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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 19, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 19 April 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Royal Air Force (Centenary), Safe Injection Facilities, Decision Time


Contents


Royal Air Force (Centenary)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-10590, in the name of Alexander Stewart, on RAF100, the centenary of the Royal Air Force. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918; notes its role in many conflicts, including the Second World War; acknowledges that, by denying the Luftwaffe air supremacy during the Battle of Britain, it helped prevent the German invasion of the UK; notes that the two Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons, 602 (City of Glasgow) and 603 (City of Edinburgh), which were established in 1925 and remain active, played a significant role in that conflict, including bringing down the first enemy aircraft in the UK over the River Forth in 1940; understands that many air bases have been established in Scotland because of its strategic importance, with those at Lossiemouth and Leuchars still in use; notes the founding of the RAF Regiment in 1941, to protect airfields from airborne troops, and the support that was provided by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and Princess Mary’s Nursing Service; acknowledges the establishment of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in 1949; notes that the first female officer trainees enrolled in 1970 and that the WRAF merged with the RAF in 1994, with the ban on women serving in close combat units being lifted in July 2016; considers the RAF to be an agile, adaptable and capable service that makes a vital contribution as a force for good in the world by delivering flexible air power wherever it is needed; notes what it sees as its multi-faceted roles in the UK and across the world; acknowledges that its past and present bases and operations around include the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus and many others; welcomes its role in keeping UK airspace safe and its commitment to providing opportunities, apprenticeships and careers for men and women in many diverse trades and specialities, including technical and engineering, aircrew, air operations and support, logistics, medical, personnel support, intelligence and force protection; understands that the centenary is to be marked as “RAF100” in a programme of events that will salute the service; notes that these will include community, regional and national events and activities that will run from April to September; acknowledges that there will be a centenary parade and flypast over London on 10 July 2018; wishes all involved with the celebrations the very best in their endeavours; looks forward to the many planned events; congratulates the RAF on its 100 years of years of service, and praises its personnel, past and present.

12:49  

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am delighted to open this historic members’ business debate and I am grateful for the privilege of being able to do so. I pay tribute to everyone who has chosen to attend the debate in the public gallery.

A hundred years ago this month, King George V authorised the creation of a new branch of the British military, in response to the growing role of air power in warfare. The new force was created on 1 April 1918, when the aviation branches of the Royal Navy and the British Army were merged into a single service, which was to be known thereafter as the Royal Air Force.

Expanding rapidly from its inception, the world’s first fully independent air force fought in major conflicts in the second world war. Its most famous campaign was the battle of Britain, in which, from July to September 1940, the RAF fought off a hugely superior German air force, denying the Luftwaffe air supremacy over southern England and thereby preventing a German invasion of Britain. In May 1941, the battle of Britain came to an end. The then Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of RAF pilots:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

By the end of the war in 1945, the strength of the RAF was almost 1 million personnel.

At the start of the second world war, 602 City of Glasgow Squadron—I am delighted that a number of 602 squadron’s current personnel are with us in the public gallery this afternoon—and 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron, which were two of the first ever Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons, demonstrated exceptional skill and airmanship. They were instrumental in the RAF’s success in ensuring that the Luftwaffe was dealt with. Here in Scotland, they dealt with an aircraft over the river Forth on 16 October 1939.

Scotland was—and still is—considered to be strategically extremely important for the defence of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the RAF constructed and operated enormous infrastructure north of the border at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and RAF Leuchars in Fife. The level of RAF activity in my region of Mid Scotland and Fife during the immediate aftermath of the second world was unprecedented, and the history and lasting legacy of that activity should forever be remembered.

In 1942, the RAF Regiment was formed to protect airfields from airborne troops. At its wartime peak, it employed around 60,000 personnel. Today, the RAF Regiment continues its vital role of defence, its exceptional training, and the humanitarian work that it has done and continues to do, and I pay tribute to it for that.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

I apologise to Alexander Stewart because I cannot stay in the chamber much longer; I have a meeting at 1 o’clock. However, I want to make one point. My son was in the RAF and I never had a prouder moment than when he passed out at RAF Halton a number of years ago. I also wanted to pick up on Alexander Stewart’s point about training. The training that my son received and the values that were instilled in that young man stood him in great stead for his future employment. That is one of the great things that the RAF still does today.

I also congratulate Alexander Stewart on bringing the debate to the chamber today.

