HC Deb 05 March 1963 vol 673 cc209-13
The Minister of Aviation (Mr. Julian Amery)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the Hastings/ Beverley replacement.

In view of the high cost involved, the Government gave exhaustive consideration to different ways of meeting this requirement, including the possibility of buying Foreign aircraft and so avoiding development costs. In the end, as my right hon. Friend announced in his Statement on Defence, it was decided to choose a British design. There were two main British contenders—Hawker Siddeley with the Armstrong Whitworth 681 and Short Bros. & Harland with a derivative of the Belfast.

The Government fully recognise the force of the arguments, so ably and forcibly advanced by my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland, for placing the contract for the new aircraft with Shorts in view both of the exceptional gravity of the unemployment situation in Northern Ireland and the natural desire to retain Shorts as a balanced design and production unit.

The Belfast is an excellent aircraft, but it is a turbo-prop design, whereas the AW.681 will be a jet. The airspeed of the modified Belfast would have been 100 knots or so slower than the AW.681. The Belfast would have been considerably bulkier than the AW.681. This would have made it more difficult to handle and park on the unprepared landing strips from which this aircraft will have to operate. It would also have been much more difficult because of its size to give it a V.T.O. capability.

Subject, therefore, to contract, we have decided that the Hastings/Beverley replacement should be based on the AW.681. A project study contract is being negotiated with Hawker Siddeley as the first step. The whole resources of the Hawker Siddeley Aviation Co. will be available to the project, including, of course, the Whitworth Gloster division which has been responsible for the design.

The Government remain deeply concerned about the problems of Northern Ireland, and we are well aware of the important contribution to employment in the Belfast area which is made by Short Bros. & Harland Ltd. We have therefore decided to arrange for a substantial share of the production work on this new aircraft to be sub-contracted to Shorts by the Hawker Siddeley Group.

Taken together with the Belfast and Seacat programmes and the sub-contracting work on the V.C.10, this should provide employment for a production labour force not far below the present level of 6,000 or so until about 1970.

Mr. Lee

The whole House will be thankful that at long last a decision has been announced on this important development. Can the right hon. Gentleman say how many 'planes are to be constructed on Government order and what will be the overall cost of that order? Will consideration be given to the break-even point—on which the right hon. Gentleman and I have had discussions on many occasions—in order to ensure that there is not an economic loss when the contract is completed? Can he tell the House what is the time schedule and when the 'plane will be expected to fly? Can the right hon. Gentleman say where the bulk of the work will be done and, because of the very large contracts involved in the subcontracting work, will he take care to see that as much as possible of this work is done in the development districts?

Can the Minister give hon. Members any idea about the percentage of the work to be done by Short Bros.? He has not mentioned the actual amount in the statement. In the concluding part of his statement, the right hon. Gentleman said that the level of employment at Short Bros. will not fall appreciably below the level of 6,000. He will be aware that this is a very low level—indeed, it is the lowest since the war—and that the rate of unemployment is 11 per cent. If the right hon. Gentleman can give the House some idea of the answers to these points, we shall be very grateful.

Mr. Amery

I should like to correct the hon. Gentleman on the question of the level of unemployment at Short Bros. The level of unemployment in Northern Ireland is giving the Government great cause for concern; but over the last twelve months the employment figure at Shorts has actually risen, not to a very large extent, but it has risen, I say that to get the facts straight.

We are still in the very early stages regarding this aeroplane. The engine has not been decided on, and I certainly cannot yet say where the bulk of the work will be distributed. There is a great deal of negotiation involved with the firms concerned. We think that the prototype will fly in about 1966.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that unless these aircraft are in service in 1968 there will be a serious deficiency in the aircraft of Transport Command? In view of the grave difficulty facing the Rolls Royce Company, will he also ensure, if possible, that some work can go to that company?

Mr. Amery

I will bear in mind both points made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Edelman

Is the Minister aware that his decision will be welcomed in Coventry because so much of the subcontracting work will go to Belfast and other areas where the unemployment position is even more serious than in Coventry? Regarding the question asked by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey), is not it the case that there will be a considerable gap in time when there will be a lack of transport aircraft? In those circumstances, and in order to relieve immediate unemployment difficulties in Coventry and its associated areas, will the Minister decide now to increase the order for Argosy aircraft so that the production team may be maintained and the labour force not dissipated?

