HC Deb 13 January 1986 vol 89 cc777-89 3·41 pm
Mr. Speaker

Statement, the Home Secretary.—[Interruption.] Order. Even I can make mistakes! Statement, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Leon Brittan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.—[Interruption] Perhaps I should add, in my present capacity.

Throughout last year, Westland plc was facing financial difficulties. The company's position reflected, among other things, a worldwide slump in demand for civil helicopters. Against this background Sir John Cuckney, who became chairman in June 1985, sought a partnership with a substantial industrial group which could offer both finances and commercial strength. United Technologies expressed an interest in taking a substantial minority shareholding.

Subsequently, Fiat joined United Technologies in a joint proposal to take a minority shareholding in Westland. The Government, however, encouraged Westland to explore fully in addition the possibility of an alternative European-based proposal. This led to the development of proposals from a consortium comprising Aerospatiale, Agusta and MBB, which were later joined by British Aerospace.

I announced in my statement to the House of 16 December that the board of Westland had decided to recommend to shareholders the proposals put forward by United Technologies and Fiat. I explained that the Government were not bound by the recommendation of the national armaments directors of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy that certain helicopter requirements should in future be met solely from helicopters designed and built in Europe. That remains the position. I also explained the action that the Government had taken to ensure that Westland had an alternative European-based offer to consider, but emphasised that it was for Westland to decide the best route to follow to secure its future and that of its employees. At no stage did the Government collectively determine on a preference for a particular solution.

At its meeting on 19 December the Cabinet confirmed the policy that I had previously announced. It was also decided that no Minister was entitled to lobby in favour of one proposal rather than another. That decision was unanimously approved by the members of the Cabinet.

On 1 January my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out clearly in a letter to Sir John Cuckney that as long as Westland continues to carry on business in the United Kingdom the Government will support the company in pursuing British interests in Europe. My right hon. Friend also made it clear that the Government would resist to the best of their ability attempts by others to discriminate against Westland.

The alternative solutions put to Westland have been presented in some quarters as offering a choice between collaboration with Europe and collaboration with the United States. In fact, the Government welcome collaboration with both Europe and the United States. Both the proposals put to the board have a European involvement. The Government will continue to support Westland in pursuing British interests in Europe, whichever solution is implemented.

A number of assertions have been made in recent days about my own and the Government's position on this matter. I shall be happy to answer questions on these specific points.

The position now is that the board of Westland has unanimously recommended revised proposals from United Technologies and Fiat to shareholders. Revised proposals from the European consortium, now joined by GEC, have also been circulated to shareholders. The Government hope that the matter can be resolved quickly in the interests of the company and its employees.

Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that it is rather curious for a Secretary of State to come to the House after a series of detailed allegations have been made by a former colleague and say nothing whatever about those allegations? Will he understand that the Opposition, at least, do not think that he is the appropriate person to answer questions about the Government's conduct? The Prime Minister should have come to the House today to answer questions posed by a colleague in whom she placed sufficient confidence to give him substantial responsibilities on behalf of her Government.

So far as the Secretary of State, with his responsibilities, is involved, is it not clear that his statement today adds little to what has already been said? May I ask him one detailed question to which I should like his answer? In his statement on 16 December he told the House: In view of the urgent necessity for a deal to be concluded quickly, the Government decided that from 13 December they would not be bound by the national armaments directors' recommendation unless Westland had by then received a firm offer from the three European companies, which the board would recommend to its shareholders."—[Official Report, 16 December 1986; Vol. 89, c. 35.] When and how did the Government reach that decision —[Interruption.]—collectively?

