that point. The Nimrod situation is particularly worrying to me, especially in view of the saga of the F16 in North-West Europe. A study is in progress in NATO of the kind of aircraft which could meet the airborne warning and control system requirement of Europe and this country. The committee is chaired by an extremely competent Royal Air Force Officer, but I was startled to find it is studying only one aircraft—the Boeing E3A. I was told in reply to a Parliamentary Question that:
The potentialities of a development based on the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod have been fully represented by Her Majesty's Government at all stages of the NATO discussions"—[Official Report, 20th June 1975; Vol. 893, c. 545.]
The worrying point is that NATO has taken no notice of what the British Government have said and is blindly continuing, under the chairmanship of this officer, studying only the American aircraft. The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) remarked how expensive the Boeing is, but the Americans are offering a 70 per cent. cash discount to make sure that its price is only about the same as that of the Nimrod and that is hard luck on our aircraft workers. I love the Americans, but they are extremely sharp and would be happy to see our aircraft workers put out of business.
To the best of my knowledge the 70 per cent. discount is on the £26 million. The cost of an equipped Nimrod would be about £9 million or £10 million, compared with £11 million or £12 million for an E3A. I am subject to correction on the details of those figures, however. We are not dealing here with a small order. It involves 45 aeroplanes, so, whatever the total sum of money involved, the total volume of business which could come to this country is something we should be fighting extremely hard to get. I believe that we are being rushed into a timescale which suits the Americans but which does not meet our requirements.
I plead with the Government not to be forced to accept an aircraft before we need one, and to back the home product. It is important to be seen to do this because many overseas customers are drastically worried about the impact of nationalisation on the aircraft industry, and that is causing them to consider whether they should buy British at all. I was told by an Australian at the Paris Air Show that it had been decided to buy relatively antiquated American equipment rather than the Nimrod, since they were not sure that for the 10 or 15 years that they wanted to operate the Nimrod, Hawker Siddeley would be in existence. The same will apply in the case of Canada and Holland. The Germans are about to sign up for 27 anti-submarine aircraft which they are to buy from Lockheed. All around us there are lost opportunities, because we do not field our first team in trying to sell our aircraft overseas. That first team should be from the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence.
I turn to the saga of the Jaguar. There has been a great deal of talk this afternoon on the question why the Jaguar was not bought by the Dutch and the Belgians, but it is difficult to persuade them to buy it when we refused to sell it to India. The potential sale of the aircraft, spread over its life, would have brought in exports to the tune of about £600 milion. That would have been a tremendous boost for the workers at Preston and at Rolls-Royce, but the Indians were told they were not sufficiently creditworthy to have the Jaguar. They were told they could have the money to buy frigates, but when they said they did not want frigates but wanted to use the money to buy the Jaguar, they were told that it was frigate money, not Jaguar money.
We are operating in a cloud-cuckoo situation. Britain is good at building aircraft but in deploying the forces necessary to sell them the Government lack the kind of initiative wich is essential to beat the Americans. As for the North-West Europe order, I do not believe the French ever stood a chance. France is not an active member of NATO and it failed to supply the aircraft which Israel had bought at a time when Israel desperately needed them during the Six Days' War. France was not considered to be a safe supplier. It makes half the Jaguar, but would not support its sale, and I believe that the Ministry of Defence did not put in sufficient power until it was too late. It was perfectly correct for the hon. Member to raise the Question of the capability of the General Dynamics F16. It is a remarkably fine aircraft, but it does not meet the first requirement of these two countries in their NATO rôle—to stop an incoming armoured thrust.
The Minister reported to us this afternoon, in connection with the MRCA and its definition as an air defence aircraft, that the aeroplane, which first began to get off the drawing board around 1967, has still not reached the stage at which it is possible to say what shape its inside will be when it flies as a fighter. The F16 managed to do that in three years. Why? Where is the determination in our Ministry of Defence?
I should have liked to see a solution to this problem pressed by the Ministry of Defence to split this order in terms of, say, 200 F16 aircraft and 150 Jaguars. That would have provided the kind of capability that NATO demands of Holland and Belgium. Again, when I asked the Secretary of State whether he would seek urgent discussions with his fellow NATO Defence Ministers about the effect of the selection of the F16 on the ability of Belgium and Holland to carry out their required defence rôles in support of other NATO nations, he simply replied "No". We cannot stand aside from these responsibilities. We should be united to face the threat which comes from across the Iron Curtain, and we cannot exempt ourselves from the responsibility of worrying about what is happening in the air forces of other nations.
There are legions of tales that could be told of friendly African states which thought they were in the final stages of negotiation for a missile but were then stopped by the Ministry of Defence. There is the tale of a BAC aircraft which was to be sold to a Middle East State, but after two years of negotiations the company was told that it could not sell it. Now there is the Madge system, on which £5 million has been spent, and now the Minister has to decide how to scrap it.
The power and strength of the Ministry's Procurement Executive, which costs £200 million a year and employs 70,000 people, should and could be deployed much more effectively. Britain is one of the prime arsenals for the defence of NATO. More than half the aerospace capability of Western Europe lies in this country, and yet that industry is not being pushed and encouraged by the Government as it should be. We have seen one trade union delegation after another coming to the Palace of Westminster in the last several months, from Rolls-Royce, Dowty, The British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley, all demanding to know what the Government are up to and why they are neglecting to make sure that these skilled and unique people have the chance to use their expertise manufacturing and in selling around the world.
I should like to offer four recommendations to the Government. The purchasing policy of the Royal Air Force must be dramatically improved, and must be based on Western Europe's capability. The first thing we would have to do is to agree joint specifications for all military equipment and to make sure that there is interchangeability across the NATO nations. This is a political matter, and something I hope the Secretary of State, as Chairman of the Eurogroup, will pursue most assiduously. Secondly, I hope that the joint specification will be based on European design and production capability. With the stranglehold of the Russian navy and air force now around us, we really must shorten our supply lines rather than rely entirely on support logistics from the United States.
Thirdly, those joint specifications must be equivalent to export specifications. Fourthly, I would like to see export sales teams formed. I would not mind whether they were led by the defence sales department or by the industrial company concerned; that is up to them to decide. But I would like to see integrated teams of manufacturers of aircraft, engines and equipment. I would even like to see a few trade unionists there. They would no doubt like to help to sell British aeroplanes. I would like to see RAF aircrew and ground crew as part of the integrated team, because that is what we meet when we are trying to sell overseas. We meet serving American officers who come and go with the General Dynamics team. Why cannot we manage this? These are not unreasonable suggestions, and I hope that the Government will be prepared, if not to accept them, at least to think about them.
Many have argued more forcibly than I am able on the wider issue of defence cuts. I am not going again over that ground this evening. I am simply posing the question whether we would be adequately defended under the Opposition's proposals. They seem to have some idea that there is an absolute for expenditure, and when we have reached it everything in the garden is rosy. My right hon. Friends are producing cuts on those proposals. We must not succumb to the danger of thinking we can support systems that could cover all contingencies. We must make a choice. It is a matter of priorities.
I recognise that elements of the RAF perform useful functions in the civilian field, and I ask my hon. Friend whether it would be possible to estimate the kind of expenditure that goes on activities of this kind and to publish them separately, so that we can see the true nature of those activities. I am conscious that any cuts in expenditure almost inevitably involve manpower cuts, and I would no more want to create distress in the form of unemployment by compulsory mass redundancies from the RAF than I would in any civilian occupation. I am glad that my hon. Friend has this in mind.
My hon. Friend and I may not agree on the degree of reductions necessary, but we would agree that they must be phased in such a manner as to cause as little hurt as possible to individuals. I urge upon him to effect continuing economies in order to achieve a lower final target figure. Tonight we have yet a further example of the curious thinking of hon. Members opposite, who are almost totally united in parading round the country asking for cuts in public expenditure and yet, in this House, time after time, when they come to a particular item they demand a standstill on expenditure, or increased expenditure. It is this kind of dual thinking——
I may be a little slow, but I do not see the relevance of that intervention to the point that I was making. My point was not so much about unity as about the fact that although the Opposition are for ever asking for cuts in public expenditure, when they become itemised they want to increase expenditure. Hon. Gentlemen opposite defend what is, in their mind, a special case, like rate relief and other matters, but it seems that everything else is a special case when we deal with it on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend referred to the problems associated with low-flying aircraft. He will understand that I have a special interest, because he knows that I am one of his more regular contributors on this subject. This is for the obvious reason that I represent a sparsely populated area, and the policy has been to use such areas for low flying, so as to inconvenience as few people as possible in this country. It is accepted that thereby fewer people are inconvenienced, but this is of little comfort to those who are inconvenienced. It is a little like unemployment. To the unemployed person the percentage of unemployment has no meaning whatsoever. In these areas low flying causes considerable friction. To those who have not experienced this phenomenon I would say that it is a totally different one from that of transport or civil aircraft taking off and landing at an airport. It is an entirely different experience, because the noise comes upon one very suddenly. There is no gradual build-up of sound as there is with other aircraft, when one can prepare one's self for the worst. It is the suddenness of the noise that frightens people, children and animals, and causes a great deal of distress. I have been in areas in my constituency and elsewhere where one suddenly finds a plane passing alongside or even below one. It one is standing on high ground, aircraft fly down the valleys. This is part of the training course. It can be frightening when the noise breaks suddenly and one looks round and finds what is happening. This afternoon I was speaking to a young girl, who told me that in her school they have witnessed planes passing alongside, perhaps not close to, but at that kind of level, because the school happens to be on a high level and the lower ground is suitable for a plane to pass over.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that other hon. Members also have this problem? Other hon. Members realise, however, that the RAF has to train for the most important job in low flying and that there are few areas within Britain where it can be done. Again, in Western Germany the civilian population is concerned that low flying is taking place, so the air force has immense difficulties. Hon. Members should appreciate that and should not always criticise the RAF for these low-flying exercises, which are necessary to maintain training.
As yet I have made no criticism of the RAF. I am simply posing the problem facing people who live in these areas. I ask that the burden be fairly shared. I do not accept that these areas are necessarily the only ones in which this activity can take place. There may be more heavily populated areas which should experience this. Why not? It is a distressing experience for the indi- vidual. Why continually apportion it to certain areas?
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been complaining for a long time and asking for something to be done. There is another alternative. As half of the land area of Great Britain is subject to these low-flying aircraft, they could use part of that land for some period and then give some areas complete freedom from this phenomenon. Surely that could be done.
I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. I was about to make one or two suggestions. I do not know whether they are valid but I would ask the Minister to consider them. The Minister spoke of inviting owners of civil aircraft to give notice when they are going to fly below 500 feet. They need not be invited to do so. Why not have a period when they are compelled to make such notification? There may be good reasons for inviting them, but I see no reason why they should not be compelled to give this notification.
Quite simply, the reason we are putting forward this voluntary scheme is that we are anxious to catch the crop-spraying season, which starts in a month, and voluntary notification is the only way in which we can possibly put these worthwhile precautions into effect in the time available.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope that he will consider making the giving of such notice compulsory.
I also welcome my hon. Friend's statement that military aircraft will cease to carry out low-flying training at the weekend. That will give some relief.
As the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) suggested, it should be possible to concentrate these activities into a shorter period in any one area and then move to another. I should like to see that tried, with sufficient publicity being given through all the media so that people are forewarned that they will have this disturbance for a period.
In view of the escalating costs of fuel, has consideration been given to reducing the programme of low-flying training? Could my hon. Friend have the programme carefully examined? After all, it is being determined by senior officials who, worthy though they are, must be biased in favour of the maximum amount of training. Could people who are not directly involved with the programme but who have the expertise to advise, assess the programme?
I should like to express my concern about another matter—British pilots seconded to the air force of the Sultan of Oman. Will my hon. Friend reconsider the way in which our resources are being used? What other regimes are we helping to retain in power by the use of our manpower and equipment? I question their use in Oman, and I wonder where else they are being used in this way.
It is a sobering thought that in the review of the Royal Air Force we hear of nothing being done to strengthen its front line that was; not already in hand and planned before the review started. I find it odd that in a fundamental review of this nature nothing could be found that needed additional attention.
Labour Members have spoken of the need to maintain the quality of life in this country. They say that we must not lower our standard of living by defending ourselves. But I ask the House to consider what it is that leads those in power in the Soviet Union to lower the quality of life in that country even more, in order to maintain massive offensive weapons, many of which are aimed at the people of this country, who, as we all know, have no desire to go to war, and least of all to attack the Soviet Union.
I believe that, sadly, the ordinary people of the Soviet Union do indeed believe themselves to be under threat of attack, but the leaders in the Kremlin, who are hard-headed realists, are well aware that the picture of that danger which they possibly put forward could not be accurate. They encourage people in the streets of the cities of the Soviet Union to believe this myth because it allows them to justify excessive arms expenditure. I do not believe that we have reached a poverty level that prevents us from defending ourselves, when the public choose to spend more on smoking and drinking than they do on defending our way of life.
I do not know how the figures for the RAF's future expenditure are arrived at, but the more one reads of the Defence Review the more one feels that the balance in total between the Services had to be maintained, and that each Service came out with more or less the same overall percentage of the cake as before.
As the RAF must have a great deal of expenditure on new equipment if it is to survive, its cuts came mainly on the manpower side. Owing to the successful streamlining carried out, particularly under the present Chief of the Air Staff when he was the Commander-in-Chief of Strike Command, the RAF had already removed all the fat. It was a very streamlined and effective organisation. Therefore, we are now talking about cutting the effective part of the Service and not the overheads or the tail.
The geographical position of this country gives rise to an extremely difficult problem for the RAF in particular of the three Services, because we are at the interface of NATO, between the maritime and the land front. It is very much to the credit of those who have led the RAF that we have so notably contributed in a wide variety of ways to the air defence of the NATO Alliance. I hope that we shall continue to be able to spread our resources against the various threats in the future. It is much simpler for the German Air Force, for example, because it can concentrate on the battlefield of the centre of Europe. We cannot do that but must continue to look also at this maritime threat.
I turn to the Nimrod, which has already been mentioned several times. I think that it was the Under-Secretary who suggested that Lord Carrington, when Secretary of State for Defence, removed the Nimrods from Malta. That is true, but I believe that he moved them only a few miles, to Sicily. He did not bring them home to Britain but kept them in the Mediterranean. As the Minister does not intervene, I take it that I am correct.
If we look at the cost of the Nimrod force in the commendably detailed figures given in the White Paper these days, we see that it is said to be £49 million. If we are to disband a quarter of the force, as is suggested, the saving will be a paltry £12 million—a very small sum, bearing in mind the extremely important rôle of the squadron in the Mediterranean, which is undoubtedly the most unstable and insecure part of the whole NATO Alliance. Admiral Means-Johnston, the commander of NATO's southern flank, has said that he very much regrets our decision to weaken our contribution.
