HC Deb 11 March 1975 vol 888 cc249-52
14. Mr. Lane

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a further statement about plans for the maritime Harrier.

20. Mr. Pattie

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is now in a position to make a statement on the future of the naval Harrier.

Mr. Mason

I have nothing to add to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Watkinson) on 11th February by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence.

Mr. Lane

So that the Government may come to an earlier decision to go ahead with the maritime Harrier, will the right hon. Gentleman consider two points in particular? First, will he bear in mind that without the Harrier the future all-round effectiveness of the Royal Navy will be much less? Secondly, will he bear in mind that unless the British Government show faith in this aircraft its great export potential will not be realised?

Mr. Mason

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the Royal Navy has always recognised that if the maritime Harrier received the go-ahead it would be an added operational capability, especially as regards the new through-deck cruisers that will be coming into operation in the 1980s. Export potential will be entirely dependent upon whether anyone is prepared to purchase a type of vessel that will be able to act as a landing platform for the maritime Harrier.

Mr. James Johnson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is intense anxiety about defence cuts amongst the workers of North Humberside? Thousands of Hull men in that area work at Hawker Siddeley. Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that they want a chance to build not only the HS146, which is a civilian plane, but the Harrier jump-jet?

Mr. Mason

I can well understand the feelings of my hon. Friend on this matter. He will know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State and others have received deputations from Brough, Hull. The project has not been abandoned; it is still alive. The design is going ahead and it is being funded by Her Majesty's Government. In present economic circumstances I cannot at the moment go ahead with a new military project likely to cost tens of millions of pounds.

Mr. Goodhew

Is it not the case that the Shah of Iran is prepared to purchase both the aircraft and the through-deck cruiser to take them? Is he not most anxious to do so? Would not that be most advantageous to British industry? The Government arc spending tens of millions of pounds on workers' cooperatives that produce uneconomic goods. Would it not be better to spend the money on aircraft that we really need?

Mr. Mason

I want positive proof that there is a distinct order being placed for an expensive through-deck cruiser with a full complement of maritime Harriers. Such an order is not yet before me. That is obviously one of the distinct possibilities of a sale if we decide to go ahead with the combination of both.

Mr. Newens

Is my right hon. Friend able to say what total cost would have to be added to public expenditure if we decided to go ahead with the maritime Harrier? Will he make it clear to Conservative Members, who are continually pressing for cuts in public expenditure, that they must face very clearly what that means in these terms?

Mr. Mason

It is far too early to give the House an estimated cost of the development of the maritime Harrier. It is much too soon in its design stages. As soon as we have taken a decision I shall be able to give the House the figures that it requires.

Mr. Younger

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will give due weight to the fact that this is not any old aircraft project but a unique aircraft which has nothing else in the world to compete with it? Is he aware that it has been working for some time to the complete satisfaction of the United States Marine Corps, on the other side of the Atlantic? Will he reconsider his expression "tens of millions of pound "? Does he not agree that that is a bit of an exaggeration? Will he bear in mind that the Government appear to think it perfectly all right to spend £25 million a year on free contraceptives for all? It is incredible that they cannot afford to spend the money on the maritime Harrier.

Mr. Mason

I hope that the hon. Member has not now decided to describe this as the "contraceptive Harrier ", or we shall never breed any more. I offer him congratulations upon having become the official defence spokesman for the Opposition. I hope that as he questions us on these matters he will get his facts correct in future. This aircraft has not yet been completed, and therefore it has not been operating on the other side of the Atlantic. First, I have to recognise the military necessity for the go-ahead of the maritime Harrier. Secondly, I have to recognise that we are ahead of the world in this branch of technology, thirdly, that there may be prospects for exports and, fourthly, that it may be a valuable new project for an aircraft industry which is badly in need of work. I have to consider all those factors, but as yet I have not come to a decision.