The Secretary of State told us that the Government had decided that Ministers would not lobby for either solution. May I ask him about his activities in connection with an interview that he had with Sir Raymond Lygo, the chief executive of British Aerospace, in his office at the Department of Trade and Industry? The Secretary of State will be aware of what has been said in recent days about that interview. Is there a contemporaneous written record of the interview between Sir Raymond and himself, bearing in mind that it would be normal Government practice for such a record to be taken by his private secretary or by officials in his Department? Does that record exist, and, if it does, can it be made available to Members of the House so that they can make a judgment as to what happened and test the accounts that we have been given? Will the Secretary of State understand that what we are interested in in that regard is the contemporaneous written record, which would automatically be made?

If it was the Government's decision that Ministers should keep out of the matter and leave it to the shareholders to decide on both proposals, which were clearly in circulation, why on earth did the right and learned Gentleman decide to speak to Sir Raymond Lygo at all? What was his purpose in calling him into his room and discussing the matter with him? Why was there an admitted reference in the course of that conversation to anti-United States sentiment and to the consequences of British Aerospace's involvement in Airbus, leading to a cancellation perhaps of American orders for Airbus? Why did the Secretary of State think that it was relevant to raise that matter with Sir Raymond Lygo in the context of a discussion on Westland Helicopters? What was his purpose in raising it if it were not to influence him in one direction or another?

If the Secretary of State says that he was merely discussing the state of orders for British Aerospace, does he not think it remarkable that that very evening Sir Raymond Lygo took the matter of his conversation sufficiently seriously to telephone each of his directors on the board of British Aerospace to acquaint them with the communication that he had received from the Secretary of State that very afternoon ? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not understand that unless he gives a full account of what was said to Sir Raymond Lygo the impression will continue to circulate widely in Britain that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was saying one thing to Parliament, that he was even-handed, and doing another thing in practice and seeking to influence the outcome of the deal?

If Westland is unable, because of its articles of association and its constitution, to decide effectively in favour of either of the proposals, what do the Government propose to do?

Mr. Brittan

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked, first, when the decision that I announced on 16 December as having been taken by the Government with regard to the national armaments directors' recommendation was made, and in what form. The answer is that the decision was taken collectively at a meeting of Ministers on 9 December.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to ask a number of questions about my meeting with Sir Raymond Lygo. The circumstance of the meeting was that Sir Raymond was, in any event, due to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology to discuss, among other things, the Airbus. Therefore, it seemed to me that it would have been wholly artificial if I did not see Sir Raymond as well, and I shall explain why that was so.

Let me make it clear that it is untrue to say that in the course of the meeting I made any suggestion that British Aerospace should withdraw from the European consortium or that its participation was contrary to the national interest. On the contrary, the Government's position was that it was for Westland to decide which course to follow. However, what I said then, and continue to believe, is that the nature and tone of some of the campaigning, and only some of it, on behalf of the European consortium could fuel protectionism and damage the commercial interests of British Aerospace and its European partners, especially in the United States.

The House and the right hon. and learned Gentleman might like to know that Sir Raymond said that the United States subsidiary of British Aerospace had expressed concern about its United States' business being halved. I also said that it was not in the national interest that the uncertainty involving Westland should drag on.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to conversations which he said took place after that meeting. I do not know of them, but I can say that others gave a different impression of what was said or intended at the meeting, and I naturally regret that. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to know why I was concerned about the implication for Airbus sales and thought it appropriate to raise the matter, he will recall that I have already said that Sir Raymond said that the British Aerospace subsidiary had expressed concern about its business being halved. British Aerospace has a substantial stake in the A320 airbus and, as its sponsoring Minister, I am naturally concerned to protect this interest.

The House also knows that the Government are committed to advancing £250 million launch aid for that project. The recovery of all but £50 million is dependent upon the sale of the aircraft. For all those reasons, I was naturally concerned at the possibility that Airbus sales might be made more difficult, not by the participation of Sir Raymond and British Aerospace in the consortium, but by the tone of some of the things said.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked for collaboration of what I have said about the meeting with Sir Raymond. Present at the meeting were a number of civil servants, as well as my hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology. I have checked the recollection of all those present against mine, and the account that I have given to the House has been confirmed by every official present, as well as by my hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology. The disclosure of the note is not a matter for me, but I shall consider the right hon. and learned Gentleman's request.