When we look at the men of the RAF, as of the other Services, we have no cause for concern. The quality and morale have never been higher. But I wonder whether the Minister was correct when he seemed to suggest that by cutting the strength of the RAF we shall improve promotion prospects.
That was in relation to some trades. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not quite follow the argument, which was that because of the excess of chief technicians in the technical trades, who are engaged to the age of 55, and who were taken on when a Conservative Government of long ago had other defence priorities, they were blocking the promotion prospects of younger NCO's who found that they could not reach the chief technician grade for many years.
I accept that the Minister is right in saying that there was a surplus in certain of the senior technical ranks of non-commissioned officers. But I do not believe that his solution of reducing the total strength of the RAF is right. One does not cut down the RAF to solve that problem but restructures it. One does not have to reduce the overall strength in order to improve the promotion structure.
I believe that the air defence of Great Britain is one of the prime matters for any defence Minister. We should be very worried by our present lack of defence. I think that I am right in saying that the front-line strength of the RAF in this country is less than a hundred aircraft, an incredibly low figure, and that there are more United States Air Force fighters and bombers in Britain than there are operational RAF fighters and bombers here. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. I invite the Minister to intervene if I am wrong. In short, we are very dependent on the United States for the defence and safety of Great Britain. The whole question of the air defence of Great Britain requires not only more attention but more money. It cannot be improved without spending more.
In the debate on the Army Estimates, I suggested that, having taken the wrong decisions, as I thought, to cut the Army, we had open to us various ways of deploying the manpower. Dealing with the RAF, I do not think one can suggest an alternative. One can simply say that the cuts have been too great. I am quite prepared to suggest today that more money should be spent on the defence of this country in the air.
Ground radar stations are today regarded as being more and more insecure in view of the highly sophisticated forms of warfare that we have seen in other parts of the world, involving missiles which home on to radar transmissions. With the threat of commando attacks, the ground radar stations, of which there are very few, are extremely vulnerable. It is no good the men being underground and secure in their bunkers if the tons are blown off their radar transmitters. It is rather like a flower with its head off. The answer must lie with an airborne early warning aircraft of one sort or the other. I hope that we can provide a British answer to the problem. The Government would be required to give a very satisfactory explanation if they were ultimately to suggest that we bought American aircraft for this operation. The need, however, is unquestionable.
I was told in answer to an earlier Parliamentary Question that our Gannets are 20 years old and so are the Shackletons that are used at present, for airborne early warning. I understand that the Shackletons are being resparred so that they will not fall apart and we can keep them in the air. But they cannot be regarded as satisfactory front-line radar defence in this country. They are aircraft that are long past their best days.
I suggest to the Minister that the whole question of the reserve concept, which is applied so successfully to the Army, should be looked at again in terms of the RAF. It is many years ago that the RAF disbanded its auxiliary squadrons on the grounds that planes such as the Hunter were too complicated and technical to be flown by or maintained by auxiliaries. Last year I spent a most interesting weekend with the American Air National Guard in Colorado. There they are flying—and flying extremely ably and competently—and maintaining to a high standard an A7 Aircraft which is the equivalent of our new Jaguar. They are being issued with brand new aircraft. If units in America of an auxiliary nature can operate aircraft of that complexity, that might be one way in which we can get more for our money in this country.
I commend to the Minister that further thought should be given to the possibility of an increased use of auxiliaries. From the figures in the White Paper it seems—unless a decimal point has been put in the wrong place—that the volunteer and auxiliary strength of the RAF is 300 men and women. It is incredible. I thought that the 8,000 in the Royal Naval Reserve was low, but 300 for the RAF is simply incredible.
Turning to the details of the White Paper, I regret to see that the medium-lift helicopter for the Army has been cancelled. I should have thought that we were unlikely to obtain the maximum benefit from the use of the Harrier with its unique VTOL capability, unless it were supported by at least medium-lift helicopters.
In the transport force there has been talk about the use of civil aircraft. I suggest to the Under-Secretary of State that we need to consider the sort of programme that the Americans have adopted whereby civil aircraft are being converted out of defence funds so that they can be used for freight. For it is not just men who will have to be carried to Germany or wherever but also equipment without which the men will not be effective. Most of the equipment could not be carried in an ordinary civil aeroplane. In America they have fitted freight doors and strengthened the floors of a large number of civil aircraft in order to increase their military lift capacity.
Turning to the RAF Regiment, I was sorry to read that it appears to be if not under threat of extinction, at least under threat of considerable cutbacks. We are told that at present—that is, outside Great Britain and Germany—it is stationed in Northern Ireland, Oman, Hongkong and Belize. None of those appears to be a place from which we are to withdraw and I should have thought that the case for cutting its strength was therefore very limited indeed.
Turning to weapons, there is singularly little to suggest that we are entering into the new generation of weapons that we have seen used so effectively in the Israeli war, such as all forms of smart bombs and smart missiles. To release a conventional bomb today and to hope that it will achieve its objective is practically useless. I stress that we should, either independently or in concert with our allies, develop rapidly the new generation of sophisticated weapons. There is no point in having a sophisticated aircraft at great cost if, when it arrives at its target, it has only an old-fashioned bomb to release. Far more effective use could be made of costly planes if the weapons that they carry were equally sophisticated.
On another matter, may I say that I cannot understand why the Minister will not publish the low-flying routes. I am sure that there must be some explanation for it. I cannot think that politics could enter into it. Surely it is perfectly reasonable to publish for those in civil aviation the routes on which low-flying takes place. I do not want to be told that the Russians are unaware of them or that it is a very serious military secret.
I should like to say a little about housing, a subject of general concern at all times to those coming out of the Forces, and of particular concern at a time when there is large-scale redundancy, especially in the RAF. Circular 54/75, which was recently issued, is full of platitudes beseeching local authorities to give to those coming out of the Services the fair treatment that they deserve. I am not convinced that the Government have shown enough determination in this respect. There are too many instances of local authorities saying to those coming out of the Services, "You have not lived here before and therefore you count very low indeed in our priorities for allocation of a council house". These people have lost their roots and their jobs and they are very much in need of help.
It is distressing to think that there can be cases in which they are in danger of being put out on to the street. I believe that there are some councils, which, until ex-Service people are put out on to the streets, will not give them any help. More sympathy must be shown by local authorities, particularly at this time, to those coming out of the Royal Air Force. I hope that the Minister will assure us that if this circular—as I fear will be the case—does not prove to be effective, he, in concert with the Minister for Housing, will ensure by further efforts that the problem is satisfactorily dealt with.
It is always pleasant to be able to express agreement with something that has been said by the Opposition. Unfortunately, with the present Opposition, it becomes increasingly difficult. Therefore, I am particularly glad to be able to express my complete agreement with a great deal of what has been said by the Opposition, and indeed by some of my hon. Friends, about the importance of standardisation in NATO. This is a massive, urgent problem and it is my suspicion that probably no other single factor detracts more from the effectiveness of NATO as an alliance and as a deterrent against aggression. It does not need back-bench Members on either side to draw the attention of Ministers to this problem. They are only too well aware of it. I think that they would be glad to have solutions from us, but I cannot come up with any this evening.
I am glad that the multi-rôle combat aircraft will help, particularly if it is sold to our other allies in NATO, apart from Germany, Italy and ourselves. That would have the tremendous advantage of simplifying servicing, supply, and interchangeability, and it would enable our units to go from one country to another without the logistic and other difficulties which apply now. I shall have more to say about the MRCA later.
When a Labour Government are again under attack for alleged neglect of defence, I think that I am entitled to remind the House that a Labour Government initiated the development not only of the MRCA but of the Harrier, to which constant tributes have been paid. This is the other side of the coin which entirely and fittingly rebuts the accusations so frequently made or implied by hon. Gentlemen opposite that we in some way neglect the Armed Forces.
I entirely reject arguments by any of my hon. Friends which imply that the Labour Party is or ever has been a pacifist party, or even a party for unilateral disarmament. That is simply not so, whatever some—a minority—of my hon. Friends might wish it to be.
I refuse to regard defence as a soft option or an easy target for cuts to avoid having to make cuts in other areas where they obviously might be more directly painful. Our own manifesto—as a member of the manifesto group I am never without my copy, and I read it from time to time—points out that
The Labour Government will maintain its support for NATO as an instrument of détente, no less than of defence.
That has been repeated time and again. We have never said that we would reduce defence expenditure by absolute amounts, or at particular levels. We undertook to carry out and
press forward with our plans to reduce the proportion of the nation's resources devoted to defence so that the burden we bear will be brought into line with that carried by our main European allies.
That is fair. That is precisely what the Government are doing and why they have my support.
The Opposition's reaction has been exaggerated, and if they vote tonight it will be exaggerated to the point of absurdity. They have repeatedly stated that defence is the primary consideration, overriding almost all others. Clearly in time of war or of imminent threat that is probably true, but in time of peace a balance has to be struck with other considerations.
The relative importance of defence must vary with our assessment of the present political climate and the likely trend of international affairs. Obviously defence will have a higher priority if our assessment becomes rather more pessimistic. Whilst I shall always support my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence to resist arbitrary, damaging and dangerous cuts, I do not think that defence, any more than any other area of public policy, can be regarded as a sacred cow. I believe that the Government are honouring the promise that was fairly given to and taken up by the electorate.
I intended to refer to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) but, as he is not in the Chamber, I shall not do so. However, following some of his remarks, I should like to express the strong view that, contrary to what he and others sincerely believe, a reasonable defence budget can contribute to disarmament negotiations. Indeed, the Russians are hardheaded people. If we go into the negotiating room with the Russians, having already played our cards and hoping for a similar response from them, we shall come out with a very bad bargain. We must retain some of our cards. We cannot afford to affect the balance adversely in the hope that they will redress it.
Reference has been made to the Middle East war. The trouble in the Middle East was neither caused nor could be defended by the absence of British arms. I should like to make a personal point about the arms industry. I can understand those who attack it as immoral and apply such epithets to it. Yet, if we are not to be entirely dependent on other countries for our defence requirements, and since the cost of modern arms development is such that a single British aerospace industry, for example, has no chance of being viable, we must indulge in the arms export business. I regret it as much as anybody else, but it is an unfortunate fact of life.
I sometimes think that as we are likely to remain in that business we should be more clear sighted in some of our policies. I do not believe that we can sell arms with clean hands and an easy conscience. We cannot soothe our conscience by fastening strings to arms sales, saying "We will not service, supply ammunition, spare parts, and so on, if we disagree with the use that is made of the arms."
Perhaps I am straying too far from the immediate subject of the Government's proposals regarding the Royal Air Force. As an ex-RAF man I should be among the last to defend these proposals if I felt that they were likely to damage the Service. As the Minister pointed out and will no doubt amplify later, this process of reducing our commitments, which was promised in our manifesto, has been carried through. But I take it badly from the Opposition, who always speak of our cuts as if we had done nothing to reduce the burden on the Armed Forces. During the period of the previous Labour Govern- ment, as well as this one, we consistently tried to reduce our overseas commitments, confining them increasingly and now almost entirely to our proper rôle in Europe. In nearly every instance of such a withdrawal we have been opposed by the official Opposition, who would presumably have liked us to continue to carry a burden totally disproportionate to our strength, and, in present circumstances, quite beyond our ability to carry.
I shall mention in passing one well-known success story—the Harrier. We are entitled to make more of such stories. Those who have seen the Harrier have been tremendously impressed by it. The multi-rôle combat aircraft is, to me, an even more exciting concept, and I congratulate the Government on their firmness in going ahead with this project despite the discouraging probing of some Opposition Members about alleged defects in the engine and an alleged falling behind in the programme.
Surely, if this House is funding a programme to the extent that the MRCA programme is being funded, it is nothing less than right and proper that when there are reports of serious defects these should be put to the Minister in order that he may say in public whether they are true or false. Surely, if any of us failed to do that we would be in dereliction of our duty.
Of course, but in probing, quite properly, for possible weaknesses in a project like this, it is as well—if one is not to sell short the three-nations consortium—that a little time should be taken to study what has been achieved already. I regard it as a most remarkable feat of international co-operation, well within the time-scale and cost estimates when compared with other projects in the aerospace industry. Incidentally, it has provided a great deal of work in all three countries concerned.
I should like to mention two matters in closing. The first is the problem of low-flying aircraft. There is a film showing the training programmes of the RAF, which many of us find extremely interesting. I suggest to my hon. Friend that if such a film were to be shown on television it would help to explain, to people who have to suffer the nuisance, why it is necessary.
I thank the hon. Member for that suggestion. There is as yet no television film, but there certainly is an information film available for showing in affected areas, to explain the facts to the community concerned. I am grateful for this opportunity to draw that fact to the attention of hon. Members whose constituents are affected by low flying. There is an opportunity to show that film in their localities to explain the nature of the problem.
I am delighted to hear that from my hon. Friend, but I urge upon him again that consideration be given to extending the showing to television, which would considerably increase the coverage.
Finally, though this should more properly be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, there is the possibility of some units in NATO being earmarked and especially trained to be ready to play a disaster rôle, not only in Europe but in other parts of the world. I believe that some study could be made of this, and that there is a real possibility here. In this debate it would be wrong for me to take time in developing the idea, but I put it to my hon. Friend as a suggestion for consideration. I think that the public relations impact, particularly on those of my friends who have considerable doubts about the value we get for the money spent on defence, would be significant. I can think of no single step that would have a better public relations impact.
It is to me a strange thing about the House of Commons that I increasingly find myself in agreement with the analysis and content of so much of what is said by Labour Members, and yet am diametrically opposed to their conclusions. This is not less true of the debate this afternoon. Curiously enough, I found some of the comments of the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) most persuasive—particularly his analysis of the nuclear threat and its possible spread to currently non-nuclear countries, his concern at the growth of Communist military power, and the undesirability of certain forms of armaments transactions. I have a degree of sympathy with what was said, yet we seem to draw exactly opposite conclusions, and no doubt we shall file into opposite Lobbies at the end of the evening.
I think that this is a particularly important debate, and I welcome the Opposition's decision to divide the House this evening, for I believe that the impact of the cuts in RAF expenditure has not been appreciated; and that those making them have failed to recognise the pre-eminent rôle of the RAF as an integral part of our defence system.
I should like first to go back to the point made by the Minister in his opening remarks in the debate, when he said that expenditure on defence should in all cases be balanced against a concept of the "quality of life" in this country. This was mentioned by a number of my hon. Friends during this debate, but it seems to me that it is not so much a matter of the quality of life being at stake as the continued existence of life and of freedom in this country. Those are prerequisites to any other policies which the Government might have.