Alexander Stewart

I concur with what Mr Crawford said. There is no doubt that the exceptional quality of training that the RAF provides gives individuals the opportunity to unlock their potential for a future when they are no longer with the service.

The RAF was supported in wartime by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as well as by Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service. However, the passing of the Army and Air Force (Women’s Service) Act 1948 created the opportunity for a permanent peacetime role for women in the armed forces in recognition of their incredible wartime contribution. That led to the Women’s Royal Air Force being formed on 1 February 1949. The WRAF offered women a full professional career in the air force for the first time.

Since the end of the second world war, the RAF has been involved in many operations that have been vital to the survival, stability and peace of many nations and their peoples throughout the world. From the Berlin airlift in 1948-49, through the huge effort during the cold war, on to the military support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007, assistance in the Belize and Malaya conflicts, humanitarian work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, operations and logistics in the Falklands, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Libya, relief flights in Kenya, military intervention in Sierra Leone, Accra and Iraq, evacuation assistance from Beirut, and humanitarian operations following the earthquake in Pakistan, the RAF’s efforts are endless.

As I said before, the RAF does so much. It is notable that this historic centenary is to be marked and known as RAF100, with a programme that will salute the centenary of the RAF through a wide range of local, regional and national events, including air shows, running from April to September. Indeed, to mark the commemoration here, our own Presiding Officer hosted a fantastic reception in the Parliament recently, with Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier as the main guest.

RAF100 is being celebrated in many regions of Scotland, and on Saturday 26 May, the Ancre Somme Association Scotland will host the RAF baton relay at the Spitfire memorial on the former site of RAF Grangemouth, with a flypast and a band. The RAF will be holding a fully manned RAF100 historical display. There will be aircraft at the Glasgow science centre to give people the opportunity to view them and take part in the centenary.

My own contribution is the honour of securing this members’ business debate, and again I welcome the RAF personnel in the public gallery. I look forward to the contributions from my MSP colleagues, who will speak in support of the fantastic, highly professional and tireless work that the RAF has continued to do.

The hallmark of this great anniversary will be an RAF centenary parade in London on 10 July. I congratulate the RAF on reaching this milestone of 100 years and on the operations that it has been involved in. I thank everyone from the past, present and future for their endeavours to ensure that the contribution of the RAF has been and will be maintained, and I wish the RAF all the best for at least another 100 years.

12:56  

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank Alexander Stewart for initiating the debate. I share the sentiment of his remarks about the role that the RAF has played in the past and will undoubtedly play in the future. I apologise to Mr Stewart and indeed to the chamber for having to leave this debate shortly. In one of the ironies of life, I have a meeting with one of Keith Brown’s colleagues about RAF Saxa Vord—or what used to be RAF Saxa Vord—on Unst. It is just one of those things that occasionally happen.

I want to reflect on the role that the RAF played in Shetland over the war period and since then. However, the first thing that I should say is that one of the more arduous duties that local members may have had is taking on the speaking responsibilities at the annual Royal Air Force Association dinner marking the battle of Britain. Prior to the first time that I was asked to do that in Lerwick, I was advised that it was an occasion when those who had contributed so much to the role that their air force had played in the defence of our country let their hair down, to some extent, so it would not automatically follow that by the time that I was asked to speak, they would be completely in control of their faculties. That was a great relief to me, never mind to them, in relation to getting through that occasion.

The point of the RAFA club, which still exists in Lerwick, is that it is a place for many younger members of the RAF veterans community, who still meet to discuss old times and to remember those who are no longer with them.

Sullom Voe in Shetland was the coastal command squadron airfield for flying boats in the second world war. Indeed, I found out the other day that in November 1939, Sullom Voe became the first location in the British isles to be bombed. I am told that no damage was formally reported apart from the death of a rabbit. I can assure members that that was not a great loss.

The complex was added to when a nearby airfield was completed—RAF Scatsta, which to this day continues to fly helicopter transfers to the west and east of Shetland for the oil industry. Of course, Sullom Voe is today known for the oil terminal rather than for anything else.

There are two notable events among great acts of heroism and bravery during the second world war. The first involved Flying Officer John Cruickshank, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for a successful attack on a German U-boat during the war. Despite being injured as he attacked, he managed to bring his aircraft home and indeed circled until daylight, when he could land and successfully save his crew.