What happens at tomorrow's meeting may be inconclusive. It would be unwise, faced with the meeting of shareholders tomorrow, for the House or for me to speculate on the many alternative possibilities that could arise. It would be wrong to attempt to do so today.

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley)

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether the Government have received any letters from British Aerospace giving its views of the meeting?

Mr. Brittan

I have not received any such letter.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I wish to return from the wider issues to the matters of the affair which particularly affect my constituency. Does the Secretary of State accept that the vast majority of both the work force at Westland and the smaller shareholders back the decision of the Westland board? Will he confirm that the Anglo-Italian helicopter project, which is vital to Westland's future, is founded on an agreement between the two Governments, not on an agreement between the firms, and that Westland's position as the British Government's chosen instrument cannot be affected? Does the Secretary of State agree that future helicopter projects, which also rest on agreements between Governments, will depend on whom the British Government choose as their representative, and that neither of the two decisions before shareholders tomorrow can threaten Westland's position as the British Government's representative on future European collaborative projects?

Mr. Brittan

The views of the work force are well enough known, and the hon. Gentleman has said what they are. The shareholders must give such weight as they think appropriate to those views.

With regard to the Government's support for Westland, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in her letter of 1 January, the Government will give their support to Westland in Europe and elsewhere so long as the company carries on business in Britain, irrespective of which consortium takes an interest in the company.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his fair statement of events. Is he aware that for months suppliers to Westland and others have been desperately worried about the problems surrounding the company's finances, and whether they would be paid? That was even before the Ministry of Defence, the Europeans or anybody proposed anything resembling a rescue package. As Westland is not a nationalised industry, and as this is not a takeover bid, would it not be far wiser to have a moment of silence so that Sir John Cuckney, who is an able chairman, and his board can produce the best deal for the company?

Mr. Brittan

My hon. Friend is entirely right in saying that for some considerable time there have been anxieties about the finances of Westland. On his second point, although it is right that I should make the statement to the House, it is also right that we should be careful what we say, because there is a shareholders' meeting tomorrow and it would be wrong to apply any improper influence today.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Was the correcting letter from the Law Officers to the Secretary of State for Defence seen by the right hon. and learned Gentleman or his Department before it was sent to the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Brittan

I saw the letter after it was sent.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend see any potential conflict of interest in the fact that the head of the procurement executive, Mr. Peter Levene, was formerly the chairman of United Scientific Holdings? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Mr. Levene was appointed at a salary vastly in excess of that of the chiefs of staff by the former Secretary of State for Defence, who assured the House that there would be no potential conflict? Yet United Scientific Holdings is now being blackmailed by the French Ministry of Defence, which says that an order that it could have in France will be withdrawn if the European consortium's offer is not accepted.

Mr. Brittan

I was not aware of that latter fact. I am sure that Mr. Levene has conducted himself with complete propriety.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

As the sponsoring Minister for the Westland W30 helicopter, will the Secretary of State tell us in what ways he collaborated with the former Secretary of State for Defence in establishing the European consortium?

Mr. Brittan

I said to Westland before the matter came between me and my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence that I thought it should look into the possibility of a European alternative to the United Technologies-Fiat offer which had already come forward. I therefore invited my right hon. Friend to begin that search. At a later stage—last October—at a meeting attended by, among other people, my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence, I indicated my strong view that the search for a European alternative should continue and go ahead.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is substantial concern among the work force, because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this affair, that neither proposition will come to fruition? In such circumstances, does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the Government have a firm responsibility to save Westland from receivership?