I consider that there is a fundamental rationale for the priority of defence policy: it is, in effect, the original contrat social. People donate to a Government or to some other authority the responsibility to defend them. It was the basis of our early feudal system that the landlord would be given the right to govern his people but would defend them. It is no less true in a sophisticated civilisation such as we have developed. We should put our defence before any other policies of government. It is a prerequisite to all other ambitions that Governments might have. They must adequately safeguard the defence capability of their people and their interests internationally.
There are three fundamental arguments which go to support a continuing development of our defence capability, particularly with regard to the Royal Air Force, in the present circumstances. The first and foremost is that it is impossible, in a situation of potential conflict, to rearm in a short time. Many times in our history we have heard people calling for cuts in defence, yet we should know from experience that it is increasingly difficult to rearm to the level necessary in a short time. There have been many who have spoken from the wilderness calling for an adequate capability, sometimes against the priorities that the public may have for social needs. Fortunately, in the past it has not proved too late, but in the future it might. We should consider means of preserving our defence capability, even though we have to recognise that the present Government are going to make substantial cuts.
I have questioned the Minister a number of times on the mothballing of aircraft and of other facilities. This is a suggestion that was put to me by a constituent. While it may seem to be a fairly simplistic solution to the problem I have just outlined—the difficulty of increasing capability in the short term—it is important to consider it, especially for the fixed-wing element of the air force, where its costs might not be as large as is sometimes suggested. There are storage facilities available for mothballed aircraft and there is the technical ability, which at the moment is to be made redundant, to enable their service capabilities to be maintained.
What is more, with the reduction in the number of operational stations by 12, we should not easily give up the airfields of these bases. There have been various suggestions that some should be returned to agricultural use or be used for other development purposes. Even if the Government let this land go beyond the claims of other Defence Departments and beyond the Property Services Agency—to local authorities or to commercial use—they should consider exercising careful control over the use of these airfields, and their potential future use for military purposes should be retained.
The second reason for the preservation and improvement of our air capability has been well enunciated. It is the well-documented increase in the Soviet capability in new parts of the world. No one should be deceived into thinking that this build-up is for ceremonial purposes. I am especially alarmed by recent developments in Africa and the implications of certain individuals controlling nuclear capabilities available to their countries. I believe that within my lifetime I shall see every country having a nuclear capacity. This is a very frightening prospect, and although I agree with the hon. Member for Salford, East that this is a matter to be regretted, draw the conclusion that if we fail to maintain such a capacity ourselves, and if we cut away the RAF's conventional capability, we shall seriously reduce the nuclear threshold. This is the critical point. The stage at which the button would be pushed would be an earlier point of time than if we maintained the capability of the air force, especially that of Strike Command.
I believe also that the support and strike rôles are fundamental to the success of ground and maritime capabilities. These have been emphasised with regard to Nimrods in the Mediterranean. But the wide variety of rôles undertaken by Strike Command at the moment is evidence of its integral rôle in our overall defence capability—a rôle which is well worth retaining.
I mention one other matter which has been touched upon but not analysed in great depth—the question of the American involvement. Any observer of the American political scene will readily admit that there has been a switch in their foreign defence philosophy, that recent events both in the Middle East and Vietnam have made them look very much towards their own borders, and that charity for them is also beginning more at home.
In this situation, we may well see a reduction in the number of United States aircraft stationed in this country. I know that there is congressional pressure for this, and this would obviously alter the balance between the number of American and British aircraft in this country. This potential withdrawal of support will inevitably affect NATO. We should take more account of that in formulating our air defence policy.
I come now to the impact of these defence cuts on my own constituency. RAF Thorney is sited at the southern end of the Chichester constituency and is one of the stations due for closure under the defence cuts. Many hon. Members will know this station, which has existed since 1933. It has served the country well in a variety of RAF capacities. After a certain Sergeant Hodge crashed there in his Fury aircraft, it was pointed out, during investigations that this would be an appropriate site for setting up a station. In the 1971 Statement on Defence it was recognised as a station of unique strategic importance and there has been nothing since to change that judgment.
We heard earlier that uncertainties had now been reduced to a minimum. At RAF Thorney that is not the case for the military personnel, for the civilian employees or for the many people living in the surrounding area who will be affected by any alternate use of the station.
Last Friday, I was privileged to visit the station. I thank the Under-Secretary for making that possible. I am also grateful to the commanding officer for extending so much hospitality and useful information to me.
Once we got down to looking at the impact of the cuts, it became obvious to me that they would give rise to grave problems on a number of RAF stations. I was most alarmed by the extent of the ignorance amongst the Service personnel about their future deployment. As I say, we heard earlier today that the uncertainties had been reduced to a minimum. However, it is my view that 50 per cent. or more of the Service personnel—certainly the officers—have no idea where they will go. That applies from the bottom right to the top. Even the commanding officer has no idea where he will be sent.
I recognise the problem involved in redeployment, in redundancy and in notifying people. It takes time, especially when it is subject to such an extensive review. But I believe that the department in the Ministry of Defence which has specific responsibility for co-ordinating postings should make renewed efforts to indicate to Service personnel as soon as possible what their postings are likely to be. This uncertainty has had a damaging effect on morale, and the increasing number of people who have families, housing and schooling problems and who do not know where they will be sent, presents a very serious situation.
The housing problem is especially important. Whereas in the past a young Service man was able to wait until he retired, having saved sufficient money to purchase a house, nowadays he has to make such a purchase very early in his Service career. It means that he is far more tied down than was the case in the past. We have to recognise that more consideration must be given to the needs of Service personnel when thinking in terms of transferring them from one posting to another.
There are very severe problems for the 200 Ministry of Defence civilian employees at RAF Thorney who will probably be made redundant. Little indication has been given to them about any alternative employment which may be available. Although I understand that in the course of discussions in Whitley Councils the greatest efforts are being made to give such indications, there has been little progress to the satisfaction of those civilians.
I cite two examples. The first is that of a local lady who recently won a commendation for long service. She is a barmaid at 46 Squadron. She has been offered no alternative employment. The second example is that of a man who is 78 years old. He has been at the station ever since it was founded, and is storekeeper there. He, too, has no alternative employment—although someone may be rude enough to say that he has no reasonable claim to any—but he is providing a useful service at RAF Thorney. It is disappointing to see people who have been so concerned with safeguarding the morale and efficiency of these stations being made redundant in this way.
I also draw attention to the problems faced in my constituency in respect of RAF Thorney—and obviously the position is the same elsewhere—about the alternative use of the airfield. There is the obvious fear amongst local people that it will be used for an extension of civil air transport use from nearby conurbations. But I hope that consideration will be given to an alternative military use for RAF Thorney, and I seek some assurance on the matter from the Minister.
I am particularly hopeful that the Royal Navy helicopters from Lee-on-Solent, which I believe are at capacity there, will expand to RAF Thorney. I would prefer to see this rather than any extension of civil air transport use. I also hope that any indication of what will happen will be given at the earliest opportunity and after the fullest consultation with the local authorities.
The closing down of a station—in my case a RAF station—has a fundamental effect on a community, on the services, employment and many other local factors which should be carefully reorientated over a period and which should be subject to detailed review and planning with the local authorities. In RAF Thorney we have a fine Norman church which was previously used by the inhabitants of the village there, who have gradually disappeared with the growth of the RAF station. At that Norman church we have a large number of Commonwealth war graves, which are well maintained by the Department of the Environment. It is on matters such as this that we must seek assurances that, for example, the Department will continue to exercise responsibility for the maintenance of the graves. There must be assurances that there will be detailed consultations with the local authorities about the alternative use of local churches and other facilities, such as schools. There is a Service school at RAF Thorney with capacity for 150 children.
There is also the question of the alternative use of married quarters at RAF Thorney. There are 170 married quarters and 39 arrangements with private tenancies outside the station. Any alternative use of these should be integrated in the long-term plans for such a station. The problem arising at this station is that of the timing of an alternative use; for example, the extension of the helicopters from Lee-on-Solent will take approximately two or three years. This leaves a fallow period when all the civilian staff will be made redundant and when the married quarters and the private tenancies will be utilised, possibly by people on the housing list or by other private tenants seeking accommodation.
With the input of an alternative military use we would need further housing to take care of the Service men and families. These problems of changeover and alternative use should be carefully considered. The public and Service men should be given greater assurances. Such moves radically affect the nature of employment and the quality of life in localities.
I draw attention to the particular squadrons which will be disbanded and deployed from RAF Thorney. I do so because it is fitting that squadrons with fine histories and a heritage of tradition should not be allowed to be disbanded without some mention of their honourable conduct and service to this country. I think particularly of the No. 46 Squadron, set up in 1916. It has served a variety of rôles in the conduct of this country's defence, and it fought in the Battle of Britain. It is a squadron that is currently equipped with Andovers. I was particularly pleased that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), among others, mentioned the important rôle of the Andover.
I am disappointed that 39 Andovers in the Service are to be got rid of. The Andover is a well-tested and well-tried aircraft. It is capable of landing on rough terrain, which is a particularly important capability in the rôles of battlefield support or aero-medical evacuation. When considering a reduction in the number of Andovers as an integral part of the overall cut in the fixed-wing element of Transport Command, we should carefully analyse the reasons presented to us today by the Under-Secretary for such a reduction, and the assurances given. He said that the reduction would be an even one, balanced against the withdrawal of our presence from overseas bases. It is important to realise that the majority of the operations of this squadron, which operates Andovers, take place in this country or are concerned in supplying NATO—to which our defence capability is not to be substantially reduced—or are Mediterranean operations. Only a minor part of the operations are east of Suez and in other non-NATO commitment rôles.
Secondly, the assumptions behind a 50 per cent. cut in Transport Command every year do not seem to be in line with what the Minister was saying about the even reduction in this capability. I do not see how, when it will take somewhat longer to reduce our non-NATO obligations, it will be possible to cut Transport Command by 50 per cent. in one year. This point seems to be left open. I was not reassured by the statement that we may just be able again to do the same thing as we did in Cyprus, but only just. I question whether, given events in Africa or some other part of the world, we would have sufficient capability.
With the situation as it is in an un-named country at the moment we cannot ignore the possibility of having to mount some rescue operation for a substantial number of British citizens in which the RAF and Transport Command would inevitably play an important part. The House would appear silly and shortsighted if we were to ignore that possibility.
I come to the question of defence lands. This is a problem I came across particularly in Singapore. I spent a good deal of my life living on RAF bases, travelling round the world. I was in Singapore for a while. When we withdrew substantially from that island I was concerned about the fact that insufficient publicity was given in the United Kingdom to the transfer of lands owned in that country. I would ask for some explanation or assurance that important and valuable British assets in these countries, such as RAF Changi and Seletar, in Singapore, will not be relinquished as a latent form of aid, given over immediately to the country.
It is important to realise that generations of Britons have served in those countries, building up a defence and a prosperity for them. It is proper that we should benefit to some extent from the realisable commercial value of those lands. If charity begins at home sufficiently for us to withdraw our forces east of Suez it is proper that we should consider these commercial interests, which are sometimes overlooked.
I am disappointed about the comments made about the aircraft industry in Europe and the prospects for employment on bases. Although I have mentioned civilian employment in my speech, the starting point for any rational, sensible debate on defence capability should start with the priority nature of defence rather than the fact that it gives employment to the aerospace industries of Europe or to local personnel. They are, however, relevant factors to be considered in deciding the method by which defence cuts are implemented. It is disconcerting that the defence decisions seem to have been based to some extent on questions of civilian unemployment. I quote from a letter I received from the Under-Secretary, who said, on the subject of RAF Thorney:
We have now concluded our consultations with staff associations concerned and I am able to confirm that deployments are to go ahead as planned.
That seems a strange sequitur, that the future of the station and its important defence capabilities should follow discussions with the local trade unions. I realise that the method by which deployments are undertaken may be a conse-
quence of that. Perhaps it was just a sentence which was badly put, but I would like an assurance from the Minister that while employment for our people is important he will not lose sight of the priority criterion of defence for our people.
Allegations are made on numerous occasions that the Opposition put forward defence policies that are incompatible with their overall opposition to the Government's conduct of our economic affairs. It is said that we are incapable of financing that which we proffer. I said earlier that I think it proper that we should give the highest priority to the defence of our people. It should be a priority above the fraudulent use of thousands of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money for food subsidies. It should be above policies which increase council house deficits, and policies which require large sums to be expended on nationalisation through the National Enterprise Board. These amounts, of billions of pounds, about which we speak so glibly, are increasing.
We must get our priorities right. The policy of the Opposition is clear. We abhor the extent to which food subsidies continue to exist. Some of those policies may be beneficial as temporary, tiding-over measures. However, in the longer term we must ensure that adequate defence is maintained and that we do not continue to support the allocation of taxpayers' funds on fraudulent policies which enable people to believe that goods are cheaper than they are, when money could more usefully be spent on defence. Defence is an insurance, upon which none of us want to claim, but we should always make room to afford to pay the premiums.
The motto of the 46th Squadron is "We rise to conquer". I hope that under a future Conservative Government that squadron will have that opportunity.
I wonder whether any hon. Member wanders through this place late at night when it is dark or dimly lit and wonders whether there are any ghosts here. I do not refer to the ghost of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), who came here, rattled his chains for a few moments, and then rattled out. That ghost disappeared as Liberal ghosts tend to do. Nor do I refer to the ordinary phantom Government back bencher who came in and then disappeared leaving a vacant sea of green leather on the Government benches. There was even the ghost of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force, who spoke and then disappeared, leaving the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy to look after the debate on the Royal Air Force. The integration of the Services is a great principle, but I think that it could go a little too far.
I wonder whether any ghosts of past Members are here. If so, they must listen to our debates at times sadly and grimly. The thought in their minds must always be that no one ever learns anything from history—except that no one ever learns anything from history. Let us perhaps try today to learn something from history. Let us start by looking back 50 years, as I did earlier today.
Fifty years ago, we were so complacent that we had run down our air force to one-tenth of its size seven years earlier at the end of the 1914–18 war. In 1923 there were eight Royal Air Force squadrons in Britain, three of which were allocated for home defence. That alarmed even this House. A five-year programme was launched to create a home defence force of 52 squadrons in the ratio of two bomber squadrons to one fighter squadron, or, as we should now say, two strike aircraft squadrons to one air superiority squadron. Events moved on from 1923. There were talks which were the equivalent of the balanced forces reduction talks and the SALT talks. They culminated in the discussions and the signatures at Locarno in 1925. Even that programme, on which the country had embarked in 1923, was slowed down. The completion date was put back from 1928 to 1936.
The economic crisis of 1931—which before long, we may think trivial compared with what is coming to us—brought further delays. By March 1932 there were still only 42 squadrons, of which 13 were auxilliary squadrons, with 488 aircraft in all for the defence of Great Britain. That was the background to a debate to which I should like to refer.
