Orders of the Day — Royal Air Force

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:50 pm on 23rd June 1981.

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Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape , West Bromwich East 8:50 pm, 23rd June 1981

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way. but I must finish by 9.30 pm.

The hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) made an impassioned plea on behalf of civilian cleaners at RAF Valley. I hope that the Minister was listening. It is nice to hear yet another Conservative arguing for State employees rather than private enterprise contract cleaners. Those hon. Members who have had dealings with contract companies will know that it is possible to obtain attractive quotations from contract cleaners. Normally they pay lousy wages. They have non-unionised staff. They carry out the specific tasks, and only those tasks, agreed between themselves and the management of the firm concerned. As the hon.

Gentleman rightly reminded us, the civilian cleaners at RAF Valley perform various other jobs that would not be done by contract cleaners.

The hon. Gentleman was surprised that there had been little mention of civilian staff during the debate. He must remember that Ministers and, to a certain extent, Conservative Back Benchers, are on the horns of a dilemma. They cannot pay their normal tribute to the hard working dedication of civilian staff at the same time as the Prime Minister and some of her acolytes are rushing round the country attacking those same civil servants for undermining the economy. The hon. Gentleman need look no further for the reasons benind the lack of praise for civilian staff.

There has been mention of standardisation of weapon systems. The great problem is that there is no single weapon system used by all the NATO allies. I have tried to discover how many different systems exist throughout Western Europe. I do not know whether my arithmetic is correct. I find that there are 39 different types of combat aircraft, over 100 separate tactical missile systems and 36 different radar systems in air defence use. This must surely affect both performance and pilot safety. Because of the diversity of fuel and ammunition requirements, aircraft can only re-arm and refuel at certain airfields. Again, this results in problems of co-ordination.

We have heard during the debate how much NATO relies on the United States air tanker fleet. It is my belief that many NATO aircraft will be unable to use these air tankers because they employ a different style of mid-air refuelling. Exercises have shown that increasing the number of aircraft does not necessarily increase combat effectiveness. Improving communications and standardisation is surely a top priority.

Fuel is in particular, a major constraint. It is an especially important matter in an era of steep increases in energy prices. It is not only cost that is a major factor. So, too, is the fact that NATO fuel dumps would be a prime target for enemy action. We come back to standardisation. Although NATO adopted a standard jet fuel based on commercial octanes, most multi-role aircraft, particularly those of the United States, are not able, I understand, to operate on this fuel. This is particularly important when the A10 is the predominant CAS aircraft on the central front. Spot shortages of key fuels would surely cripple our front line air capability despite adequate supplies of other octanes.

A great deal has been heard during the debate of the Hawk. Whatever the hon. Member for Anglesey rightly says about the Hawk, it is no substitute for 50 Phantoms. It is a fine aircraft. Hon. Members have heard little since the Prime Minister came back from Saudi Arabia about the future of the Hawk aircraft. A few newspaper headlines that arose from the Prime Minister's visit in April are worth recalling. Thatcher nets Saudi order said The Guardian on 24 April. Thatcher Gulf sales drive nets Hawk jet order said the same newspaper a day later. Maggie leads the sales drive for £200 million jets said the Daily Mail, the Tory Party house magazine, on 22 April. Maggie might well do all these things. Hon. Members need something more tangible than newspaper headlines that the Saudis intend to buy Hawks to this extend.

Looking at the Royal Air Force and its equipment over the past two or three years, one can prepare a list of new systems, new aircraft and new developments. It would include the ASW Nimrod, the VC10 being converted to a refuelling tanker capacity, the Skyflash, the Sidewinder, the A9L, the Tornado F2 and the JP233, the Rapier deployment around airfields, the stretching of the Hercules and the shadow Lightning squadron, the mothballs having evidently being been stuffed back into the cockpit, so that it will not now happen.

Does the Royal Air Force fly fewer hours now than at the height of the fuel crisis? In 1978, the Air Force Board, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford, agreed to provide an extra 50 planes for the defence of the United Kingdom. Where are they? The Minister gave us honeyed words and tough talk when he was in Opposition.

The developments in the past two or three years have one thing in common—they were introduced or agreed by the Labour Government. The equipment and other innovations introduced by this Government would comprise a very short list. Indeed, I believe that it would be non-existent. Despite their bluff and blustering stance in Opposition, the Government inherited the Royal Air Force in its present form from the Labour Government and have done nothing to improve it. The improvements were agreed and the vast majority introduced before we left office.

The country is lucky to have the devotion and commitment of the Royal Air Force personnel. Although we call it the junior Service, in the 1980s it is the premier Service. The House should see that its personnel, who serve us proudly and devotedly, are adequately rewarded and have proper equipment to do the job that the country expects of them.