The second is the crash of the RAF Catalina on the island of Yell, to the north of Sullom Voe, when she came back after searching the Norwegian coast for the Tirpitz. Ice built up on the wings, the weather was pretty awful and the aircraft crashed. Mercifully, all three of the crew survived. In the state that they were in, it was some remarkable achievement that they survived, given that they landed on the middle of Yell, many miles from any house or residence.

The only other point I want to make is about what currently goes on. When I was first elected, we still had the cold war, and RAF Saxa Vord in Unst was the radar dome that kept an eye on the Russians. It is coming back. Sir Stephen Hillier, whom Alexander Stewart rightly mentioned, came to Shetland in January to view the £10 million radar dome that links to both Lossiemouth and Coningsby in Lincolnshire and provides NATO and the RAF with forward warning of Russian—and it will be Russian—aircraft that are flying close to airspace that in this sense is part of the UK’s responsibilities under NATO.

That is a source of concern to me and many others. I thought that we had moved on from the cold war period. When I was first elected, I did not think that it would ever come back. Here we are today, putting back radar and defence to cope with the threat that, in the modern world, I had simply thought had disappeared.

Because of that, I share Alexander Stewart’s sentiments about the role that the RAF has played and its continuing role in the world that we live in.

13:01  

Richard Lochhead (Moray) (SNP)

I congratulate Alexander Stewart on his speech and on giving Parliament the opportunity to commemorate and celebrate the RAF’s centenary. It is an opportunity to commemorate the service given by tens of thousands of men and women over the past 100 years in defending their country and in participating in many other valuable tasks, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. It is also an opportunity to celebrate the RAF’s role in Scotland and, from my own perspective, in my constituency of Moray.

I enjoyed the BBC programme “RAF100”, which was presented by my constituent Colin McGregor, a former Tornado pilot at RAF Lossiemouth, who continues to live and work in the local community and, as some people in Elgin might say, his lesser-known brother Ewan McGregor. It was good that two Scots hosted that programme, as Scotland has had a big influence on the RAF. We should not forget that it was a Scot, David Henderson, who was credited with writing the report in 1917 that went to the UK Government in the name of General Jan Christiaan Smuts, making the proposal for the RAF, which was formed in 1918. Today, a Scot and former Kilmarnock academy pupil, Sir Stephen Hillier, is the air chief marshal and chief of the air staff.

The RAF fulfilled many important duties while defending our country and promoting humanitarian effort around the world over the past 100 years. Some of those duties may be controversial due to decisions taken by its political masters, but the service of the men and women has always been characterised by dedication and professionalism that can never be questioned. Many of the tasks have been vital—for example, the Berlin air lift in 1948 and 1949.

By 1939, no victory on land or sea could be achieved without superiority in our skies. The battle of Britain, which took place in 1940, is in many people’s minds what defines the achievements of the RAF, and it was perhaps the service’s high point. The D-day landings, in 1944, would not have been successful without superior air cover.

In Moray, throughout the generations over the past 50 to 100 years, people have been used to seeing the Buccaneers, the Shackletons, the Jaguars, the Tornadoes, the Typhoons, the Nimrods and so on in the skies above our local communities. Many of those planes were part of the Royal Navy, but the constant feature over that time has been the presence of the RAF in Moray.

Today, we still see in places such as Dallachy and Milltown the abandoned airfields and buildings that played important roles in the last war. We also still have RAF Lossiemouth. We had RAF Kinloss, but it closed in 2012 as an RAF base, although RAF Lossiemouth continues to thrive as Scotland’s only operational airbase.

Lossiemouth played an important role in the second world war in various ways, but perhaps the most famous of those was when 29 Lancasters from 9 and 617 squadrons took off from there in November 1944 and sunk the Tirpitz in Norwegian waters.

As I said, RAF Kinloss sadly closed in 2012, after 73 years as an RAF base. However, RAF Lossiemouth continues to expand and, as we speak, the ceremony is closing that has been taking place there to mark the cutting of the turf for the nine new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that will be based in Lossiemouth, which will join the Typhoons that have moved there to take over from the Tornadoes. There will also be a new squadron of Typhoons. RAF Lossiemouth will therefore play an even greater role in the defence of the country. That will bring other benefits as well, because Boeing, for instance, is going to build at RAF Lossiemouth, which will create new, high-skilled jobs there. I hope that there will be spillover for the local economy from that centre of excellence, which will be developed over time.