That debate took place in July 1934, which is 41 years ago. The debate in the House of Commons on 30th July arose from the announcement earlier that month in the other place that the Government intended to increase the size of the Royal Air Force by 41 squadrons within five years. I read the speeches in the official record of Mr. Baldwin, the Government spokesman, and Mr. Attlee, who spoke for the Labour Opposition. I also wondered who had read this volume before I had and who had made an ink marking alongside one or two passages in those speeches. I turned, I think it was, to column 2350 of the Official Report.
Mr. Attlee said:
We deny the proposition that an increased British Air Force will make for the peace of the world, and we reject altogether the claim to parity.
Mr. Attlee was followed by Sir Herbert Samuel, who led for the Liberals, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery led for the Liberals today. Sir Herbert Samuel said, with admirable pugnacity and patriotism,
If then our Air Force were to be found out-numbered, out-distanced, ill-equipped and ill-trained, what conscience would any of us in this House have if we had sent out our men to face the perils of such a conflict in those circumstances because the Members of the House of Commons had not the courage to provide the finances which were necessary?"—[Official Report, 30th July 1934; Vol. 292, c. 2349–55.]
That question was asked by the Leader of the Liberal Party in 1934. He then
led the Liberal Party into the Lobby against any proposal to provide the aeroplanes. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
The Labour Opposition also voted against the proposal.
I commend the passages which I have quoted to Government supporters. In that debate Mr. Baldwin coined the phrase that the frontier of Britain was not on the Channel but on the Rhine. In that debate, my predecessor, the hon. Member for Epping, pointed out that Britain had become like a great fat cow waiting to be seized as prey by any predator because we had neither the courage nor the ability to defend ourselves.
Living in the past is, indeed, a form of living death. Learning from the past is a prerequisite for survival. So we have to ask ourselves how the past is reflected in events today. One thing is certain. There is a consistency about the policies of the Liberal Party. There is also a consistency about the politics of the Left. The politics of the Left, then as now, was divided into the politics of what is sometimes called the moderate Left, but which I prefer to call the wet Left, and the sinister Left. The wet Left is never short of good intentions with which to pave the path of the sinister Left. The wet Left is always against rearmament for all manner of self-indulgent, day-dreaming, good reasons. The sinister Left—the Marxist Left—is always dedicated to the destruction of the capability of this country and its allies to defend themselves.
From time to time, we hear from the Left cries about the fight against Fascism or Nazism. Let me remind the House that the wets and the Marxists alike opposed giving Britain the means of defending itself in the 1920s and the 1930s, they oppose it again today and they will oppose it every day. Indeed, the wets and the Marxists split on this matter only on the very eve of the 1939 war. As Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, the wets gradually began to dry out, but let us remember that in 1940—but 35 years ago—their sinister friends were still booing every time a German bomber was shot down and cheering every time one of our own aircraft fell in flames. That was their fight for Britain until their masters, the Russians, were precipitated into the war by an attack on them by their ally, Nazi Germany. For the Marxists the battle for Britain was not Britain's finest hour, because we won.
The first lesson of past events is that we can trust neither the Marxists nor their wet Socialist allies, however good their intentions seem to be on the day. The second lesson, which must have been learnt so many times through human history that it seems inconceivable that we can ignore it again today, is that it is not strength that begets aggression, it is weakness that begets aggression.
That has been put well enough. I am no user of Latin tags, but my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) mentioned the motto of the 46th Squadron. I served for a long time in 604 Squadron whose motto was Si vis pacem para bellum—if one wants peace, prepare for war. There is the converse—if one wants war, prepare one's country only for peace.
Looking back to 1934, by comparison with today our position then was one of great strength. The Royal Air Force, weak as it was, outnumbered the German Air Force by three to two. By September 1939, despite the efforts of the Labour Party to prevent our arming ready for war, the enemy threatened our home force of 1,476 aircraft with his 3,609 frontline aircraft and 522 transport aircraft. The fighters were an even match and the tactical strike aircraft of the Germans were better than ours. Our heavy bombers were superior to theirs, and we had the immense technical advantage of radar which they had not. Their anti-aircraft artillery vastly outnumbered ours and was superior in quality. In addition, the French had a considerable, if obsolescent, air force.
We should contrast that situation of dire peril with that in which we live today. Our situation today is infinitely worse than it was then, and that was the circumstance which led this country closer to defeat, invasion and subjugation than it has ever been before.
Let us turn to the present day. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) detailed the numbers with admirable clarity. Our potential enemy is just as clear today as he was in 1934. There is no more reason to doubt his intentions—because they are published—than there was reason to doubt the intentions of Nazi Germany, because Hitler, too, had published his intentions. We are weaker now in relation to our potential enemy than we were then. Together with our allies we field as motley a selection of incompatible and non-combatable equipment today as we ever did in the past. On the credit side, through NATO and the EEC—both so bitterly opposed by the Left of the Labour Party—we have a better chance of a co-ordinated defence policy in Europe than we had 40 years ago.
In the 1930's we were slow to see that we could possibly use an understanding with Russia to ensure that there was always a threat on the eastern borders of our enemy. Today we—or the Government—are just as slow to appreciate that we could use the friendship which is offered to us by China as a means of ensuring a continuing threat on the eastern borders of our potential enemy.
When the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun)—who is not here now—quoted figures concerning the parity of arms between the West and Russia, he was quoting above all the arms of the United States. Perhaps he believes that in the circumstances we might envisage of a European war the United States is certain to come to our aid. I doubt it. I do not believe that we in Europe can rely on the United States for every picking up the tab for the defence of Europe. What is certain is that if China has powerful forces on her border with Russia, some of those Russian forces, which at the moment we are forced to count as being predominantly a threat to us, will have to be disposed on Russia's eastern borders, and that can be of nothing but benefit to us.
What can we do to improve matters from the sorry state in which they are today? First, as defence has already been singled out for massive and damaging cuts, and cuts additional to those which the Secretary of State himself said were the absolute maximum which could be endured, we should not seek to make any further cuts in the next series of attacks on Government expenditure. There is plenty of room for cuts in the nationalisation programme. There is plenty of room for cuts at the town halls and in the flabby bureaucracy that has built up about Government today as they proliferate their interference with every aspect of the life of the citizens of this country.
Secondly, we must seek a better understanding with our allies, and above all with France. We should accept much of the view which is held by France as to the relationship between Europe and America. France in its turn should take up a full share and a full part in NATO Together with our other allies, but above all with the French, we should end our national rivalry in defence sales. That rivalry weakens us both and serves only to profit the American industry.
Thirdly, if we consider the potential threats and look at them realistically, we must increase our maritime reconnaissance capability. We must do so urgently. We must increase our battlefield strike capacity and we must ensure that we can maintain air superiority over the battle field whilst the strike aircraft are involved in holding back the sort of armour which might be thrown across Europe.
At present we have nothing approaching the capacity to stop reconnaissance flights over any part of the battlefield or any part of the United Kingdom by aircraft such as the Russian Foxbat. We have nothing that can get remotely within 10,000 or 20,000 feet of its operating altitude. Further, we have no missiles to hang on the aircraft which can get within 10.000 or 20,000 feet of it to close the gap and destroy it. We do not have the capacity to protect the Jaguar strike aircraft when it is in action on the battlefield.
We must consider carefully the rôle of the MRCA. It was implied today that there was something faintly unpatriotic about pointing out that there could be any delay in the programme. Let me take the risk of being accused of being even more unpatriotic. Is the proposed air superiority version of the MRCA a fighter of the capacity of the F16 or the MiG 23? Could it meet an aircraft of that class in combat and defeat it? Are we purchasing missiles of the sort which would be needed so to do?
Some of those who fought only recently in the Middle East war, and especially on the Israeli side, say that it is the thrust-weight ratio which is of the greatest importance for dogfighting, for the air superiority rôle or for ground attack. They point to the fact that the MRCA may be too heavy and too expensive for the dogfighting rôle. I appreciate well enough that the MRCA is not a battlefield aircraft. It is not a dogfighting aircraft unless we talk of the air superiority version. That is why I have caution about going too far towards that version.
At the moment the MRCA is a deep penetration aircraft of very great capabilities, but is it too expensive? Is it to be the sort of aircraft which the air marshals dare not commit for fear of losing too many? Is it the sort of aircraft which is so expensive that we cannot have enough of them? I fancy that there may be a germ of truth in that. It is time that we looked at our defence capability not just in terms of what the Harrier, the MRCA and the Jaguar can do but in terms of what would happen on the battlefield when we used our aircraft in conjunction with those of our allies.
How can we discuss Jaguar's capabilities unless we discuss how good the French Air Force would be in protecting the air above Jaguar. A terrible expression was used when some colleagues and myself were talking recently to an Israeli Air Force General. He said "We saw the enemy attacking our forces and we fell on them from above". That to anyone who has ever had any training, let alone any action, in fighter aircraft has something about it that is frightening. The thought that our aircraft could be fallen on from above on the battlefield by the superior dogfightinfg aircraft of the Russian Air Force, against which we would have no protection, is of the greatest seriousness.
As regards equipment, we must question the ability of the tattered remains of our transport aircraft to supply our front-line strike aircraft with armaments or our defensive missile screens with replenishment in terms of a battle which lasted for more than hours let alone weeks. I am told that for several days during the Yom Kippur War on the Golan front there were up to 50 or 60 SAM missiles in the air at any one time. I doubt whether we have enough transport aircraft now, let alone whether we shall have enough after the cuts, to bring up supplies on anything like the sort of scale on which the Syrians and the Egyptians were using missiles on the Golan Front and at Suez during the Yom Kippur War.
Finally, we have to question the philosophy behind the small number of highly sophisticated aircraft as against the greater number of cheaper aircraft, especially in view of the scale of losses suffered by the Israelis in ground attacks against the armour of the Syrians on the Golan Front. They found that high-quality Russian light anti-aircraft guns in combination with large numbers of SAM missiles was deadly for their ground attack aircraft. There is no reason for us to believe that we would be able to field aircraft or pilots which would be superior to the Israelis in the Yom Kippur war, or that the Russian forces or the Warsaw Pact forces they might meet would be any less skilled than the Arabs whom the Israelis were fighting.
I doubt very much whether rationally we can justify the vague belief that somehow we shall muddle through and that we shall be able to destroy the Russian armour in a battle of the sort which was fought so recently in the Middle East.
I end by saying that we have depended on the United States for defence for 30 years. Our defence is no longer credible if we rely on the United States. At the moment, I doubt very much, despite the recent signs of more vigour, whether the Americans have recovered sufficiently from the thrashing that they took in Vietnam to be capable of defending themselves let along defending us. I fear that we are now so weak in conventional ground forces in Europe that we are almost back to the nuclear tripwire theory of defence. I believe that we could not hold back a serious Warsaw Pact thrust for any time worthy of mention and that we would be committed almost immediately to surrender or going nuclear. This was the perilous position into which the trip-wire philosophy was landing us a few years ago.
We are now drifting back into it—not because we think it a good policy but because it is the only one we can afford. We are trying to pretend that that is not the policy, but we well know that there is no other possibility but that of going nuclear at an early stage unless we can hold back with conventional weapons a major armoured thrust.
We in Europe have to defend ourselves. We in Britain must be willing to pay for our defences. Let us not talk about the other things we want to do. Of course hospitals schools and pensions are important, but unless we defend ourselves what good are those facilities?
I hope that the Minister in reply will not make the usual excuses—namely, that we spend a larger percentage of our GNP on defence than do the Germans. The Germans spend more per head on defence than we do. I leave the House with this thought: is it Government policy that the defence of a British head is not worth as much a the defence of a German head? I hope not. I hope that just for once one of the moderates of the Labour Party will have the courage to stand at the Dispatch Box and say, "Thus far and no farther. I have already said that this is the minimum scale of expenditure for a credible defence of Great Britain. If anybody cuts it further I shall go." That is what any self-respecting Minister should say in these circumstances.
I shall have some difficulty in following the authoritative tour de force of my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). I should like at the outset of my remarks to apologise to the House for my late arrival, but I have been in the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill upstairs. I hope that the House will accept that explanation.
In the present financial stringency we are right to ask whether we are getting value for money from our defence forces. It is true to say, looking at the matter historically, that ours has always been a policy of quality. Never for us has been the motto: "Never mind the quality, feel the width". We have always gone for small forces, highly-trained, well-equipped and supplied.
There are three questions I wish to ask the Minister tonight. First, are we deploying to the best advantage in the light of what a potential enemy is doing? The Minister will recall that in the debate on the Defence White Paper there was a great deal of talk about what our allies were or were not doing, but there was very little talk of what the enemy was doing.
Secondly, are we identifying the technology gaps and developing sensible research and development programmes? Thirdly, are we doing all we can to develop sales of our equipment to export markets?
Going back to the first question, namely, whether we are deploying our forces to the best advantage, the White Paper contains many non sequiturs. Time and again the nature of the Soviet threat is set out in some detail, followed by an announcement of further cuts. The situation is similar to a parish council fire brigade committee of an ancient village saying, "We recognise that we have many ancient dwellings in this village which are tremendous fire hazards but we are intent on cutting back on the number of firemen and the number of fire appliances".
On page 27 of the White Paper we ser the following passage
The Warsaw Pact's building rate for nuclear-powered submarines is now twice that of NATO. The numbers of Warsaw Pact and NATO surface ships are broadly similar, but Allied surface vessels include a very much higher proportion of older ships and carry substantially fewer offensive or defensive missile systems. Furthermore, such numerical comparisons disguise the full extent of the imbalance between the Soviet submarine fleet, which is now increasingly nuclear-powered, and the capability of NATO's anti-submarine forces. The major Soviet threat at sea therefore comes more from the very large submarine force, and from the Soviet Union's substantial building programme which is improving the quality and average age of the Soviet fleet compared with those of the Alliance.
That statement is followed a few pages later by a reference to a cut of 25 per cent. in our Nimrod forces. First, one identifies the problem and then one decides to do entirely the opposite. It looks as though there are two sets of diametrically-opposed authors. One wonders what sense there is in that when if we reduce our Nimrod capability we also reduce our ability for surveillance, thus taking away our eyes and our ability to know what is going on. If we cannot know what is going on, we are finished.
The solution to my hon. Friend's query is simple. There were two sets of authors. Those who identified the threat were military men, and those who proposed the answers to the threat were politicians. That is why there is a split.
I accept my hon. Friend's diagnosis. I am sure that he is right. It was said earlier at Question Time, in regard to the defence of North Sea oil installations and oil rigs, that the present was not the time to reduce Nimrod capability. The Government have said in their White Paper that if we withdraw from the Mediterranean Nimrod reduction will follow, without stopping to consider questions of redeployment. If we have to come out of the Mediterranean, the Nimrods could be redeployed and used from a United Kingdom base.