Mr. Brittan

I very much hope that the matter will be resolved. I must make it clear that I cannot accept responsibility on behalf of the Government. As a result of the actions taken by the Government, including my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence, the company is faced with two alternatives, both of which are better than anything that any fair-minded person could reasonably have expected was likely to come forward several weeks ago.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that Westland Aerospace, a totally owned subsidiary, is the largest industrial employer in my constituency and is therefore vital to the well-being of the Isle of Wight? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman know also that that company is profitable? Does he further know that most of that profit comes from the work of Boeing and de Haviland—de Haviland now being a subsidiary of Boeing? Does he know also that the work force and middle management voted overwhelmingly the other day in favour of the deal with Sikorsky—by, I think, 1,200 to seven? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that Sikorsky has behaved impeccably throughout this trauma? Does he not believe that that should be taken seriously into account by the shareholders at tomorrow's meeting?

Mr. Brittan

The House will have heard the hon. Gentleman's expression of views on the opinions of his constituents. On the question of Sikorsky's behaviour, I am not at the Dispatch Box to make criticisms of either side in this deal.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

In view of the important national defence interest involved, and irrespective of the bid that one might favour, how is it possible for the Government not to have a view on which bid is better for this country?

Mr. Brittan

One reason is that the security of supply of helicopters for the armed forces is assured. That is not, therefore, a problem. Another reason, which is of some importance, is that Westland's board has told shareholders that United Technologies has made it clear that it wishes Westland to retain its own helicopter research, design and development capability.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the important answer that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). From where did the information come that misleading information had been given by the former Secretary of State for Defence, if his Department did not know about it? How did the Law Officers know that there was misleading information if they had not consulted the right hon. Gentleman's Department? Was the right hon. and learned Gentleman surprised when the matter was "leaked", if I may use that offensive word, a few hours later? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman a party to the wishes of those hon. Members who seek an investigation into how that possible breach of the Official Secrets Act 1911 occurred?

Mr. Brittan

The right hon. Gentleman is well enough experienced in government to know that it is inconceivable that anyone asking such questions when his party was in power would have obtained an answer.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

My right hon. learned Friend said in his statement that the Government had asked that the European rescue option be fully explored. In replying to a question a few moments ago he said that he had confirmed at the 18 October meeting his strong support for pursuing the European option. Yet a few weeks ago he rebutted press speculation that he had expressed a preference for a European option. Would it not be in the interests of my right hon. and learned Friend and everyone involved in this affair if he were to make the position clear by placing in the Library the minutes that he wrote for 4 and 18 October?

Mr. Brittan

I think that I can make the position perfectly clear without doing that. There is all the difference in the world between wishing for an alternative to be explored and taking the view that the alternative, which at that stage had not been explored, was preferable.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that he has failed to satisfy the House about what he said to British Aerospace? Is it not clear that at that meeting he expressed a preference implicitly, and perhaps even explicitly, for the American deal? If so, was that not incompatible with Government policy as stated to the House?

Mr. Brittan

The account that I have given of the meeting is accurate. I do not think that to warn people of the consequences of pursuing matters in a particular way, which they had accepted, and of which they had had word from their subsidiary—I am not accusing a particular person, but certain things had been said involving anti-Americanism which were likely to damage their interests—is the same as expressing a preference for the deal.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend not been subjected to unjustified and cruel criticism? Will he confirm that on 19 December the Cabinet unanimously agreed that Ministers would not campaign for either option and that that agreement was consistently and repeatedly breached, not by my right hon. and learned Friend, but by the former Secretary of State for Defence?

Mr. Brittan

It is true that the Cabinet agreed that no one should campaign for either option. I understand, of course, that my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence strongly felt that the European option should be pursued vigorously. I imagine that some of the things that were said in the course of that led my right hon. Friend to the conclusion that he reached.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Is not the central problem the fact that the Prime Minister always intends to have her own way, however deviously she does so, in contravention of collective decision-taking? Is not her greatest strength her unawareness of her limitations?

Mr. Brittan

No, Sir.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Did my right hon. and learned Friend report the substance of his conversations last Wednesday evening with Sir Raymond Lygo to his Cabinet colleagues the following morning?