The RAF has helped to define many of Moray’s communities. The former personnel, of which there are thousands, and the current personnel, of which there are also thousands, have played and continue to play a vital role in the local community of which they were—and still are—a part. They continue to contribute to that community, and I hope that that positive relationship continues in the future.

I join other members in wishing the RAF a very happy and prosperous 100th birthday.

13:06  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank my colleague Alexander Stewart for bringing the debate to the chamber on what is undoubtedly an historic occasion.

In the war museum in Valletta, one of the biggest visitor attractions is a Gloster Gladiator biplane known as “Faith”. It is the sole survivor of the trio of biplanes “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity” whose pilots, virtually single-handedly and against all odds, defended night after night and hour after hour the tiny island of Malta in some of the darkest days of the second world war between 1940 and 1942. For me, it is an aeroplane that symbolises not just the ordeal of the RAF servicemen and the people of Malta who stood courageously against the Axis nations, especially when all looked lost, but the skill, determination and indomitable spirit that has been the hallmark of the RAF for the whole century of its existence. Indeed, I think that nothing better exemplifies the distinctive character of the RAF, which prides itself on the fact that all its personnel pull together as a team to deliver effective air power, no matter the challenges or the environment in which the squadrons find themselves.

At the recent centenary event at Holyrood, which many of us had the great privilege to attend, it was clear that the abiding strengths of the RAF, whether they are to be found in the most senior officer or in the most junior cadet, are the strength of its leadership, the expectation and delivery of the highest professional and personal standards and the strong sense of tradition. We all owe so much to the RAF, whether because of its role in the darkest hour of the second world war or because it combines with the other armed services to defend this nation in an increasingly fragile world and to strengthen international peace and stability.

When seeking new recruits, the RAF says that it wants men and women whose personal qualities of integrity and respect reflect the core values of the RAF. The RAF wants men and women who will respond to a demanding way of life, who aspire to excellence, who share a sense of duty and commitment and who recognise that the life of another person might depend on them, as their life might depend on themselves.

My interest in the RAF is the result of my father’s second world war service in Malta and, latterly, in Sicily. He was a corporal in one of the squadrons that faced the ultimate challenge of standing foursquare against the enemy during the siege of Malta, between 1940 and 1942, which included many months with little food or other comforts. They battled against all the odds to hold off the relentless bombing of Italy’s Regia Aeronautica and then of Germany’s Luftwaffe. No fewer than 3,000 raids took place on Malta’s towns and ports in the course of two years, with 15,000 tonnes of bombs being dropped. What the RAF and, indeed, the people of Malta achieved as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”—the term that Winston Churchill used to describe the island—was extraordinary. Fighting alone against the Italian air force between June and October 1940, just as their colleagues were about to do in the battle of Britain, the six volunteers who flew the Gladiator biplanes “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity” were the epitome of the RAF and all that it has meant to this country.

As members will know, the combined determination of Churchill and the chiefs of the air defence staff in the face of pressure from France to sell out Malta was the reason that the allies were subsequently able to defeat the Axis in the Mediterranean, and it was why the second battle of El Alamein, in November 1942—which, in turn, allowed allied landings in Morocco and Algeria, in operation Torch—was successful. It is little wonder, then, that the RAF was held in such high and precious regard.

In the modern era, RAF officers and their families would be the first to admit that much is owed to the supportive charities: the RAF Association, the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RAF Charitable Trust and the RAF Museum. I was delighted to learn that, thanks to the assistance of those charities, and in order to mark the centenary, the 14 war memorials dedicated to airmen from the first and second world wars, including those that commemorate the most decorated world war one pilot and the first pilot to shoot down a German zeppelin, will now have heritage protection.

I was also delighted to learn that, in the centenary year, the RAF is supporting a new programme that is designed to encourage far more young people into science, technology engineering and mathematics in Scotland. We know, from the evidence in schools, colleges and universities, that that is desperately needed, and I hope that it will happen in a very short timescale.

The journey from the merger of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal National Air Service, on 1 April 1918, when each had around 100 aircraft, balloons and airships, to the high-tech service that the RAF is today is quite remarkable. In the excellent recent documentary that was presented by Ewan and Colin McGregor, whose parents live in Perthshire, just a few miles away from me, the history of 100 years of technical change was shown in its fullest measure, but so, too, was the dedication, professionalism and heroism of the RAF veterans who were interviewed. We all owe them so much.