I do not quarrel with the necessity for reappraising our rôle. In the modern world it is important that we continually look at what we are doing and why we are doing it. It is right that we should never pretend that we can play various parts around the world. It is the understatement of the year to say that we are not what we were either in an economic or military sense. That is quite fair. It is also an understatement to indicate that the review has produced some profoundly unsettling effects for our NATO partners, particularly on the southern flank.
We know how expenditure cuts are made. The Prime Minister sits round the Cabinet table and says "Come on, chaps, it is 10 per cent. off all round." The question that arises is whether money is spent on a mile of motorway or on a comprehensive school. It would be an unusual Prime Minister who said "If we do not have adequate defences, all questions of motorway programmes or comprehensive schools will become academic." This point came up again at Question Time. One has to consider whether the ability to defend oneself is not the most fundamental call on national resources. That no doubt will continue to be the great divide between Conservative and the Government.
The Soviet threat, as I see it, is likely to be from low-level fighter-bombers such as Fencer and the harmoniously named Mig 23 Flogger. The Fencer can manage high G manœuvring and manufacturers of our surface-to-air missiles are at present working with targets which can produce 1-G weaves. That gives some idea of what we must expect for the future.
Against this threat we can deploy Strike Command, with 84 air defence aircraft. Having said that we must go for high quality forces, I do not want to fall into the trap of playing the numbers game. However, I am also aware that the Middle Eastern nations tends to be almost over-armed. In the Yom Kippur war the Syrian Air Force alone had 227 Mig fighters destroyed. Our present limit is to have 84 air defence aircraft to defend our nation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford has spoken with great penetration about the MRCA. If his doubts prove to be accurate, we shall be in a very difficult and dangerous situation indeed, because our defences from 1983 onwards—what exactly we do until 1983 will depend entirely on the thin blue line that I have mentioned—will rely entirely on the 165 air defence variants of the MRCA, which starts to enter squadron service. I hope that the Minister will take close note, as I am sure he will, of my hon. Friends comments on the MRCA and ask for a report and assessment based on those observations.
It is very easy for hon. Members to make these kinds of statements and assertions. Those of us who have taken the trouble to go to Munich and talk to Mr. Madelung and other engineers know that they claim that the MRCA can fight at as high an altitude as can any other foreseeable aircraft.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that Conservative Members had not taken the trouble to go to Munich. As he knows, I have, and I have spoken to Mr. Madelung, as have my hon. Friends. I felt that the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford were at least worthy of consideration in this matter of the power-weight ratio.
I welcome the improvement that is proposed in ground communication systems, the increased development work that is proposed in electronic counter-measures and—I hate to have to use the jargon of the day—in electronic counter countermeasures. This is the world we live in. However, it is a very important world if we are to try to slow down any Soviet offensive that may occur.
I am pleased to see the potential progress in certain types of weapon directions, particularly the XJ521, which has the Marconi Space and Defence System's homing head. I find it difficult to quarrel too much with the restrictions proposed in the RAF transport fleet, although I am aware that some of my hon. Friends may take issue with me on this point.
However, I am seriously concerned about the reduction in the number of Nimrods. At present a number of Nimrods are being converted into a Mark II anti-submarine force, but we also have to consider the urgent need to develop our airborne early warning capability.
At present the United States is exercising strong pressure on us to buy its AWACS, which, off the shelf, will cost approximately £40 million a system. This points to the very classic situation that we often seem to find ourselves in in the procurement of defence equipment. All too often we seem to reach a situation in which, suddenly, the Chiefs of Staff appreciate a need. They look at our development—which for various reasons has possibly been held back, perhaps due to a change of Government—and find that we do not have and shall not have what is required, but surprise, surprise, the Americans do. Then the lobbying starts to build up and it is suggested that we should buy what is there, although the cost to the balance of payments will be severe and there will be disadvantageous effects on our industrial capacity. Certainly this would be very serious if we bought the American AWACS or the Hawker Siddeley factories in the North West of England.
I turn to my second point—are we developing sensible research and development programmes? There is no need for me or any hon. Members to dwell on the desirability of standardisation. It has been suggested that there would be a one-third improvement in efficiency from standardisation alone. The White Paper says that the expenditure will be £470 million in 1978–79 and £400 million in 1983–84. Even within the guidelines that the Secretary of State has had set for him, it is bizarre to say the least to plan to reduce research and development expenditure when we are looking forward to 1983–84 and talking in terms of cash, quite apart from what that will actually buy by that date. It is amazing, because it is on our ability to direct future weapon systems and electronic countermeasures that our survival will depend. If we opt out of that we shall have nothing whatever. We shall have to take the Danish solution of the gentleman who suggested that we should play the gramophone record which says "I surrender, I surrender, I surrender". This is totally unrealistic.
We also run the great risk that as a country which is largely dependent on high technology projects throughout its industry, we shall gradually opt out or be opted out by a Government decision or lassitude until, in the end, we shall be unable to get back into any of these projects. The lesson of modern technology is that once one opts out, one is out. We cannot say "It is all right, I will catch the roundabout next time it comes round", because it does not come round.
My third point concerns the question whether we are selling our equipment effectively abroad. I should like to put a rhetorical question. Why is it necessary, and why should we bother, about selling our equipment abroad? There are four reasons why it is important for us to do so. First, if we can effect sizeable sales of British defence equipment abroad, it will have the effect of reducing the unit costs of those supplies to our own Services. Secondly, it is of enormous benefit to the United Kingdom's balance of payments. I do not need to stress the desirability of that. Thirdly, it maintains our industrial capability and employment, and I believe that even many Labour members have started to twigg that that is rather desirable. Fourthly, it maintains our tactical self-reliance if we can rely largely on a substantial amount of our own equipment. I do not need to embroider that point, it is simply that if we rely on certain vital components and we get into a difficult war or almost-war situation and find that the person from whose country the components might be coming takes a slighly jaundiced view of our policies, it is possible that the infrared homing device or whatever it may be, will not arise. It is important that we retain as much as we feasibly can in terms of tactical self-reliance.
The paragraph in the White Paper which deals with defence sales is, significantly, tucked away on page 81, after "Meteorology". Whether this is something to do with tactical changes in the weather I do not know, but the paragraph on sales runs to about five lines. It states that
Exports of defence equipment continue to make a valuable contribution to national exports. Overseas sales of defence equipment cover a wide range of items produced by the Royal Ordnance Factories. The Defence Sales organisation has continued to provide support, assistance and advice to industry and exports are expected to reach the value of £560 million in 1975–76".
That is marvellous. We have no worries at all. The only snag about defence sales is that we do not necessarily hear about the contracts which are made and we usually find that they leak out eventually. But we are certainly not encouraged to find out about the contracts not made.
It is the contracts that get away and have got away with which I am concerned. I want here to indict not so much the defence sales organisation itself, trapped as it is between and within the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Industry, the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Paris Air Show seemed to be delightfully schizophrenic on our part. Within the British pavilion the area set aside for the defence sales organisation was labelled "British Defence Sales Organisation, Department of Industry", and "British Defence Sales Organisation, Ministry of Defence". It rather depended on which door one entered as to what kind of reception one received.
What we are really entitled to heat about is Government policy, or lack of Government policy. What the Government must do is to manifest their support and assistance—about which they write so grandly on the page following that dealing with meteorology—because the experience of British industry is that it does not get this support, assistance and advice.
Where were the Government when the Roland contract went to France and Germany, when our Rapier missile system was apparently being preferred by Service chiefs in the United States? This was a 1,000 million dollar contract. We are talking of huge sums of money with fantastic benefits to the balance of payments and colossal employment possibilities for British industry. Where were the Government then?
I take yet another flabby situation. Where were the Government when Nimrod failed to get the Australian contract, which went to Orion, even though the Australians had indicated tremendous interest in Nimrod beforehand? Where were the Government when the four nations started looking for a replacement for the F104? It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to say, as he did at Question Time today, that he had placed this twice before Eurogroup. One can imagine it: "There you are, chaps. If you have nothing else, fall back on Jaguar. We can fit you up with one or two of these."
Nations in the modern world sell hard their own projects. They are totally self-interested. They do not regard British disinterest as a sign of strength; they regard it as a sign of weakness. They take precisely the opposite inference to that which we seem to be wishing to put about.
We have debated previously the question of Jaguar sales to India. The Indians say they want Jaguar. The British Government say that the Indians do not have any money. But the British Government then say "You can have a few frigates, or 10 748s". It appears that if the Indians want Jaguars they are insolvent. It is difficult to know how one can be insolvent in relation to one transaction but not to another. Will the Minister confirm the suggestion that the Indians have now asked to buy six Jaguars for cash? That would at least put the British Government to the test. I hope that the Indians have done so. We look forward to hearing the answer.
The Government pay lip service to exports. They say, as the Secretary of State has said, "We are very keen that British companies get the contracts, and we shall put forward various British projects at various meetings at which we attend, but we do not actually push hard. We do not sell." We must stop walking around the world holding open the door for the Americans and the French. It has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford that we must collaborate with the French. I, for one, would be happy to collaborate with them were they happy to collaborate with us. The Jaguar experience suggests the contrary.
The French have been extraordinarily irritating partners for us, but we should remember that we have been extraordinarily irritating partners to the French. Ever since the appalling Skybolt and F111 affair, there must be a doubt in the minds of Frenchmen whether we have decided to cut the umbilical cord that stretches to America and to take part in Europe, or to assume a rôle which would put us 30 degrees west.
May I indicate to the House that at present we have 25 minutes left before the winding-up speeches? We have had speeches lasting for 29 minutes and 28 minutes. To have interventions at this stage when there are four additional Members anxious to take part is rather unfair.
May I exchange an intervention for a speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker? If Europe does not get together militarily—the French, the Germans, the British—and get some kind of co-ordination into its equipment, however sophisticated it may be, in the communications field, for example, where there are gaps, we shall be in no condition to fight another war because the enemy will go through the gaps.
Order. It does not affect the Chair. I shall leave the Chair when I am due to leave it. It is a question of trying to co-operate with all those who wish to take part in the debate.
The theme of the speeches in this debate has been that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the question which the Under-Secretary has to answer is what constitutes eternal vigilance. In view of the continual criticism the Under-Secretary has heard of his policy, I can bring him one crumb of comfort. I was speaking to an air chief marshal yesterday and he said, "They may have cut the Royal Air Force to the bone, but at least they have left the front-line force strong enough to do the task for which it was planned." If that is the case, that is the excuse for the defence statement about the Royal Air Force and I am prepared to give the Under-Secretary the benefit of that doubt.
Before I go on to the body of my speech, I want to touch on a constituency point about which I wrote to the Minister last week and which I think may be more relevant in other terms than I thought when I wrote. It concerns the use of RAF Welford by the United States Air Force as an ammunition store. I have been in touch with Major-General Evan Rosencrans, the Commander of the United States Third Air Force, about the convoys of lorries—500 lorries in all—which have gone from Barry Docks to RAF Welford over the last fortnight carrying ammunition. They have been passing through part of my constituency, particularly the village of Great Shepherd, at all hours of the day and night. They have been in convoys of five to nine lorries and have caused enormous inconvenience and upset. They have awakened children and generally created the most appalling concern for the villagers. Now the residents want to know when the convoys wilt stop and what will happen when the United States Air Force wants to draw the ammunition out of the air base as, presumably, it will at some stage.
There was a protest meeting in the village last Saturday and, arising from that, I should like to ask the Minister whether, when he consents to the United States Air Force using an RAF station, for whatever purpose, he takes account of the inconvenience that may be caused to local inhabitants, such as these villagers, by processions of heavy lorries.
If the United States Air Force is mainly centred in East Anglia, why should two RAF stations in Berkshire—RAF Greenham and RAF Welford—be used for ammunition stores when they seem to be so far away from where the ammunition will presumably be used, if it is used at all?
Will he consider the rôle of RAF stations which are used by the United States Air Force, and if they are not now serving a useful purpose for the United States Air Force, would it not be better that they were closed down? The housing in those stations would be useful to local authorities, and my constituents would be grateful to be relieved of nuisance caused by the current use of these bases.
We know from the Defence Review that a number of RAF stations are to be closed. To deal with a point raised by one of my hon. Friends who is unable to speak in this debate, will the Under-Secretary say how soon the housing at these stations is to be returned to civilian use, and how soon local authorities will be told that they can designate it for their housing lists? The housing waiting list in Berkshire is formidable, and any chance of housing coming forward of the kind I have mentioned would be gratefully welcomed by the people on that list.
I want to turn to the question of the cuts in what I will call Transport Command. It is quite true, as the Minister has said, that there is now no need to fly our troops all over the world, but it is also true—and perhaps I should declare an interest and say that I am a council member of the Air League—that we have a NATO duty to be able to supply the northern and southern flanks of the treaty area and that we can do that only with air power. If, therefore, we reduce our Transport Command capability too far, we shall not be able to fulfil that rôle.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of a tiny item which appeared in The Times recently which said that NATO military intelligence had noted an enormous increase in the Soviet Union's use of air power for moving troops. Could I put it to him that it is curious that, while the Soviet Union are building up their transport side, we should be reducing ours, to quote the air chief marshal, "to the bone". Perhaps he can assure the House tonight that although we have reduced the capability of Air Transport Command, it is still a very flexible and efficient service and can fill the rôle for which it is required. Sometimes we imagine that our forces are there to meet some new world war, but I suggest to the Minister that there are many other kinds of conflict that break out requiring Transport Command. The security operations in Northern Ireland clearly pinpoint what I am talking about.
I want to come to the question of those Service men who are to be phased out of the Service because of the reductions which have been announced. I welcome what the Minister said earlier this afternoon when he spoke of how well they were to be looked after, but may I press him a shade further? A number of the people who are to be declared redundant will be middle-aged, and they will find considerable difficulty in getting jobs in Civvy Street. Can he say whether his Department has any proposals for retraining these people and, in particular, for finding them employment throughout the United Kingdom? It is one thing to say that these people are to be adequately compensated, but compensation will not be enough for people who imagined that they would have careers in the RAF but suddenly find that their lives in those terms have come to an end.
Could the Minister say rather more than he has said? May I suggest to him that if they were trade unionists in some form of civil industry, they would almost certainly not be declared redundant but would be allowed to leave the Service under, to use a rather euphemistic phrase, "natural wastage". I hope that we will not be less sympathetic to Service men, be they officers or other ranks, than we would if they were people working in industry.