Mr. Amery

No. Our assumption is that there will be no gap in the strength of Transport Command.

Mr. McMaster

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the very great disappointment of Short Bros. and Harland at his decision? Can he ensure that part of the design and drawing work goes to Short Bros. and Harland? Will he also look into the proposal that more Belfasts should be ordered to till a possible gap or meet a strategic need so that research and development may continue, in view of the pledge of the Government to maintain a balanced design and production unit?

Mr. Amery

I am aware of the disappointment which will be caused in Nor- them Ireland by the statement I have made, although I am sure that Ulster will recognise that the decision must turn on the good of the Services and on the best of two very good aircraft. My hon. Friend asks for orders for more Belfasts, but I am not in a position to place them. I cannot order aircraft when there is no firm requirement for them in the Services.

Mr. Lubbock

Will the Minister answer the point put by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster), namely, the effect on the position of the design and development teams in Short Bros. and Harland? Is it not true that the reduction in staff which he contemplates, albeit a small one, will be almost entirely in those teams? Secondly, at what date could the modified version of the Belfast have been in service, so that we can compare it with the AW 681?

Mr. Amery

I realise this is a very serious blow above all to the design staff of Short Bros. and Harland, and it may well have serious consequences for them. As to the date, I cannot give it off the cuff, but there would not have been any substantial difference between the two.

Mr. Hocking

Whilst congratulating my right hon. Friend on the difficult decision which he had to take, would he bear in mind the special claims with regard to the Bristol Siddeley engine to be incorporated in this aircraft and, when arranging the details of the contract, would he also bear in mind the special need to keep the skilled teams of shop-floor workers together in Coventry every bit as much as elsewhere in view of the fact that Coventry is the only centre in which all parts of the aircraft industry are represented in this country?

Mr. Amery

I will look into the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Hocking), but I would rather not try to answer them immediately.

Mr. Wigg

Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell the House the date on which operational requirement OR 351 was first stated, how long it will now be before he will be able to take a decision about the engine, and how much this little lot is going to cost?

Mr. Amery

It is not customary to give replies to this type of question. If the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) will put down a Question on the Order Paper, I will do my best to see whether it can be answered, but I cannot give an answer on the price.

Mrs. McLaughlin

Is the Minister aware that in Short Bros. and Harland this will mean that, despite the large proportion of sub-contract work he has mentioned, there will be a period when there will be a run-down in work. If there is going to be a run-down, as is obvious, in the design team, what will happen when the V.C.10 contract runs down, the new contract is not coming forward in the works, and, as I think the Minister is aware from the charts, there will be a drop in the work? How does he propose to keep 6,000 men employed long-term up to 1970, and can this be done satisfactorily without a design team behind it?

Mr. Amery

Our inquiry suggests that, as far as the production force is concerned, they can be kept in full employment, or at least up to about the 6,000 level, until the end of the decade. I have admitted the very serious design situation.

Mr. Jay

Does the Minister realise that although the AW681 may be a more ideal plane when it is available it is nonetheless more speculative and will be longer before it comes into production? Is he aware that in the view of the management of Short Bros and Harland this means not only the dissipation of the whole design team of 700 but, even allowing for these contracts and the subcontracts, it will not be possible to maintain the labour force? In fact, it means the reduction by 1965 or 1966 to about 2,400 compared with 7,000 now and 11,000 only a few years ago. Does he realise that this is a much more disastrous position for Northern Ireland?

Mr. Amery

I do not think the AW681 can be regarded as speculative in any way, and it will be available in time to replace the Hastings and Beverley which, from the Royal Air Force point of view, is the essential point. The right hon. Gentleman has different figures from mine as to the impact on the labour force. We are in the closest touch with Short Bros and Harland and I should think we are in the best position to evaluate how the load is likely to lie.

Mr. Speaker

We must get on now.