The biplane “Faith”, which stands alone but proudly in Valletta’s war museum, remains, for me, the enduring symbol of the RAF. It is the courage of RAF personnel, as well as their will to win and their spirit, which is now being passed down through the generations, that is the mainstay of the RAF and, indeed, of this country, and we must celebrate this centenary.

13:11  

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I congratulate Alexander Stewart on securing this afternoon’s debate and on his comprehensive and thoughtful speech. The message that will resound across the chamber today is that we all owe a debt of gratitude and honour to the RAF for the role that it plays in the defence of our nation. I echo Poppyscotland’s words:

“We thank all those who have served, are still serving, and their families for their service and sacrifice.”

A little more than eight short years ago, I brought to the chamber a members’ business debate to discuss concerns about the possible closure of RAF Kinloss. The cross-party campaign was supported by all the party leaders at the time: Alex Salmond, Annabel Goldie, Tavish Scott and lain Gray. I argued then—and I argue today—that armed forces personnel have a social covenant with our country in times of peace and in times of war. During times of conflict, I always remember the lines from John Maxwell Edmonds that are repeated every remembrance Sunday across Scotland and beyond:

“When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.”

The importance of the social covenant was best illustrated to me 26 years ago, when the American naval base in Dunoon closed, with the loss of 1,500 American personnel. The local community rallied round and set up a dynamic economic committee that received European and Government funding support to diversify the economy and provide new jobs.

Like most members in the chamber today, my interest in the debate is personal. My father did his national service with the RAF at Kinloss as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, over 70 years ago. During my final year of school in the Highlands, I thought seriously about joining the RAF, but instead I chose the less hazardous conflict zones that come with a career in politics. However, during my time at Westminster, from 1997, I relished the opportunity to serve with the RAF for two terms as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I put on record my thanks to my friend Sir Neil Thorne for his initiative in setting up the scheme at Westminster. I also welcome the scheme that we have in the Scottish Parliament, and I hope that members on all sides of the chamber will volunteer to take part in it.

During my involvement with the Westminster programme, I had direct experience of RAF Kinloss and Lossiemouth, as well as a memorable week in Basra, in Iraq, which is still etched on my memory. As part of the scheme, I flew in a Tornado fast jet, a Nimrod maritime aircraft and a Sea King search-and-rescue helicopter.

On my last day with the RAF, the Sea King that I was involved with had to attend an emergency in Glencoe. I vividly remember flying a few hundred feet above Loch Ness on the way to Glencoe and observing at first hand the bravery, expertise and professionalism of the pilots and the winch crew as they saved the life of a young Swiss mountaineer who had fallen and suffered severe facial injuries. My experience was a brief snapshot, but it gave me a tremendous admiration for the armed forces and for veterans.

We should always remember that people do not stay in the armed forces forever and that our responsibility to people who have served our country does not stop when they leave the services. The covenant that we make with those in the service community does not stop when they rejoin civilian life.

It is also important that we bear in mind that, as a country, we have invested a great deal of money in training our servicemen and women and that, although we have a duty to ensure that they are looked after, we also have a duty to ensure that that investment in skills and training is not lost to society. That is just one reason why it is important that we ensure a high-quality transition from the services to civilian life.

I warmly welcome the debate to mark and salute the centenary of the RAF. RAF100 will consist of a wide-ranging group of community, regional and national events. Today, let us all unite in congratulating the RAF and praise the personnel of the past, the present and the future.

13:16  

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to speak in today’s debate to mark the 100th anniversary of the youngest and most prestigious military branch of the armed forces. I am reminded of the comment of the RAF representative at this week’s meeting of the armed forces and veterans community cross-party group. The representative said that although the RAF is the youngest service branch, it is the best looking. As a former British Army officer, I could not possibly agree with that comment.

Nevertheless, I admire the RAF’s spirit and determination. I thank the RAF for the many times that I have flown with RAF support command over the years, particularly to and from, and within, operational areas. I thank my colleague Alexander Stewart for having this members’ business debate on such an auspicious occasion. It is right that we take a moment to pay our respects to the esteemed organisation—our Royal Air Force—and to those who have the privilege of serving in its ranks.

