HC Deb 26 March 1985 vol 76 cc197-9
3. Mr. Stan Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement concerning the future fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Adam Butler)

Industry completed the feasibility study into the viability of a collaborative European fighter aircraft programme last month. The reports of the study are now being evaluated nationally and internationally. EFA Defence Ministers will review those reports and consider the way ahead at a meeting in Rome, probably in mid-May.

Mr. Thorne

Will my hon. Friend go a little further and give some definite information that I can pass to the 16,000 aerospace workers in Greater Preston, who are worried about the future of their jobs? Should they be looking elsewhere already, or shall we get a positive decision on the EFA?

Mr. Butler

I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a great deal more information now. I see no reason why he should start scaring his constituents and others who work at the factories concerned. The project is progressing as we would have expected. It is extremely complicated and I just hope that when we meet in Rome it will be possible to agree on the next steps forward.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Is my right hon. Friend aware that international collaboration, which we are always seeking, could be between the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain? If France does not want to participate on the terms that those four countries are setting, it will have to think again, as we must have an urgent decision as soon as possible.

Mr. Butler

It is correct that, as part of the studies into the successor aircraft for the Phantom and Jaguar, we are examining several options, which includes a national one. My hon. Friend has mentioned one route which could be taken. The Government's present objective is to make the project work on a five-nation basis if we can.

Mr. Beggs

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the future policy of the Ministry will be to encourage real competition and enterprise in the United Kingdom aircraft industry? Will he confirm that the £60 million saved for the taxpayer and the Ministry of Defence by the successful competitive tender of Short Brothers for the Royal Air Force basic trainer shows clearly that there should never again be a monopoly of supply to the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Butler

I agree that we have just had a successful competition for the RAF trainer. When talking about aircraft as complicated, expensive and advanced as the European fighter aircraft, however, the competition is much less easy to achieve.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, although the objective of translating the five-nation operational requirement into an operational aeroplane is wholly laudable, it is necessary to keep productive facilities in Britain fully employed? In that regard, if the decision is delayed further, will he consider at the very least ordering a further batch of Tornado aircraft?

Mr. Butler

My hon. Friend always speaks wisely on these matters. We have considerable and close regard to the workload at the relevant British Aerospace factories. I believe that delay beyond a certain point would not be acceptable.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be regrettable if delays continued and we ended up in 1995 with an American fighter aircraft bought off the shelf?

Mr. Butler

I hope that that would not be possible, but one has to be completely realistic. It might occasionally be better to buy abroad, but the Government's record on placing business at home is extremely good.

Mr. Favell

Do the options to which my right hon. Friend referred earlier include the possibility of the development of the P120?

Mr. Butler

The P120 aircraft is being considered under the national option.

Mr. Donald Stewart

When the Secretary of State referred to the Short's contract he said that it had been awarded on the basis of the lowest tender. May we take it that that will be the criterion for the award of future defence contracts?

Mr. Butler

It is likely that in all or most cases the two prime criteria of operational performance and cost will be at the forefront of our minds when we reach these decisions. However, we made it clear in that particular competition that the issue of jobs and other matters must also be considered.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind when he orders the new Royal Air Force fighter that sometimes it is unwise to change the engine and engine mountings of an aeroplane, because it can have disastrous flying results, as every pilot knows.

Mr. Butler

All parties to the present EFA agreement agree that a new engine will need to be developed for the aircraft.

Mr. Concannon

Is not the successful tender of Shorts for the RAF trainer aircraft just a good example of why it was Ulsterised or nationalised at one time?

Mr. Butler

I do not think that the two points hang together.

Mr. Stern

Will my right hon. Friend confirm, if only to reassure my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Thorne) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), that he and his fellow Ministers will not allow the French to pursue their standard tactics of delaying a decision until their own product is available?

Mr. Butler

A lot of reference has been made to delay. I do not find that delay exists at the moment. I have made it clear that if there are signs of continuing delay and it is clear that there would be disadvantages from that, we would have to take action in other directions.

Mr. McNamara

Is the Minister aware that we would regard the national option as the least desirable, that there is a great deal more to be said for long production runs with international collaboration and that, if necessary, and perhaps even preferably, we should work with our Tornado partners, with whom we have had a great deal of experience in these matters?

Mr. Butler

Leaving aside the hon. Gentleman's last point, I am delighted to find that he agrees with both me and the Government on this occasion. It is an unusual occurrence.