Mr. Brittan

No. There was no reason to do so. [t was agreed at the Cabinet meeting the following morning to affirm the previous policy, which I had already expressed to the House. There was nothing at the meeting with Sir Raymond Lygo that would have led me or anyone else to wish to change that policy.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

In view of the Government's assertions of even-handedness in this matter, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman shed any light on the suggestion that there were discussions between the Prime Minister and President Reagan about the Sikorsky bid and aid for Westland Helicopters? Were there any discussions with the American Administration?

Mr. Brittan

I am not aware of any such discussions.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

In answering my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), my right hon. and learned Friend said that he had received no such letter. In view of the importance of the conversation that is purported to have taken place, has any other member of the Government received any representations or letter from Sir Raymond Lygo or British Aerospace?

Mr. Brittan

I can only speak for myself.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Secretary of State address the first question that was asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith)? On 16 December, why did the Secretary of State refer to the Government's decision to abandon the national armaments directors' recommendation from 13 December? In his answer, he said that the matter was relevant to 9 December. What happened on 13 December which caused him to refer to 13 December if there was no meeting of the Government on that day?

Mr. Brittan

The meeting on 9 December decided that if by 4 pm on 13 December there was no offer from the European consortium which the Westland board felt able to commend to its shareholders, from that moment the national armaments directors' recommendation would not continue to have any effect. The decision was taken on 9 December as to what would happen on 13 December. What had happened was announced on 16 December.

Mr. Michael Grylls (Surrey, North-West)

As the Ministry of Defence is Westland's major customer, is it not desirable that if possible there should be a European alternative to the Sikorsky terms so that there can be competitive tenders?

Mr. Brittan

I see the advantage of competition. The implications of that aspect of the matter must be considered.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In answer to the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the former Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State referred to the crucial British Aerospace letters and emphasised to the House, "I did not." He was then asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) if he knew whether other members of the Cabinet did, to which he replied, "I can only speak for myself." Would it not be more candid for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry frankly to tell us that if he did not read them, the Prime Minister did?

Mr. Brittan

I have given an account of the meeting, and I have nothing further to add.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Why should the House of Commons have more confidence in my right hon. and learned Friend's judgment of the defence implications of this matter than in the judgment of our right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), bearing in mind that throughout his distinguished tenure of office he enjoyed the Prime Minister's wholehearted confidence?

Mr. Brittan

I am not inviting the House to do what my hon. Friend suggests I am inviting it to do.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

In view of the profound interest in this matter throughout the nation and Europe, and the almost unprecedented attendance here on a Monday afternoon—[Interruption.]—Tory Members may laugh, but they have something to hide. Why is the Secretary of State treating this serious subject so cavalierly, by not giving proper answers to the questions that he is being asked? Has he something to conceal? Has he read the advertisement in The Times this morning about the mess that British science is in? Does he realise that we are all fearful that our technology is about to disappear to the United States and that our armaments and defence industries are being sold for a mess of potage to a group of shareholders who have no interest in British working people?

Mr. Brittan

That is a view which the hon. Gentleman is entitled to hold. If he is worried about the interests of British working people, he will no doubt also have noted the clear view of the British working people working for Westland in Yeovil.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the motives of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) have wide support in the country and in the House? If the Government are sincere about their commitment to Europe, why did they not prefer European participation from the beginning?

Mr. Brittan

The answer is that it was not forthcoming.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been asked two questions about the meeting with the chairman of British Aerospace. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) asked whether the Government had received a letter from the chairman, and the Secretary of State was subsequently asked the same question again. He dodged answering it on both occasions by meekly saying that he could only speak for himself. Does he not understand that the conviction politician has dodged the column today and that he has been put in her place to answer question? Now that he has been put there, it is his job, not just to answer for himself, but to answer for the Government. That is why he is at the Dispatch Box. He should come clean.