Despite its being the youngest service, it has a proud, and a very Scottish, record. That is demonstrated from the earliest days of the RAF, because Britain’s first operational military air station was near Montrose. During the battle of Britain, the RAF stood as the final line of defence against the Nazi invasion, and was led by the Scotsman Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding. In more recent times, the RAF response to Russian threats against our airspace has been based at RAF Lossiemouth.

I want to speak a bit more about the modern RAF in Scotland. Its main operating base is, of course, in Lossiemouth in Moray, and it is growing. The additional squadron of Typhoon fighters is on the way, and the new P-8A Poseidon aircraft will be based there. That is all great news for that part of the country, because it means that there will be more investment and jobs in the local community, to which Richard Lochhead so rightly referred. I am sure that that will include the new STEM programme, to which my colleague, Liz Smith, referred.

Lossie is a central part of the defence arrangements for the United Kingdom, and it is home to the quick reaction alert units whose jobs it is to defend our airspace from incursion, particularly from the Russians. It also plays a part in our responsibility to our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies by being part of the Baltic air-policing effort to deter operations from the Russian state. That work sits alongside a host of other activities. Lossie provides planes and men for operations in the Falkland Islands and operation shader in the Middle East. It also hosts exercise joint warrior and a mountain rescue team.

A lot is happening in that one location, but Lossiemouth is not the only RAF presence in Scotland—the RAF’s presence stretches right across the nation. Scotland is home to four of the RAF’s reserve squadrons, namely the 602 City of Glasgow Squadron, the 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron, the 612 County of Aberdeen Squadron and the 2622 Highland Squadron, which all provide support in a number of vital areas including mission support, force protection, police, the RAF regiment and medical support. As the military comes to rely more and more on our reservists, the importance of those units to the RAF can never be underestimated.

Scotland is also the home of number 6 flying training school, which gives flight training to the RAF’s university air squadrons and to the air experience flight, both of which give young people the opportunity to learn to fly and give them insight into what a career in the RAF could entail.

The RAF is also reopening the remote radar head facility at Saxa Vord in the Shetland Islands, to which my colleague Tavish Scott referred. That welcome investment of £10 million will keep our country really safe. Having experience of serving up there some years ago in exercise inside right, I know fully the extremely important role that that facility carries out in protecting NATO countries and our forces in the Shetland Islands right through to Turkey.

As we have heard, the RAF’s history with Scotland is deep and meaningful. The RAF has a real commitment to Scotland, and I am sure that, over the next 100 years, it will continue to be strongly connected with our country.

13:20  

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

I thank Alexander Stewart for securing what has, I am delighted to say, been a very supportive and interesting debate. Parliament continues to acknowledge the work of all our armed forces. Today, we recognise in particular the Royal Air Force and its personnel, past and present, and we celebrate its formation on 1 April 1918, as the first independent air force in the world. Born of necessity 100 years ago, the RAF continues to lead the way today, as we have heard, in combating modern threats to our security and in delivering humanitarian aid around the world.

A century ago, we were in the midst of a terrible conflict, the likes of which it is difficult to understand and envisage today. Towards the end of the first world war, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were merged to form the Royal Air Force. During the second world war, the RAF expanded very quickly. Aerial defence was provided by, among other aircraft, the elegant and instantly recognisable Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, including, of course, during the battle of Britain, which a number of members have mentioned.

Today, the RAF continues to defend our security and airspace 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through its quick reaction alert force capability from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby. As well as being home to the quick reaction alert north capability, RAF Lossiemouth in Moray is home to three squadrons of Typhoons. I am sure that the local communities are looking forward to welcoming more RAF personnel and families, who will accompany the arrival of a further Typhoon squadron and the Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, which Maurice Corry mentioned.

The RAF family in Scotland extends well beyond the communities in Moray. A presence is maintained at Leuchars in Fife and two Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons are based in the central belt, all of which have a warm relationship and close ties with the local communities.

As members would expect, the RAF has changed a great deal over the past 100 years. The Women’s Royal Air Force was created on 1 April 1918 at the same time as the RAF, following the formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1917. During the first world war, separate women’s services were formed for the first time. Women played an integral role in the first world war, and although the three services were subsequently disbanded, they were quickly reformed for the second world war.

In the 1990s, the separate women’s services were subsumed into the main services, and women now work alongside their male counterparts in many and varied roles. The RAF has now opened all roles to women—it was the first of the three services to do so. The Royal Navy has had women serving at sea since 1990, and the Army has lifted the ban on women serving in close-combat roles.