Perhaps the hon. Member would care to read a speech which I made on the question of the housing of members of the Forces who were reaching the end of their careers. The redundancy situation makes it all the more pressing. I received a great deal of support across the House from all parties—but I have not so far heard a word from the Minister whether he has any intention of implementing the suggestion—for a suggestion that a man, on marriage or entering the Service, whichever is the later, should be able to put down his name as an ordinary citizen on the council housing list of his choice.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady's intervention. I have not read her speech but I will certainly do so.
I know that the question of housing is very pressing, with the enormous rise in house prices. When I went round the Cyprus bases the subject was raised continually. I hope that the Minister will say something about it.
On the question of Transport Command, personally I welcome the standardisation that has come over Transport Command because I have felt that for far too long it is, or has been, a ragbag of aircraft, and I am very glad that the choice is to be the Hercules. I am by no means unhappy that the VCIO fleet is to be reduced because when I travelled in a VC10 of Transport Command I felt that we were asking RAF personnel to undertake tasks which are better performed by airlines. If the Minister can assure me that adequate charter aircraft are available to do the task of trooping, that is all right by me. I remember pressing a colleague in the House to do just what the Minister has done, so he gets a little welcome from me on that score.
Before I leave the question of transport aircraft, I come to the point that I wanted to make most forcibly. It is true that we shall now use the American Hercules as our main transport aircraft. We all know that it is a superb aircraft, perhaps one of the great aircraft in the world today. It is flexible, and is to be found throughout the world, among European air forces and other air forces. But one day it will become obsolete, and we shall be having a debate about the aircraft to succeed it.
I wonder whether there is an operational requirement for that replacement drawn up by the RAF for consideration by our industry, or shall we find, as we so often find in Western Europe, that we did not think about it quite early enough but that the United States did, and that once again there will be a United States aircraft ready to purchase, that once again Europe will be buying American?
I say that with no desire to knock the American aircraft industry, which is a great industry, but because we always seem to miss the bus. There is now a United States operational requirement for the aeroplane that I am talking about, and there is a competition in their industry for it. I understand that the aeroplane is described as the short takeoff and landing advanced medium-transport aeroplane. Short take-off and landing are things of which our industry has some experience, and an advanced transport aircraft is something that we shall need.
Why cannot we have an operational requirement, if not for Europe, for the Royal Air Force? If we had it, we should have a chance of producing an aircraft for which NATO will have a need.
That takes me to the question of standardisation, a matter that has been raised so often. When will NATO think in terms of being one entity, without national differences? When will it create a single operational requirement and turn its aircraft industry towards that requirement? Shall we go on endlessly with national wishes, and therefore inevitably a failure to produce the necessary hardware?
We have had the discussion about the YF 16 light fighter aircraft. I am told—and I have no reason to suppose that my information is wrong—that the Americans identified a need in Western defence for this type of aircraft and chose to build it, and that when they offered it to Europe certain European countries immediately realised that it was what they were looking for. It is no good our pretending that the MRCA could have fulfilled the rôle. It was too expensive, and too heavy, and not right. The Jaguar could not have fulfilled the rôle either. But the YF 16 was right, and so the Belgians and the Dutch ordered it.
We should not wring our hands and say that the Americans have shown that hard selling wins the day. We should be drawing a lesson from what has happened, which is that Europe should define its own defence needs and use its own aircraft industry to satisfy them. This is not a new story. Of course we can say "The Anglo-French Jaguar is a collaborative project. See how successful it has been"; and that the MRCA is a collaborative project which looks like being successful, although I think that the Americans describe it as a glacial project, because it has already taken 10 years and we have not yet got the aeroplane flying efficiently.
But I am talking about a European demand for a European aircraft which will go into service in all countries of NATO. If we draw up our operational requirements ahead of the event, we need not necessarily be beaten to the punch by the Americans on every occasion. Perhaps the advanced STOL transport aircraft which the Americans believe they will need is an opportunity for us to get the Eurogroup to draw up just such a NATO operational requirement. I suggest that it is, because it could have a civil use as well.
But whether it is that aeroplane or another, I ask the Minister to say anything he can about the initiatives he is taking to make NATO create a procurement executive and to make Europe, in terms of the EEC, NATO or anything else, think as one entity for its defence requirements.
Before I close perhaps I could stress the point that we should remember that America is also a member of NATO, and I do not think that any of us have persuaded ourselves that Western Europe can be defended without America. However, it seems incredible, when we have a great and advanced aircraft industry, that in that single capacity we are unable to meet our own needs. I suggest that the reason we have failed to meet our needs is not that the needs are difficult to satisfy but merely that we are unable—although we claim to be allies—to think and act as one.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a speech at this late stage and I shall endeavour to be as brief as possible.
Having had a small involvement with the RAF during the last war, I am tempted to roam over the subject generally. However, in fairness to the House I shall confine myself to something in which I am more expert, namely, a constituency matter. The Minister will know that I am talking about RAF Sydenham.
Before I go into the problems affecting RAF Sydenham I should like to point out that yesterday I had the privilege of visiting that station, and I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity that he provided. What I have to say tonight is not born out of that visit, although the experience has tempered the remarks that I have to make. I was very impressed at the capacity of the RAF officers in charge of that station to discharge their industrial function. Due to the Government's decision to cut back on RAF Sydenham, some very unpalatable decisions have to be taken. The station officer and his colleagues have shown marvellous tact and consideration in doing a very painful job.
The Minister will know that RAF Sydenham, in all its different characteristics as a Service installation, has had a very uncertain record. It is a marvellous installation, with a marvellous work force that has performed wonders in the tasks that have been assigned to it. However, it always seems to be coming under the axe. This particular axe falls in a very unhappy way, because, as the Minister knows, one of his predecessors, envisaging a cut back, gave an undertaking that the Buccaneer work would remain with RAF Sydenham. Much to the dismay of the whole station, the Buccaneer work has been taken away. Indeed, that was the only front-line aircraft it had to handle. The men find it very difficult to understand this decision. They have a very proud record in the handling of Buccaneers. No one in the RAF or anywhere else will dispute the expertise that exists at Sydenham.
The loss of this aircraft has not only heightened the uncertainty about the future of the situation. It is interpreted by the men as an act of bad faith. I am not joining in any accusation of bad faith, but I can understand how the feeling exists. Two years ago they were told, when the cut back came, that Buccaneer would stay, but now it has gone and there has not been an adequate explanation. The trade unions have been pressing for a meeting with the Minister and I join them in asking that that meeting should take place quickly.
As a result of this decision, the character of RAF Sydenham is changing substantially. Until now the work has been divided between what may be called aircraft production and the repair of aircraft components on a fifty-fifty basis. As a result of this cut back, aircraft production will be about 25 per cent.
I am not saying—indeed, I do not think I should have any justification—that this change is necessarily bad for the employment prospects of the men at RAF Sydenham. But I should like an assurance that this decision does not mark a phased run-down of RAF Sydenham, that there is a rôle for that station, and that the men can look forward with reasonable certainty to giving the service that they have given so valiantly in the past in both war and peace.
Many different problems arise from this redundancy. I ask the Minister to speak to his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, about these problems. There is what is known as the mobile branch of the Civil Service—men over the age of 50 with families who now find that the only prospect is perhaps a transfer outside Northern Ireland. It is not easy for them to make that transfer. I ask that consideration be given to a proposal that they be declared redundant on Northern Ireland terms.
I also ask the Minister for an assurance that the men at RAF Sydenham will have a positive programme to which they can look forward. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman can elaborate on the extent and scale of the increase in the repair of aircraft components, but anything that he can say to increase the confidence of the men at RAF Sydenham will be greatly appreciated.
I do not want to weary the House by singing the praises of RAF Sydenham, but it is not just another RAF station with a civilian industrial capacity. The men who work there have served in Her Majesty's Services through the years. Many of the men to whom I spoke yesterday had been at RAF Sydenham for 20 years and had served in the RAF before that. There is a family tradition. I ask the Minister, in recognition of RAF Sydenham's great capacity, to give some reasonable assurance for the future.
I should like to conclude in a more general way. The problems of RAF Sydenham can be translated into every aspect of the Royal Air Force. We all appreciate that, because of our present economic difficulties, cuts in public expenditure must take place. I plead with the Minister to ensure that those cuts are made on the basis of preserving something on which we can build in future when our economy enables us to strengthen the RAF to play its important part in the defence not only of the United Kingdom, but of the whole free world.
I join the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) in the plea that we should try to think of the RAF in a European context. We are in Europe for better or for worse. We have accustomed ourselves to the idea of harmonising social services, and so on, in the interests of competitive enterprise. It seems strange that defence expenditure has not been harmonised in the same way. I should like to think that, while defence might not be thought of in EEC terms, at least we can think more of harmonisation. It will be in the interests of all and will enable the RAF to live up to its high record.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this short time to speak in the debate. Therefore, I will cut out a lot of what I intended to say.
The Minister is very good and painstaking. Indeed, he answers extremely rapidly the many questions which I and others fire at him.
I am pleased, as was the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), to agree with much that was said by Labour Members. I agree with many of the points that he made in his speech. In particular, I hope that we may have interesting and exciting television programmes about the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Such programmes could be really worth while. I envisage short programmes—not necessarily run entirely by the Forces but sponsored by them and run properly and commercially—as being of immense value to the morale of the Forces, creating interest on the part of the general public in our forces, and assisting recruitment generally.
I agree very much with what my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth said in two respects. The first concerns the cutting down of the RAF Regiment. I am very concerned about this. I have a very large Royal Air Force station in my constituency, close to my home. There are also several Royal Air Force stations very close to my constituency, and another very large one also in my constituency. The great vulnerability of immensely valuable aeroplanes standing just inside the perimeter requires the presence of the RAF Regiment, not only abroad but at home as well.
I should like once again to re-emphasise the importance of housing. I raised with the Minister recently the question of housing at RAF Bruggen in Germany. I visited Bruggen while in Germany a short time ago with an all-party delegation and was very concerned to find, after being told that three to six months was the longest time a man had to wait, that at RAF Bruggen a man could be 12 months without married quarters for his wife and family.
The matter of housing for men after they leave the Forces has been raised on several occasions. It is one which rankles more in Service men's hearts than anything else. The other day an ex-aircraftsman told me that he had served in the RAF for 23 years. He was born in the neighbouring town and, having just left the RAF, has a job in that town. His child, a spastic, goes to a special school in that town. She has to leave home at 7.15 a.m. and does not get back until 5.15 p.m., yet the local authority has told him that until the RAF gives him an eviction notice it cannot possibly house him. He said to me, "I do not want to end my service with the RAF after 23 years with an eviction notice." That is the sort of case we ought to support, and I hope that the Minister will put some real power behind his message to the local authorities.
I have previously raised the subject of low flying, and I hope that before long we shall hear the result of the inquiry concerning the accident with the crop sprayer in my constituency.
I was an Army man for 12 years but started on an RAF station, and I have two magnificent stations nearby at Marham and Swanton Morley. They contribute a great deal to the whole life of the neighbourhood, providing employment and contributing towards the community spirit. They enter into the affairs of the community over a radius of 15 or 20 miles.
The Labour Left, the Tribune group, are as despicable to me as they are, I feel sure, to many Labour Members. I will not say much more, but they contribute to any low morale in our Forces which may exist now and in the future. They are always criticising the very best in our Armed Forces and in the police. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who believe in the defence of our people must speak up for the Forces and blow their trumpets occasionally. We have first-class officers and men. The only worry is that we have far too few aircraft, tanks and ships. Our people deserve a Government who make defence our No. 1 priority. I shall support the Opposition in the Division Lobby tonight.
Our debates on the Air Estimates are always fascinating occasions. Usually they encourage a larger attendance in the Chamber. But this House at the moment is damaged by a large number of Standing Committees sitting upstairs which result in attention being taken away from the Chamber, where some of the most important issues are being debated. The Opposition sometimes wonder just where the Government are going, seeing that so many Standing Committees are engaged on work which, in the end, will probably prove to have been wasted. At any rate, we have seen more Opposition Members during the evening. Some have even had to come down from Standing Committees to make their speeches and then return.
This has always been a wide-ranging debate. We use the debate on the Air Estimates as an occasion for discussing all manner of matters connected with the Service—the equipment used, the manpower, the administration, pay, closures of airfields, housing, and so on. All have been mentioned by many of my hon. Friends today.
We have had several impressive speeches, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), who gave us a very interesting historical discourse, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), whom we welcome to our Air Estimates debates and look forward to hearing again.
Exceptionally, we have also had many more speakers voicing anxiety about the capacity of the Royal Air Force to meet the threat that it may have to face. As a result, we have tended to spend less time on the nuts and bolts than we have in the past in debates of this kind.
Towards the end of his speech, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force asked why the Opposition had singled out the debate on the Royal Air Force for a Division. I shall give him the answer. It is that we are not singling out the RAF for a Division; we are dividing the House on the Navy Estimates as well, because we regard the Government's maritime strategy as completely wrong. Even if we accept—and we do not—their central defence decision, which is that within NATO we concentrate our efforts on the United Kingdom, the Eastern Atlantic and the central region, we say that the Government's maritime strategy is all wrong.
Let me put one other matter straight, so that there are no more questions about it. The Opposition regard defence as being a special category of Government expenditure. We have always said so. It has been said again and again in this debate, as it has been in the past——
I do not burke that issue, but it was after three years expansion of the forces and expanding expenditure. During that period, members of the forces—[Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) laughing so loudly. They were three years which were a great encouragement to recruitment. I hope that we shall not have any more arguments about it, because we said so in the past—and this is not prattling on—that every other item of Government expenditure pales into insignificance when set alongside defence. The Under-Secretary said that defence in a modern society is a combination of arms and—I believe he said—the quality of society. Those are lovely, airy-fairy words. What sort of quality of society is there if our defences fail and we are overrun by an enemy? What sort of quality of society does the hon. Gentleman think there would be if the Russians attacked this country and we were not in a position to defend ourselves? It is nonsense to talk about the quality of society as being a part of defence. If there is any aspect of the quality of society which is necessary to our defence, there is, on the other hand, a good deal that is wrong with the quality of society today because of the extremists in it who act against the stability of our country.
The interesting thing about the Minister's speech was that he had clearly written it before he had come into the Chamber and before he had heard my hon. Friend for Woking (Mr. Onslow). We cannot blame him altogether for that, because he has to write some of it in advance. But the Under-Secretary might have attempted to deal with some of the subjects to which my hon. Friend referred. Instead, he went on with his brief and entirely ignored the case put by my hon. Friend.
