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House of Lords

Tuesday, 12th March 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

Viscount Leathers--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

RAF Aircraft Losses

The Earl of Kinnoull asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many Royal Air Force aircraft have been lost in the last three months.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, a total of seven RAF aircraft have been lost since the beginning of December 1995.

The Earl of Kinnoull: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can he say whether investigations have shown that there is any pattern of accidents either from low flying or from mechanical failure of certain types of aircraft; and whether such losses will be replaced?

Earl Howe: My Lords, separate RAF boards of inquiry are carrying out thorough investigations in order to determine the cause of each of these accidents. In line with normal policy a summary of each inquiry's findings will be placed in the Library of the House in due course. The Government are in no way complacent about these accidents but there is no common thread to link the accidents together at this stage. The aircraft involved will be replaced from the attrition reserve.

Lord Mayhew: My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that one extraordinary feature is the different types of aircraft involved in this large number of crashes? Will the inquiries therefore be broad ones and will they consider questions such as morale? Will he also let us have the figures for previous years?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I do not believe that morale in the RAF, although a serious matter, has any bearing on this unfortunate series of accidents. The noble Lord asked about the accident figures in previous years. Perhaps I may refer him to a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, which appeared in Hansard recently.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the aircraft that have been lost are not minor aircraft? They were, after all, two Tornado F3s, two Tornado GR1s, one Jaguar, two Sea Harriers from the Navy and one Harrier, and the combined cost of replacing them is of the order of £200 million. Furthermore, the number of crashes in the whole of

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1995 was 10. Is there not something seriously wrong with the maintenance of these aircraft? Are the Government satisfied that the aircraft taking off are properly maintained and that there is not too much pressure on the personnel in their budget and in their performance ratio?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I do not hold with that suggestion for a moment. There is no doubt that the RAF has been busy. The demands on it have been heavy. But the reductions in the number of aircraft and personnel in the RAF have been carefully planned, they have been approved by the air force board, they are consistent with the RAF's commitments and they certainly do not compromise either the requirement for RAF training or indeed for maintenance.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, in that case, can the noble Earl say why a Hawk Trainer took off from RAF Valley, Anglesey with its ailerons disconnected after maintenance, killing the pilot?

Earl Howe: My Lords, it really is premature to speculate on the cause of any of these crashes in advance of the outcome of the board of inquiry. If mistakes were made during maintenance by service personnel, then a full inquiry into how that occurred will be held and appropriate action will be taken.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, is it not a fact that aircraft accidents of this kind often occur in bouts for some extraordinary reason and have not been explained in the past?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. We had an unfortunate spate of accidents in the summer of 1994 and then a long period of no accidents at all. I do not think it is right at this stage to attach any particular significance to the fact that we have had another cluster in the past few weeks.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, the noble Earl calls in aid the air force board to justify the reductions in personnel. Does that mean that if the air force board had not agreed to the reductions in RAF personnel the Government would not have gone ahead with those reductions?

Earl Howe: My Lords, those are decisions for the air force board. Clearly, if the air force board were to come to Ministers and express disquiet about any proposals, those expressions of disquiet would be taken very seriously. As I said, the air force board agreed to the reductions.

Lord Elton: My Lords, there must be concern for the crews as well as for the aircraft. Can my noble friend tell us whether there have been casualties as a result of these accidents?

Earl Howe: My Lords, there have been casualties in a number of these accidents. The Royal Air Force lost two members of the crew and in one of the Royal Navy accidents both occupants of the Harrier were killed. I am sure all noble Lords would like to extend sincere condolences to the families of those involved.

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Medical Research Council Studentships

2.43 p.m.

Lord Winston asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many applicants were there for Medical Research Council PhD studentships in each of the past five years and how many studentships were awarded.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the number of Medical Research Council PhD studentships awarded in the past five years are as follows: 393 in 1990-91; 318 in 1991-92; 367 in 1992-93; 388 in 1993-94 and 433 in 1994-95. The MRC does not routinely collect data on the applications for studentships, as student selection procedure is the responsibility of the universities, with the overall quality criteria being agreed with the MRC.

Lord Winston: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. While I am pleased that overall the MRC has increased its studentships by about 10 per cent. in a five-year period, are not Her Majesty's Government rather concerned, in view of the diminishing number of PhD studentships offered by the Wellcome Trust and the pharmaceutical industry, and as a result of the severe cuts in university funding, that there may not be a severe diminution of our scientific base in due course? I would also like to remind the noble Baroness--

Noble Lords: No, ask!

Lord Winston: Is the noble Baroness aware that the national stipend for a PhD studentship under the MRC is only £6,700, or thereabouts, compared with over £11,000 for a Wellcome Trust studentship? Does the Minister agree that that is a further cause of serious concern for our scientific base in the future?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, as I pointed out in my first reply, the past few years have seen a substantial increase in the number of PhDs funded by the MRC, well above the levels of the 1970s and 1980s. As regards the second part of the noble Lord's question about stipends, no. Every research council is responsible for setting the stipends at levels which will ensure that there is an adequate supply of quality students. In fact, the research councils' stipends are now at the highest level since 1966. The MRC's stipends are higher than those of the other councils.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, has any national lottery money been allocated for medical research and what is the likelihood of any future allocations?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, in all the national lottery grant programmes, every application is considered on its merits and is judged against the published criteria. Within the healthcare category some money was awarded to medical research; for example, £201,800 was awarded for cancer research in Glasgow. The next grant round, which is due to begin in the spring

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of 1996, will have, as its priority, health, disability and care issues. The Association of Medical Research Charities has already welcomed that.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I was lost in all the numbers that the noble Baroness read out, so she will forgive me if I misunderstood them. Did she say that the MRC does not know how many people have applied or that it just does not tell us? Given that the country is getting richer and that healthcare is expanding, it is perfectly reasonable that the numbers of studentships should increase. Are they going up relative to those who would like to do research?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I refer the noble Lord to the first Answer. The MRC itself does not collect the data because that is done by the universities themselves. They are responsible for student selection, with the overall quality criteria being a matter for the MRC.

Lord Peston: My Lords, so that I and other noble Lords are not totally misled, will she confirm that the answer is that we do not know how many people want to do research in this field? Is that the simple answer? Let me ask a second question. Does the noble Baroness agree that we ought to know how many are applying?

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