Many of the speeches that have been made have drawn on the personal experience of members. At the risk of boring those who attended the event with the RAF that was hosted by the Presiding Officer a couple of weeks ago, I will briefly recount my experience of the RAF.

I have been obliged to hitch a lift with the RAF on three occasions, the first of which was in 1982, on returning from the Falkland Islands conflict, when we got a lift back from Ascension Island to RAF Leuchars. As a shy, modest and retiring marine, I remember not wanting to mention the fact that the seats on the aircraft were all facing the wrong way, but there were very good health and safety reasons for that.

The second occasion on which I hitched a lift from the RAF was on a trip to Norway from RAF Leuchars. What struck me at the time—this might be unremarkable for the RAF—was the pilots’ ability to land a Hercules aircraft at a completely snowbound airport. The skill that that involved was remarkable.

The final and most memorable time was when I had the chance to fly in a Tornado, as David Stewart did. That followed the RAF coming to Parliament for an open day and my winning a ballot to be the MSP who got to go up in the Tornado. To my extreme disappointment, I passed the medical with flying colours, which meant that the pilot could do whatever he wanted—he had to observe the 200m floor, but everything else was open to him. The question that is usually asked is followed by the answer, “Three times.” I will say no more than that.

As I said at the event, I was struck by the modest and understated manner and the evident competence and professionalism of the pilot. Such was his level of training and the extent of the practice that he had had over the North Sea and mainland Scotland that he did things in the air without really thinking about them. The personnel that the RAF produces are highly impressive.

Building on the success that we have seen, we now have Eric Fraser in post as the Scottish Veterans Commissioner. A number of members—David Stewart, in particular—mentioned the need to capitalise on the skills of veterans and on the investment that the country makes in the skills and competencies of our services personnel, and in particular, personnel from the RAF. On points that were made by Richard Lochhead, I was struck by the example of the two people who left the RAF but stayed in Lossiemouth and developed a business with a product that was able to go into the American defence market. We have to do much more of that in order to keep the huge concentration of skills in the local area for the benefit of the local area. Maurice Corry and I have talked about the issue on a number of occasions.

As the other services do, the RAF provides career opportunities—engineers, aircrew, medics and many other professionals. Service personnel gain a variety of transferable skills during their military careers. Part of our job—I know that Maurice Corry agrees with me—is to tell services personnel how experienced and capable they are, and how useful and relevant the skills that they have gained are to civvy street. Many of those skills are in high demand in commercial organisations throughout Scotland—that is perhaps more the case for former RAF personnel than for other forces personnel.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

While the minister is talking about skills, will he join me in congratulating the RAF on the work that it does with young people? We have the biggest air cadet organisation in the world. I was fortunate enough to serve as a flight lieutenant and squadron commander in the air training corps, and I have to say that the RAF does a superb job in supporting young people. It is particularly fitting that we celebrate RAF100 at the same time as we celebrate the year of young people.

Keith Brown

I agree, and I point out that I am wearing my year of young people badge today. I can also say that my twin nieces served with the ATC. They did not do so with any intention of going on to a military career, but they got a fantastic amount out of the experience, so I certainly join Michelle Ballantyne her commendation of the air training corps.

For my part, I am happy that the Scottish Government continues our focus on helping people who leave the armed forces to put their valuable skills into practice and to succeed in their chosen civilian careers.

As Alexander Stewart noted, On 10 July in London, the RAF will be on show for a centenary parade and fly-past. I am sure that that will be an excellent celebration and a fitting testament to all serving personnel who take part, and to the many RAF veterans who will turn out in support. Many events are planned for Scotland, too. They include the Scottish national air show, an RAF families garden party and many STEM events for young Scots, to encourage the take-up of those subjects in our schools.

I am pleased to have been provided with the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force in its centenary year. This will be, for them, a busy and exciting time, with many events, both official and unofficial. I imagine that the most fun will be had at the unofficial events, to which Tavish Scott referred. Those events will stoke up many memories for the years to come. I encourage all those who are able to do so to get involved in events and to enjoy the well-deserved spotlight on the RAF.

I hope that members join me in congratulating the RAF on reaching its centenary and, as Alexander Stewart has done, in wishing it continued success for the next 100 years.

13:28 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—