HC Deb 23 July 1973 vol 860 cc1171-6
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Ian Gilmour)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to repeat a statement that has been made in another place by my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the progress that the Government have made in their consideration of the project for a maritime version of the Harrier aircraft. The statement reads as follows:— The evaluation of the results of the project definition studies has now been completed, with technically satisfactory results. There still remains, however, the question of the priority to be accorded to the project in comparison with other important projects which compete for defence budget resources. The usual annual review of the forward defence programme in relation to public expenditure as a whole is in progress and meanwhile it would be premature to authorise full development of the aircraft. Pending a final decision the present design effort work at the firm will continue to be supported.

Mr. Judd

Does the Minister accept that the fact that the statement was originally made this afternoon in another place is yet another manifestation of the unfortunate situation with which the House is confronted on defence policy? The Opposition believe that the place for the Secretary of State for Defence is in this House and this House alone.

The Minister referred to the technically satisfactory results of the evaluation. Will he comment in more detail upon the all-weather viability of the aircraft for naval service? On the policy front, will he accept that leaving the decision in limbo once again-which is what the statement does-is yet another chapter in the endless story of procrastination by the Government in making up their mind about this significant project? Will not the continuing uncertainty have an adverse effect upon the morale of the long-suffering personnel of the Fleet Air Arm?

Does the Minister appreciate that the Opposition will want to watch closely the expenditure involved and that, above all, we believe that we owe the Navy a clear-cut policy statement as soon as possible, especially in view of the misgivings about whether we have a coherent, economic and completely effective policy for air support for the Fleet?

Mr. Gilmour

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will expect his first question to be taken seriously. I certainly take his other question seriously. As I said, the results of the evaluation of all-weather capability were technically satisfactory. The hon. Gentleman accuses us of procrastination, but he will understand the desirability of not ordering a project and then having to cancel it. He will understand also that we are anxious to avoid the mistakes of our predecessors in this respect.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the morale of the Fleet Air Arm. He believes that the morale of the Fleet Air Arm is much more fragile than it is. The morale is very good. However, I accept that the Fleet Air Arm, like everyone else, would like a decision as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman spoke fairly about the Opposition's view on expenditure. I know that he has a personal interest in this item of expenditure and I am sure that he recognises that on the Opposition's defence programme there could he no possible chance of the maritime Harrier being ordered.

Mr. Wilkinson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a sad day for the Fleet Air Arm? Does he realise that the total number of take-offs and landings at sea for this aircraft exceeds 1,500, that it has an approved weapons system with export potential, and that all that is now needed is a little faith in the aircraft? Will he look into the proposed transfer of the artillery facilities from Shoeburyness to the North of Scotland at a cost of £40 million? If the Minister wants to develop this aircraft, will he examine the possibility of obtaining funds from that source?

Mr. Gilmour

I accept that the Navy wants this weapons system; otherwise, it would not be asking for it. But I think that my hon. Friend is overdoing it a little when he says that this is a sad day. We deferred the decision for about two months. I agree with what he said about the export potential of the aircraft. It is a very fine aircraft and we hope to order it, but we have to take into account the general situation in regard to public expenditure on defence.

Dr. David Owen

Is the Minister aware that the defence cuts promised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer have not yet been revealed to the House? Is he further aware that those of us who are becoming increasingly concerned about the defence budget in future years will press upon him some caution in accepting projects which will involve substantial expenditure, bearing in mind that the unit cost of the cruiser is now over £70 million and that with the equipment, such as helicopters and the V/STOL, it will be £80 million? Does he agree, without committing himself to any future expenditure, that by the time the cruiser comes into being, this will amount to £100 million unit costs? Does he not agree that this is a substantial expenditure which has to be looked at with great caution?

Mr. Gilmour

I do not necessarily accept the hon. Gentleman's figures, but I accept that the cruiser and the weapons system that go with it are a large item of expenditure. This is why we are scrutinising the matter carefully and have not come to a final decision today.

Mr. Wiggin

I accept that the Harrier may not be an ideal naval aircraft, but will my right hon. Friend say what future aircraft will fly off the through-deck cruisers if it is not to be the Harrier? Will he assure the House that the absolute necessities for the defence of the nation will not be subjugated to the penny-pinching of the Treasury?

Mr. Gilmour

I hope that the defence needs of this nation will never be subjected to the penny-pinching of the Treasury, and I would not accuse my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer of any such attitude. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-superMare (Mr. Wiggin) has slightly misunderstood what I said. We came to the conclusion that the Harrier is a very good naval aircraft, and there is no question of flying any other fixed-wing aircraft, apart from helicopters. This is a question of expenditure.

Mr. Dalyell

The Minister said that he did not accept the figures put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen). Since those were very modest figures, in what respect does he not accept them?

Mr. Gilmour

For reasons which I have given to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) before, he knows full well that we do not reveal our figures of expenditure on particular projects.

Mr. Adley

Does my right hon. Friend accept that criticism from the Opposition about delay in the Harrier comes a little ill from the Labour Party which did what it did to the TSR 2? Will he note that many of us think that we have been fairly patient waiting for the go-ahead on the Harrier? Will he accept that we believe that in due course the vertical take-off aircraft will have a big future and that we shall place ourselves in an invaluable position if we push ahead with this form of defence technology?

Mr. Gilmour

I accept that my hon. Friend and many others have been very patient about this matter. It has taken a very long time, and I am sorry to have disappointed him and others of my hon. Friends by what I said this afternoon. What he said about the TSR2 relates to the point 1 tried to make a little earlier in answer to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd). We are anxious to avoid what happened under our predecessors-namely, that projects were ordered and then shortly afterwards cancelled.

Mr. Frank Allaun

How far have the Government gone with the through-deck cruiser? In view of the indecision over the Harrier, is it not sensible not to proceed with the vastly more expensive project of the through-deck cruiser? Some of us would like to see neither.

Mr. Gilmour

I know that the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) would like to see no defence expenditure at all, but that is a different matter. The answer to his first question is that we have ordered one cruiser. The answer to the second question is that the primary capability of the cruiser is in anti-submarine warfare and command and control and air defence. The maritime Harrier has always been a bonus on this capability.

Sir H. Harrison

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for assuring the House that he has this project in mind? When he makes his next statement to the House, will he bear in mind what he said about getting the financial side of these projects right, and will he be able to give some outline of the cost?

Mr. Gilmour

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend. He is right to say that we keep the financial aspect of these weapons system very much in mind all the time.

Mr. Judd

Is not the correct interpretation of the Minister's answers that he has come to the conclusion that for economic reasons this is not a feasible project? Would it not be fairer to the Navy to have the guts to say so now and be done with it?

Mr. Gilmour

I do not think that that interpretation can be read into any of my answers this afternoon. I made clear that the project is very feasible indeed. It has come very well out of the project definition studies. But we cannot yet be certain that we could order this aircraft without cancelling possibly even more important weapons systems.

Major-General Jack d'AvigdorGoldsmid

Will my right hon. Friend clarify one point? Since this is a British aircraft, do the Government intend to sell it in future to other countries but to deny the use of it to our own Navy?

Mr. Gilmour

It is a British aircraft and it is already used by the Royal Air Force. We shall also be willing to sell it to any other country that wishes to have the advantage of this extremely good aircraft. It is not a question of denying it to our forces since the Royal Air Force has it already.

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