The Under-Secretary did not deal with the question why NATO took the opposite view to the Government on the state of our defences. He did not explain why it was that the Government could not persuade their allies in NATO that such a move was necessary and good. I shall read a piece out of the communiqué issued on 21st March. Paragraph 3 says that
The Alliance has nevertheless expressed its disquiet at the scale of the reductions proposed and their effect on NATO's conventional
defences vis-à-vis the increasing capability of the Warsaw Pact. The changes of special concern are: the reduction of reinforcement capability in the Northern and Southern Regions; the removal of naval and air forces from the Mediterranean area; and the decline in maritime capabilities in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas.
In the face of that I do not know how the Government can put forward a Defence White Paper which is outdated by a further cut of over £100 million and say that we are properly armed and in a correct posture to defend the country. The Minister said that he hoped that the previous debate—I assume he meant the main defence debate on the White Paper—had cleared away differences on general policy. I hope that he knows now that it jolly well did not.
The consideration of the Air Estimates can be viewed only against the scenario outlined in the White Paper. Many people have mentioned it during the debate and it is clear that there were two authors—one who wrote the background information from the Services and another who wrote the political, so-called answers. The 25 per cent. cut in Nimrods followed a carefully set-out case in the White Paper—page after page of it—telling us about the growing Soviet strength and how the shift in the balance of power was working against us. Then we have a 25 per cent. cut in our maritime reconnaisance capacity.
The Minister paid tribute to the men and women who serve in the RAF. We would wish most warmly to join in that tribute. Each time that we have a Labour Government I wonder how we manage to find people to serve in the Forces when this sort of position arises. He said that the squadrons being brought back from Cyprus were available to NATO, as if that were a great plus. When those squadrons were in Cyprus they were available to NATO, if required even then. They could always have been used in an emergency.
When referring to redundancies the Minister hoped vaguely that there would be a natural wastage of over 14,000, so that there would be only 4,000 redundancies out of the total of 18,000. He hoped that there would be many voluntary redundancies, so that not all of them would be compulsory. But how volun- tary is "voluntary", when we see the Royal Air Force in its present position?
The hon. Gentleman seems to have understood nothing that has been said in the debate so far. I did not talk about a vague hope. I referred to volunteering which has already been signified to the Royal Air Force.
I know that. The Minister listed certain categories of compulsory and voluntary redundancies. He gave no figures. Perhaps he will give the figures so that we can judge.
The Minister said that the force was quantitatively strong and qualitatively improved. The Opposition think that it may be quantitatively strong but that it is less strong than it was before the Government reorganised it. It may have been qualitatively improved, but only on the basis of hoped-for aircraft orders, many of which were in the pipeline before the Government took over. Today we heard little from Government back benchers.
The multi-rôle combat aircraft was mentioned frequently. When we discuss the economy we are told that we are knocking the pound. Equally, if an hon. Member mentions an aircraft, and is anxious about delays, he is accused of looking for trouble. There have been delays with the MRCA. There has been trouble with high-pressure turbine fatigue in that aircraft. There are anxieties about its fuel consumption. There is a shortage of engines because of delays in delivery and because the engines are being passed back to the works for stripdowns and extra work. It is ridiculous of the Minister to try to fob off the House with such matters. It is better to be straightforward so that we know where we stand.
The Government say that they have ordered 385 of these aircraft, which are vital to the RAF, but the delivery of which will be reduced by one third. Has that been agreed by our allies and our partners in the project? Has the Minister made an estimate of the increased cost arising because of delays and inflation?
The Minister expressed himself as pleased with this project. However, the MRCA turned up after the Labour Government cancelled the TSR2 in 1965. The MRCA has still not arrived. We continue to wait for the replacement.
We have talked of the replacement for the F104 in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark. I ask myself, if Germany and Italy were prepared to replace the F104 with the MRCA, why could not the Government persuade these four countries that the MRCA might be a suitable aircraft? What efforts have been made to sell? Did the Government try to sell Jaguars to those countries? We do not know. We do know that all Labour Governments are quick to refuse to sell arms to countries of whose policies they disapprove and are slow to get out into the field to sell aircraft and weapons to those to whom we should be selling.
When talking of the cost of weapons, I hope that the Minister will remember that 50 per cent. of the cost comes back to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the form of taxation. I do not expect that we are told anything about that when figures are given.
It is extraordinary that we should be told that the replacement of Phantoms by Jaguars is an improvement. It is also somewhat misleading. Although the Jaguar is effective in the rôle for which it was designed, its self-defence capability and all-round performance cannot be compared with that of the Phantom. When one contemplates the capabilities of Russian aircraft—the MIG 25 Foxbat and the MIG 23 Flogger—the so-called improvement becomes even more unbelievable. We should like to know whether we are selling 24 Jaguar aircraft to Turkey.
What efforts are being made to sell more Nimrods'? Does the Minister feel that he has a good chance of getting the Nimrod accepted as an early warning aircraft not just for this country but for other NATO countries? What efforts have been made to sell it to Canada and Australia? I understand that Australia has already decided on a much less effective American aircraft. How that can happen if the Government are trying hard to sell, I simply do not know.
We are delighted that the Government are to order the Harrier for the Royal Navy. Did it ever occur to the Government, in the context of their rôle in NATO, to recommend the Harrier as a mix with the F16 for the four European countries which want to replace the F104? Recent experience in theatres of war shows that airfields are knocked out first. The aircraft that depend on runways are, therefore, likely to be inoperative for some time, whereas Harriers, if dispersed, are not so easy to knock out. These countries, in response to some efforts from the Government, might have been persuaded to think in terms of the Harrier as a mix with the F16. We know that the Soviets are developing the Yak 36 for maritime and land operation. That aircraft no doubt is a direct crib of the Harrier. If the Russians are cribbing it, we can be sure that they think the aircraft is as good as we think it is.
The background of the White Paper is remarkable. It contains a review of the growth of the Warsaw Pact forces spelt out in great detail, indeed in much greater detail than in any previous White Paper I have seen in my 15 years in the House of Commons. The message is clear, beyond shadow of doubt, that the threat is greater than ever before. There are warnings that détente, if such a thing exists, which I often wonder, is "not yet irreversible". That is good news—as if it ever could be. We all know that détente is merely a period during which the political intentions of a Government appear to be honourable and friendly, but those intentions can change overnight and if that Government have arms and weapons détente rapidly ceases.
We are told on Page 8 of the White Paper, in reference to the Warsaw Pact, that
We cannot exclude the possibility that its members might try to use their massive military power, especially in conventional weapons, to bring political pressure to bear—perhaps selectively"—
if "selectively" means, "on the weakest", why should we make ourselves weaker at a time like this?—
on Western countries in the hope of influencing their external and even their domestic policies.
If the Government believe that the weapons that the Russians have may be used to blackmail us and to change our domestic policy, how on earth can they cut the RAF in this way? Against that background it could hardly be expected that there would be massive defence cuts, but we would be wrong to take that view.
Of course, the decisions that have been announced bear no relationship to the background that has been so carefully described. They are dictated, we know, by the desire of the Prime Minister to placate his Left wing. We notice that there have been very few members of the Labour Left wing here today. They have kept well out of it, although they know perfectly well what is going on. They are glad to be out of the way and to hope we do not notice that they are still around.
I am not happy to see the Left wing missing. I merely said that the Left wing was glad to be missing because its members thought that they would distract attention from their real intentions.
On 7th May the Under-Secretary of State made great play of the arguments of those who thought that the cuts were too great and those who thought that the cuts were too small. He spoke with pride of the middle course steered by the Government, but what does he mean by "middle"? The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the majority of the Labour Left wing does not think in terms of a certain size for the Royal Air Force or a certain sized Army or Navy; it thinks in terms of none at all. We think in terms of sufficiently large forces to meet the threat with which we are faced. How can there be a middle course between those two ideas which provides an air force worth talking about? The question has only to be posed to expose the whole policy as nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that.
So we are faced with these massive cuts in the Royal Air Force. They do not make sense, even on the Government's own proposition that we should concentrate entirely on NATO. In that context we see the withdrawal from the Mediterranean. Do our NATO partners welcome that? They do not do so in the communiqué. We would like the Under-Secretary of State to say whether he still thinks that withdrawal is welcome. We see the withdrawal from Cyprus and the
withdrawal of Nimrods from Malta. All this is taking place when the Soviet Union has vastly expanded its navy so rapidly. We are told in page 8 of the Estimates that
The Soviet Union has vastly expanded its navy and can rapidly deploy substantial naval forces across the maritime lines of communication between Europe and North America.
That is the area we are supposed to be looking after, yet we are blandly informed that the Nimrod force is to be cut by a quarter. What sense can this possibly make?
I have already mentioned manpower redundancies. We used to talk with pride of our professional Armed Forces. We used to claim that professional people could enter the Armed Forces with pride and remain so engaged for the whole of their working lives. We emphasised that again and again. We have been able to pride ourselves on the professional ability within the Armed Forces. Now, suddenly, these officers and men, who joined the Armed Forces believing that they had a life-long profession before them. are thrown out.
We are told that there will be 4,000 redundancies. If it were a factory in trouble, the Government would bail it out rather than put 4,000 people out of work, but because those 4,000 people are spread over the country, they are regarded as expendable. That is the simple answer. But for the individuals involved, redundancy is a traumatic experience. The 4,000 personnel involved are unfortunate enough to be a pawn in the Government's hands—a Government who at this time are ruled by the Left wing in this as in other spheres.
Let me say this to the Minister—[An HON. MEMBER: "Do get a move on!"] Government Members should not get too agitated. I have not been speaking for half an hour and I am proposing to finish very shortly. It is tiresome to speak against a background of sedentary comments.
I suggest that Labour Members who talk so glibly about redundancy and cutting forces should talk to some of these people and listen to their views about being thrown out of the Services. When we consider the situation, we find that no consolation is to be found to this sad affair. We are letting down our allies, and have been told that firmly. We are putting at risk our security and we are breaking our bond to those who make up one of the finest air forces in the world.
For these reasons, I hope and urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to join me in the Division Lobby.
We have had an interesting debate dealing with important matters of detail with which I shall try to deal—ranging from the points made in the grand Guignol, groaning type speech made by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) to the remarks of the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit).
Many questions have been asked, and I realise that I have been criticised for not having dealt with certain matters. However, it is inevitable in a winding-up speech that questions will be left unanswered.
The hon. Member for Chingford took 28 minutes to tell us what the situation was like in 1934. However, I promise that I shall answer hon. Gentlemen by letter on all points left unanswered in my speech.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) took exception to my absence from the debate earlier this evening, but I must draw attention to the fact that that hon. Gentleman is now absent and will not hear my reply. I was absent for only half an hour during the debate. I am sure it is accepted on ail sides of the House that there are other pressures on hon. Members in this Chamber which compel them to be absent for brief periods of time. I hope that there will be rather less of the yaboo childishness which that point of order displayed.
The problem which preoccupied many during the debate was the status of the MRCA project, particularly about whether it was on time and was performing satisfactorily, We are firmly committed to the MRCA project, as are our partners. That project is of major importance not only to the Royal Air Force but to British and European industry.
On 1st October 1974 the three Governments agreed to proceed with the second phase of the development. This is primarily concerned with flight development work sufficient to enable decisions which will be made early next year as to full production and entry to full production. The flight development work on the avionics equipment is being done on Buccaneer aircraft before being flown on the MRCA. There is also investment and procurement of essential equipment which will ensure the transition to production as smoothly as possible.
Reference has been made to air defence variants. The hon. Member for Chingford expressed reservations about the performance of the MRCA as an interceptor. We are at present in the project definition phase in which all these matters are being precisely examined with a view to our being able to reach a decision about the project as a whole. However, as I said earlier, this phase is due to be completed by the end of the year.
It is true that there have been fewer flight tests than had been hoped, but I have been assured that the delays are in no way inordinate and nor is the trouble which has been experienced in any way out of scale with that which is experienced in every other major new development. Our total planned requirement remains at 385 MRCAs but, as I said earlier—and as Conservative Members have been assiduous in pointing out—we have proposed to our partners a reduction in the peak annual delivery by up to one-third. I have been told that if this decision is implemented it will not have any major effect on overall costs.
I am not quite clear what the hon. Gentleman meant when he said "If this decision is implemented". Is there some doubt whether the undertaking in the White Paper on Defence, to which we have not assiduously pointed but on which we have merely commented, is to be fulfilled? Is there some question whether our partners will agree to this delay in deliveries.
We are discussing this with our partners. I am trying to phrase this carefully to say that in advance of the completion of this discussion it must still be a question for discussion. We propose a slowing down in delivery rates by up to one-third. This would have no effect on the cost, which some hon. Members had feared.
Connected with this deduction has been the subject of the F16, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised at one stage. The right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) also raised this matter during his remarks. The inquests which are taking place over the placement of the contract for the F104 replacement purchase are almost as diverse and penetrating as the struggles were for the contract itself. Clearly it was a matter of great importance, the lessons of which we shall take some time to absorb.
Nevertheless, there are two points which have not yet emerged from the debate. One is the influence which Eurogroup exerted, often against considerable national pressures, in the consortium to ensure that unity amongst the four countries was secure, so that a common purchase would have a significance for the future commonalty of aircraft in the NATO Alliance.
We may regret that the eventual choice did not fall on either a British or a European aircraft. Nevertheless, it is a voluntary alliance and the nature of a voluntary alliance is that we can only seek to influence and to persuade. We cannot dictate. Anyone who professes standardisation as being an acceptable and worthwhile goal for defence must face the fact that there will be occasions on which the alliance standardises on equipment other than our own, so that we cannot at one and the same time say that we are in favour of standardisation provided that they always standardise our terms.
I have not finished with that rôle, but as I understand it, the primary requirements of the four countries ruled out the Jaguar, for example, at an early stage in the competition. The requirements they themselves laid down ruled that out.
The second question, which has not been raised, was that the determination to secure a common solution was indicative of the efforts being made in Eurogroup now to get to grips with the very difficult problem of standardisation of NATO weapons. One hon. Member referred to the need for common operational requirements. That is precisely one of the areas which Eurogroup, under the encouragement of my right hon. Friend, is currently pursuing.
If the hon. Gentleman reflects on the nature of that intervention, I think he will feel that it does less than justice to the whole alliance, and particularly to Eurogroup. Eurogroup is a forum which discusses many aspects of European defence within the NATO Alliance, but it cannot and does not dictate to member countries what they shall buy. As I have said, sometimes we shall be disappointed by the process of standardisation, because harmonisation has no magic solution to many of the problems that have been posed here today. It is much easier to pose the problems of standardisation than to suggest solutions to them. We have lived with this problem for a quarter of a century. We hope that the current initiatives being taken will lead to greater standardisation in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that each of the member countries seeks to fulfil a part of the alliance and a rôle in the alliance which will contribute towards the whole of the alliance. I am not in a position to answer that precise point now, but I shall let the right hon. Gentleman have a reply in due course.
