Armed Forces (Modernisation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:31 am on 21st July 2005.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence) 11:31 am, 21st July 2005

First, on behalf of the whole House, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting Mr. Carmichael the opportunity of bringing the Minister to the House so that he can answer on these important matters. Like the hon. Gentleman, I regard it as a gross discourtesy to Parliament that these important announcements about defence contracts and the restructuring of the Royal Air Force are being sneaked out by way of six ministerial written statements on the last day before the long summer recess. As we have heard, they affect constituencies across the land, from Orkney and Shetland to Cornwall and Gosport. Few Members in the House will not be affected. The Minister's response, which lasted more than 10 minutes, shows how serious and wide-ranging these announcements are and what a grave discourtesy it is to the House that he has been forced to come here and did not offer a statement in the first place. I am rather sorry for the Minister, who is a courteous gentleman. He has been sent here to do the Secretary of State's dirty work, when the Secretary of State himself should have come to the House to answer these points.

As the hon. Orkney and Shetland said, the discourtesy is compounded by the fact that the Secretary of State has time this afternoon to hold a press conference, at which journalists will be afforded the privilege of cross-examining him—a privilege denied to elected Members of this House. It is unacceptable that we will not have that privilege for a further three months.

Furthermore, although this is not one of a number of ministerial statements today, I understand that there is a proposal to scrap nearly all the instructual flying at our 14 university air squadrons, which have been in existence since 1925. My understanding is that the proposal will take effect from 5 October—five days before the House returns—and that there is to be a briefing at RAF Cranwell next Wednesday when the university air squadron officers commanding will be briefed. I challenge the Minister to tell us whether that is true. What are his plans for the university air squadrons? It would be unacceptable if this decision, which affects about 1,000 students across the land, 60 per cent. of whom go on as pilots to join the RAF, were presented to us as a fait accompli when we return in October.

This is part of the steady war of attrition on the RAF, whose number will soon be reduced to 41,000, half of what it was 12 years ago. There is a shortage of pilots, weapons systems operators and technicians. Although the new Typhoon is slowly entering service, morale is low and the entire Jaguar fleet is being scrapped. Yet in the strategic defence review, which was the brainchild of the present Secretary of State, the Government acknowledged,

"Since SDR, our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions".

Hon. Members should note the next words, which are those of the current Leader of House when he was Secretary of State for Defence:

"We expect to see a similar pattern of operations in the future."

In other words, our armed forces are being asked to do ever more with less and less.

Last week in the other place, Ministers were subjected to an unprecedented combined assault from six former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, many of whom the Prime Minister appointed. As Sir Max Hastings says in today's Daily Mail:

"There is a crisis of confidence from top to bottom in the British Army."

Britain's armed forces have been poorly repaid for the magnificent service that they have given to the Government. It is time that Ministers repaid the honour that our armed forces bestow upon them.