HC Deb 18 March 1964 vol 691 cc1375-8

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Minister of Aviation if he will now make a statement on the light helicopter requirements for the Army.


To ask the Minister of Aviation if he will announce his decision on the light helicopter requirements for the Army; and if he will make a statement.


To ask the Minister of Aviation if he will now make a statement on the light helicopter requirements for the Army.

The Minister of Aviation (Mr. Julian Amery)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to answer Questions Nos. 66, 67 and 68.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence told the House in the Defence debate on 26th February that we were considering tenders for a light helicopter for the Army.

The choice, as he explained, lay between the Hiller 12E, offered by Short Bros. & Harland, and the Bell 47G, offered by Westland Aircraft Ltd.

The Westland tender for the Bell was substantially lower than Short's tender for the Hiller.

Westland's also have more experience in the making of helicopters.

We have accordingly decided to adopt the Bell 47G. The first 50 machines will be bought from the Agusta Company of Italy, who have an established production line. This is so as to meet the Army's most pressing operational needs as quickly as possible.

Orders for a further 100 machines will be placed with Westland Aircraft Ltd. for production in this country.

The requirement for the Royal Marines can be met in a similar way.

Mr. Stratton Mills

How does my right hon. Friend expect Northern Ireland Members to support the Government in view of the social implications of this order? Will he reveal to the House what is the very small differential between the two aircraft?

Mr. Amery

I know that this decision must cause disappointment in Northern Ireland, but the House will recollect that Short Brothers are receiving a grant of up to £10 million to enable the Belfast and Seacat projects to be completed; that they have a share in VC10 work for the Royal Air Force; that they will get a substantial share in the manufacture of the Hawker Siddeley 681, and that the Government have recently announced support for the development and the initial production of a turbo-prop version of the Skyvan.

The light helicopter order could not, in any case, have been a major source of employment, and in all the circumstances we were forced to conclude that the arguments in favour of the Bell helicopter were decisive.

Mr. McMaster

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although this decision will be very much regretted in Belfast, what is really needed by Short's is substantial design and production work, in view of the statement by the management that perhaps as many as half the men working in Short's will, in the absence of further orders, be without work in two or three years' time?

Mr. Amery

We are well aware of the problems facing Short's at the moment. I am not sure that the statement put out by the management takes full account of the opportunities which the Hawker Siddeley 681 will bring to Short's, and we are working with them to try to find solutions to their difficulties.

Mr. Pounder

I echo the sentiments of my colleagues about the disappointment that this decision will bring to Belfast. I should like my right hon. Friend to go into more detail. He said that this project would have provided only a small amount of employment. I was under the impression that it would have provided about 500 jobs, which would have been a valuable addition, especially in the light of this week's information from Short and Harlands.

Mr. Amery

Short's own estimate was 120 men, and Westland's estimated 80, so the bracket of employment—and it would vary—would be between 80 and 120.

Mr. Lee

Will the right hon. Gentleman say why it is that having known for years of the requirement of the Army for a light helicopter, Westland's have not been able to design any, and we now have to accept either the Bell or the Hiller? Is he aware what a terrible problem this will bring to Northern Ireland in terms of employment? Will he say whether he believes that the monopoly given to Westland's is justified by this kind of return?

Mr. Amery

The hon. Member's statement that the requirements have been known for years is characteristically inaccurate. It has been endorsed only in the last few months.

Mr. Wigg

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that no one on this side of the House would ever want to compete with him in calculated inaccuracies, but is he aware that this decision will be regretted by the British aircraft industry because, once again, they have had lip-service from the Government who, nevertheless, in their actions have perpetuated a monopoly?

Hon. Members


Mr. Amery

The hon. Member's question hardly merits an answer. There can be little doubt that the firm which knows about helicopters is the one in the best position to finish the production job on this one.

Sir J. Eden

Is it not a fact that there was a very thorough investigation into the various proposals for this requirement and that an exhaustive competition took place? Is not the key to the whole problem the requirement of the Army, namely, that it should have the best possible aircraft available, and that this is most likely to come from a firm most experienced in the manufacture of helicopters?

Mr. Ross

He did not know about the requirement.

Mr. Amery

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have made an exhaustive inquiry, and indeed have been taken to task for taking so long in making up our minds.

Mr. Stratton Mills

On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the question of Short and Harlands in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill on Thursday.