Mr. Brittan

If it helps the hon. Gentleman, I am not aware of any letter from Sir Raymond Lygo to anyone else either.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain why the former Secretary of State for Defence places his store firmly behind the British-European option, which I support, when he had the solution for saving Westland in his own hands while he was Secretary of State for Defence? Why did he never place orders for more helicopters with Westland?

Mr. Brittan

The Ministry of Defence took the view, which I wish to make clear I am not in any way criticising, that it was unable to confirm a requirement for support helicopters, for which Westland had been hoping. The Ministry also declined a request from the company to place additional orders for W30 helicopters to help with its short-term problems because there was no military requirement for such helicopters. I wish to make it clear that those are the facts, and that I am not criticising the former Secretary of State for Defence for coming to those conclusions.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

If the contents of the letter from Sir Raymond Lygo are at variance with the statement by the Secretary of State, in order to secure the fullest possible disclosure will the Secretary of State attend, and allow his officials to attend, a hearing of the Select Committee on Defence so that they may be questioned by members of the Committee?

Mr. Brittan

I assure the hon. Gentleman that all Select Committees of the House will be treated with the normal respect to which they are entitled.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that three years before he—my right hon. and learned Friend—came to the House I accompanied the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to New York and Washington, at the suggestion and request of the then Minister for Aerospace and the Conservative Government, to defend the concerted attacks on the Concorde project by the American aerospace industry, which was determined to kill it? In my right hon. and learned Friend's opinion, is the American aerospace industry any less determined to neuter or takeover the British aerospace industry? Does he believe that the Government are interested in protecting this country's national aerospace interest? Does he accept that a Rolls-Royce 1971 proposition for Westland is infinitely better than bankruptcy?

Mr. Brittan

Happily, as a result of the action taken by the Government, including my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence, something very much better than that now faces Westland. I was protecting British Aerospace, in its capacity as a member of the Airbus consortium, which is an example of European co-operation, from the threat to the orders which it has successfully secured in the United States, against tremendous opposition from Boeing, being jeopardised.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Will the Secretary of State comment on press reports that if Westland were to become a subsidiary of United Technologies it would become involved in strategic defence initiative work as a subcontractor, and that that might be contrary to the memorandum signed by the former Secretary of State for Defence and his United States counterpart?

Mr. Brittan

I cannot comment on those press reports. I do not know of their validity.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend consider that this episode has advanced or retarded the cause of European defence industrial collaboration?

Mr. Brittan


Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is some years since the matter arose, but it is my recollection that Ministers are entitled to refer to Government documents and those documents need not be published. However, it is my recollection that if a Minister quotes from a document, the document is then published. I believe that I heard the Secretary of State quote to the House what Sir Raymond Lygo said to him about the British Airbus. In those circumstances, I ask you to consider whether the substance of that conversation should be published.

Mr. Speaker

I did not hear the Secretary of State quote from a Government document.

Mr. Brittan

I assure the right hon. Gentleman—I know of his interest in these matters—that I did not quote from the document.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Is it the case that, for the shareholders of Westland to have a choice, the recommendation of the national armaments directors had to be rejected by the Government? As a result, the work force and shareholders have a choice. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is intolerable that a private sector company has had to endure so much pressure at a time when it had found a solution to its problems and was within sight of achieving that solution, which could now be in jeopardy?

Mr. Brittan

The board of Westland came up with proposals which it believed would lead to a solution of the problems. It is also the case that as long as the national armaments directors' recommendation remained on the table, the Sikorsky-Fiat proposals could not go ahead.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the fact that there is other important business to follow this statement. I shall allow questions to continue for a further five minutes, by which time we will have had a full half hour for Back-Benchers' questions.

Mr. Callaghan

Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is my clear recollection, because I noted it at the time, that the Secretary of State was reading the answer given by Sir Raymond Lygo. I am ready to admit that I may be wrong, but I noted the fact especially because I have had this matter in mind. I ask you to check Hansard carefully to ensure what happened and to give a ruling on the matter.