I turn to the question which has caused a considerable amount of unease—resettlement and redundancy. The hon. Member for St. Albans asked for the numbers of the officers who had volunteered for redundancy. Over 450 junior officers, 100 airmen-aircrew and about 650 airmen in the ground trades should by now have heard that their applications for volunteering have been accepted. But as I have said, some compulsory element—although there was an initial volunteering element—had to be retained within the system, precisely because of the need to get the structure of the RAF exactly and economically tailored to its new task.
But that is not the end of the story. I assure the House, especially the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), that we are taking considerable pains to make the best possible arrangements for resettlement. A series of over 80 resettlement forums has already been held on major stations, at home and abroad, and we have given guidance on the problems and opportunities of those facing redundancy. An extensive programme of resettlement courses has been arranged and there is a programme of longer courses which are now to be put into effect. I think that more courses will be arranged as the needs of the people concerned become more apparent.
This matter has been put forward as though we find it pleasant to make any person redundant. Clearly we do not. Many of us have family experience of unemployment and redundancy, which means that wherever and whenever redundancy occurs we never take it lightly. The fact is, however, that these officers and NCOs who are to be made redundant have between them considerable skills and attainments which are attractive to industry, even in this time of recession. We understand that already considerable interest has been expressed by employers about the men who are leaving.
There are special problems for air crew, but the resettlement organisation is paying particular attention to this matter and is to discuss it with the officers. I believe that the way in which they will be resettled will be a model of its kind. We are faced with a crucial, necessary and painful redundancy problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salford East (Mr. Allaun) mentioned the question of the U2s at Wethersfield. I think he raised the same point in a Question which I answered on 11th June, but I shall repeat my answer. The Government were fully consulted in advance about the deployment of the aircraft and the conditions on which flights would be made. We gave our full agreement and we have therefore no intention of asking the United States Government to withdraw these aircraft before the trials have been completed.
The aircraft which crashed in West Germany crashed near Winterberg—85 miles inside the border. I do not know where my hon. Friend got the figure of six seconds from the East German border. It would take a matter of minutes rather than seconds to travel that distance, even in a fast aircraft.
With his usual courtesy, my hon. Friend is not evading questions, and we all appreciate that. The U2 plane was shot down 80 miles from the frontier, and flying at 500 mph that would take two or three minutes, but I understand that during the course of the flight—not at the moment it crashed—it was only six seconds flying time from the East German frontier. Does my hon. Friend think it prudent and helpful to have this kind of flight in this sensitive area on the eve of a disarmament conference?
My hon. Friend's information about the six seconds is not my information. My information is that at all times the aircraft was clearly in Western Germany, which, as a sovereign country, would have to have given permission for the flight. The U2s on these occasions did not have cameras and were not armed. I do not believe that the reaction of the USSR has been as sensitive as my hon. Friend suggested. This is a question which could not reasonably lead to any cessation of the security conference and the various initiatives for détente taking place this summer.
I say to the hon. Member for St. Albans that we do not believe at any stage that détente is a phoney matter. We approach it, as did the last Conservative Government, as a matter of realistic intent on both sides. Progress may not be easy, but if anyone disparages the chances of a true and lasting détente they are sharply at variance with this Government and the previous Conservative Government.
All hon. Members would be happy if I were to answer their questions, but the more interruptions I have the fewer questions I can deal with.
Members have expressed fears, in the wake of the Defence Review, that our transport forces may be inadequate. As I said earlier, even after the extensive reductions the United Kingdom will still have the largest transport fleet among our European allies, and that the transport fleet will remain capable of carrying out its priority NATO tasks. An hon. Member raised the question whether, in an emergency, we could reinforce BAOR on a large scale. I must tell the hon. Member that, frankly, for a long time the large-scale reinforcement of BAOR has depended on the availability of a civilian airlift, and the position after the Defence Review is no different from what it was before. Powers already exist to enable my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and Trade to requisition, or direct the use of, aircraft of non-nationalised and nationalised air lines in the event of emergency.
I turn to the question raised by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian on the new AEW aicraft. As was pointed out, this is a task which is currently carried out by the Shackleton aircraft. We are currently studying the provision of a replacement system. Possible solutions include one based on the Nimrod aircraft, on which we are currently funding national project definition studies, as well as the American AWACS, which is in limited production already for the American forces.
The need for an effective airborne early warning system is not a purely national matter. It must, by its very nature, be a matter of considerable concern to all the Western Alliance which has an integrated air defence system. It is one where there ought to be common approaches and thereby considerable overall savings. That is why, at the same time as we are pursuing our national studies, we are also participating in NATO studies. The studies and assessment will take some time and it is hoped that a decision will be reached as soon as possible but certainly not this year.
While the hon. Gentleman is on that point, will he deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren), that NATO is not studying a Nimrod replacement at all but is concentrating on the E3A. Is that a fact? Can the hon. Member confirm or deny that, please?
I told my hon. Friend earlier that I could neither confirm nor deny that figure at this stage. I hope my hon. Friend will defer that question until he receives the letter that I shall write to him after this debate.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) raised a point on North Sea oil and gas surveillance. He suggested, rather mysteriously, that this question had never been brought before the House. I can only say the hon. Gentleman must have suffered, rather untypically, from amnesia, because a statement was made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in the House on 11th February, and, more recently, on 23rd May, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Navy answered an Adjournment debate on the subject, when he gave a very full statement on our policy and, within the limits of security, our plans. But I welcome the opportunity to emphasise the rôle of the RAF in this new activity. At the present moment it is carrying out twice-weekly patrols over offshore installations, using Vulcan, Nimrod and Shackleton aircraft, supplemented, when necessary, by all the other resources of the RAF, including Buccaneers, Jaguars and Phantoms. At the moment we are studying which of those aircraft is most appropriate for the new rôle. When we have decided that—and obviously we shall give Nimrod very careful consideration—we shall announce our decision to the House.
I regret that the time available does not permit me to deal very fully with the question of low-flying aircraft, but there are many apparently attractive solutions which, when closely examined, do not bear fruit. For example, there was the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick), to try to spread the burden by restricting low flying to particular areas on particular days. Alas, the weather is rarely settled enough for us to be able to make such announcements.
But, as I have said, low flying will no longer be carried out at weekends, unless there is advance notification. The great bulk of our low-level training will now be carried out during normal working hours between Monday and Friday. I think that it was the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery who asked what a weekend was. It begins after working hours on Friday and ends with the start of working hours on Monday. That is hardly the most ingenious or novel definition.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) raised certain other problems over low flying. He has courteously told me that he cannot be here for the wind-up of the debate and has apologised. We have not only low-flying routes but low-flying areas covering considerable territory. They are flown on a random basis, which is essential to training. It is possible that more pilots would be lulled into a sense of false security by knowing the outlines of the routes. The system of notification will ensure that in future the Royal Air Force keeps a careful look-out for them on the days when it has given notice that it will be flying at under 500 feet.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery made an interesting point about the use of Andovers for relief work. The RAF has been pleased to take part in the relief of human distress, to which it has made an important contribution. Although I can give no assurance, I shall study what the hon. and learned Gentleman said, and shall inform him of my views in due course.
I turn to the question of the Sydenham requirement, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig). The reduction of civilian numbers in Sydenham was announced as long ago as December 1971, which was before the RAF occupied the station. It was to have been implemented early in 1974, but it proved possible to extend the time during which work could be fed into the factory and therefore to defer the run-down for that time. The right hon. Gentleman said that the works had written to me and were awaiting a meeting. I have had no such letter, but if the trade unions wish to meet me on the subject I shall be glad to see them.
This is the end of a debate in which the Opposition have vainly tried to justify turning doubts into certainties and criticisms into condemnation of the Government's proposals. The House has already expressed its view about defence in approving the Government's statement in the recent defence debate. I hope that my hon. Friends and all other fair-minded hon. Members will support us in the Lobby and show their contempt of those who, while pretending to support the Royal Air Force, are prepared to vote against the Estimates which sustain it.
|Division No. 245.)||AYES||110.0 p.m.|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay)||Biffen, John|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Benyon, W.||Biggs-Davison, John|
|Baker, Kenneth||Berry, Hon Anthony||Blaker, Peter|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hunt, John||Pattie, Geoffrey|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)||Hurd, Douglas||Pink, R. Bonner|
|Brittan, Leon||Hutchison, Michael Clark||Pym, Rt Hon Francis|
|Brotherton, Michael||Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||Rathbone, Tim|
|Buchanan-Smith, Alick||James, David||Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)|
|Burden, F. A.||Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)||Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)|
|Butler, Adam (Bosworth)||Kershaw, Anthony||Ridsdale, Julian|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Kimball, Marcus||Roberts, Wyn (Conway)|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||King, Evelyn (South Dorset)||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Clegg, Walter||King, Tom (Bridgwater)||Host, Peter (SE Derbyshire)|
|Cockcroft, John||Kirk, Peter||Royle, Sir Anthony|
|Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)||Kitson, Sir Timothy||Sainsbury, Tim|
|Cope, John||Knight, Mrs Jill||St. John-Stevas, Norman|
|Cordle, John H.||Knox, David||Scott, Nicholas|
|Cormack, Patrick||Lamont, Norman||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Costain, A. P.||Latham, Michael (Melton)||Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)|
|Critchley, Julian||Lawrence, Ivan||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Crowder, F. P.||Lawson, Nigel||Shersby, Michael|
|Dean, Paul (N Somerset)||Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Sinclair, Sir George|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Loveridge, John||Speed, Keith|
|Durant, Tony||McAdden, Sir Stephen||Spence, John|
|Eden, Rt Hon Sir John||McCrindle, Robert||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)|
|Emery, Peter||McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)|
|Fairgrieve, Russell||McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)||Stainton, Keith|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey||Madel, David||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Marten, Neil||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)||Mawby, Ray||Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)|
|Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Tebbit, Norman|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Mayhew, Patrick||Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret|
|Goodhew, Victor||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Townsend, Cyril D.|
|Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Gray, Hamish||Mills, Peter||Vaughan, Dr Gerard|
|Grist, Ian||Miscampbell, Norman||Viggers, Peter|
|Grylls, Michael||Moate, Roger||Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)|
|Hall, Sir John||Monro, Hector||Wall, Patrick|
|Hall-Davis, A. G. F.||Moore, John (Croydon C)||Walters, Dennis|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Morgan, Geraint||Warren, Kenneth|
|Hannam, John||Morris, Michael (Northampton S)||Weatherill, Bernard|
|Hastings, Stephen||Neave, Airey||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Hawkins, Paul||Nelson, Anthony||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Hayhoe, Barney||Neubert, Michael||Younger, Hon George|
|Higgins, Terence L.||Nott, John|
|Holland, Philip||Onslow, Cranley||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Hordern, Peter||Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)||Mr, Spencer Le Marchant and|
|Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Parkinson, Cecil||Mr, Fred Silvester.|
|Howell, David (Guildford)|
|Allaun, Frank||Davies, Denzil (Llanelli)||Henderson, Douglas|
|Archer, Peter||Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)||Hooson, Emlyn|
|Atkinson, Norman||Deakins, Eric||Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Hughes, Mark (Durham)|
|Bain, Mrs Margaret||de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Dell, Rt Hon Edmund||Hunter, Adam|
|Barrett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)||Dempsey, James||Janner, Greville|
|Bates, Alf||Dormand, J. D.||John, Brynmor|
|Belth, A. J.||Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Johnson, James (Hull West)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood||Duffy, A. E. P.||Jones, Alec (Rhondda)|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Dunn, James A.||Jones, Barry (East Flint)|
|Booth, Albert||Dunnett, Jack||Jones, Dan (Burnley)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||Judd, Frank|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Eadle, Alex||Kaufman, Gerald|
|Brown, Robert C, (Newcastle W)||Edelman, Maurice||Kerr, Russell|
|Buchanan, Richard||Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)||Kinnock, Neil|
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)||Lambie, David|
|Campbell, Ian||Evans, John (Newton)||Lamborn, Harry|
|Canavan, Dennis||Ewing, Harry (Stirling)||Lamond, James|
|Carmichael, Neil||Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray)||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)|
|Castle, Rt Hon Barbara||Fitch, Alan (Wigan)||Lewis, Arthur (Newham N)|
|Clemitson, Ivor||Flannery, Martin||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)||Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Lipton, Marcus|
|Cohen, Stanley||Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)||Lomas, Kenneth|
|Coleman, Donald||Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)||Loyden, Eddie|
|Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)||Golding, John||McElhone, Frank|
|Corbett, Robin||Gourlay, Harry||MacFarquhar, Roderick|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Grant, John (Islington C)||McGuire, Michael (Ince)|
|Cralgen, J. M. (Maryhill)||Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Mackenzie, Gregor|
|Crawshaw, Richard||Grocott, Bruce||Mackintosh, John P.|
|Cryer, Bob||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)|
|Cunningham, G. (Islington S)||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||McNamara, Kevin|
|Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh)||Hardy, Peter||Madden, Max|
|Dalyell, Tam||Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Magee, Bryan|
|Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)||Heffer, Eric S.||Marks, Kenneth|
|Marquand, David||Reid, George||Thompson, George|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Richardson, Miss Jo||Thorne, Stan (Preston South)|
|Mason, Rt Hon Roy||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)||Tinn, James|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Rodgers, George (Chorley)||Tomlinson, John|
|Meacher, Michael||Roper, John||Torney, Tom|
|Mellish, Rt Hon Robert||ROM, Stephen (Isle of Wight)||Tuck, Raphael|
|Mendelson, John||Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)|
|Mikardo, Ian||Ryman, John||Walker, Terry (Kingswood)|
|Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)||Selby, Harry||Ward, Michael|
|Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen)||Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)||Watkins, David|
|Molloy, William||Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcastle C)||Welsh, Andrew|
|Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)||Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)||White, Frank R. (Bury)|
|Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King||Sillars, James||White, James (Pollock)|
|Newens, Stanley||Silverman, Julius||Whitlock, William|
|Oakes, Gordon||Skinner, Dennis||Williams, Alan (Swansea W)|
|Ogden, Eric||Small, William||Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)|
|Orbach. Maurice||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)||Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)|
|Ovenden, John||Snape, Peter||Wilson, William (Coventry SE)|
|Palmer, Arthur||Spearing, Nigel||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Park, George||Spriggs, Leslie||Woodall, Alec|
|Parry, Robert||Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)||Woof, Robert|
|Pavitt, Laurie||Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Pendry, Tom||Stoddart, David||Young, David (Bolton E)|
|Penhaligon, David||Stott, Roger|
|Phipps, Dr Colin||Strang, Gavin||TELLERS FOR THF NOES|
|Prescott, John||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)||Miss Betty Boothroyd and|
|Price, C. (Lewisham W)||Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)||Mr.Joseph Harper.|
|Price, David (Eastleigh)|