Mr. Speaker

The House heard what the Secretary of State said on that matter.

Mr. Callaghan

Further to that point of order—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I would check the record, and I shall do so.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

A similar point was raised in the debate on the Second Reading of the Maplin Development Bill, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was purported to quote from a document which he declined to lay on the Table of the House, although he was pressed to do so. Perhaps the Father of the House would consider that precedent and the ruling was made on it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must not be distracted by Maplin today.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

Further to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), is the Secretary of State aware of any letter received by Her Majesty's Government from British Aerospace? Is the Secretary of State aware that when he states from the Dispatch Box that he can only speak for himself he is seriously misleading the House? Any Minister of any rank who speaks from the Dispatch Box speaks for the Government.

Mr. Brittan

I have already answered that point in reply to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Will the Secretary of State explain in more detail how the Government took the decision of non-intervention, in view of the defence implications of a Westland takeover? Can he say whether it was considered that Sikorsky might not be satisfied with a partial shareholding and that it might try to take over the entire company in the future?

From the explanation in the statement about the interview with the chairman of British Aerospace, when the Minister said that British Aerospace was aware of the American implications, could it appear that he was bullying the chairman of British Aerospace? Has he considered following the example of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and resigning from the Cabinet in view of the fact that he broke his undertaking of non-intervention to the House on 16 December?

Mr. Brittan

The answer to the latter point is no.

In taking their decision the Government took into account all questions, such as defence procurement and other matters, and took the view that the options available did not justify Government intervention.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

What confidence can the workers of Westland have in the job guarantees from either of the teams of big business which have been gazumping each other during recent days, especially from the team led by Lord Weinstock, who, during the past four to six weeks, has axed more than 1,000 jobs in GEC in my constituency?

If defence is the national priority which the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Prime Minister consistently state it is, why do the Government not follow the example of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) in 1971 and nationalise Westland and give guarantees to the work force that any surplus capacity will be used to make socially useful goods?

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman is merging defence considerations with industrial considerations. For defence, the Government must be able to ensure that helicopters are available from a secure NATO source. For industry, the Government's aim must be to further the rescue that would be in the company's best interests. The two offers would secure those objectives. I believe that the Government have not done all that badly.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the millions of pounds invested by the Government—which is taxpayers' money. Regardless of which company is successful, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman state whether there will be any protection of technical design in Britain? Will the Minister discuss the offset problems and the possibilities for companies such as Rolls-Royce which make helicopter engines?

Mr. Brittan

Rolls-Royce has expressed an interest in this matter. However, in view of the commercially sensitive position, I should not discuss that matter before tomorrow. That could appear to favour one side—[Interruption.] I hear one of my hon. Friends say, "In favour of Sikorsky", but that must be a matter for Rolls-Royce.

Mr. John Smith

With regard to the meeting with Sir Raymond Lygo, the Secretary of State said that he had cheched the recollections of colleagues and officials. Did he check a written record? Does a written record exist? It has been drawn to my attention that in a newspaper yesterday an allegation was made that during the discussion the Secretary of State indicated to officials that he did not wish that matter to be recorded. Can the Secretary of State give his reaction to that allegation? When will that record be made available to hon. Members?

As to the so-called concern about the adverse impact on British Aerospace sales, it is clear from the Secretary of State that he does not accuse Sir Raymond Lygo or British Aerospace of creating the problem. To whose statement was he referring?

Mr. Brittan

There is no truth in the hon. Gentleman's point about a matter not being recorded. On the point about what in the campaign led me to take that view, I can safely state, without referring to any statements, that many things were said during the course of the campaign implying that the sole interest of any United States involvement was to reduce Westland's status to low technology. Any suggestion to that effect is contrary to the expressed statement of United Technologies. It is entirely open to people to take one view or another as to which offer is to be preferred, but such allegations are completely untrue —[HON. MEMBERS: "Check the record."] I have already said that I will look into that.