HC Deb 24 February 1987 vol 111 cc122-3
2. Mr. Ashdown

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he now expects to announce a decision on the procurement of support helicopters for Her Majesty's forces; what is his estimate of the level of funding required for the procurement of such helicopters; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger)

I hope to be able to make an announcement about our future support helicopter requirements within the next few weeks.

Mr. Ashdown

As the Minister approaches a decision that is so vital for my community, I should like three assurances from him. First, will he fully consult the company before reaching any final decisions? Secondly, will he confirm that he realises that the phasing of orders is as important as their number, because drip feeding orders to Westland would be disastrous? Thirdly, will he bear in mind that our helicopter fleet in the central plain is so deficient—perhaps 100 aircraft light of our tactical needs—that an expert recently commented that we have only a meagre capacity to carry out a full air mobile deployment? If the Secretary of State does not recognise those facts, he is letting down the country and my community.

Mr. Younger

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's concern for his constituents, if I can describe it in that way, and I can give him the first two assurances for which he asks. On his third point, he was trying to anticipate the outcome of the study that we have undertaken, which is wide ranging and has the object of establishing firmly what our precise military requirements will be.

Mr. Wiggin

My right hon. Friend is aware that my contituents have a substantial interest in this matter as well. Will he lay the myth, once and for all, that there is no need for more helicopters in the British armed services and accept that there is a need for more defence equipment of all sorts and none greater than the need for helicopters?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate my hon. Friend's great concern for his constituents, who certainly have an interest in this. I confirm that the study, which is coming towards completion, is addressing itself to precisely the question of how many helicopters we are likely to need for our military requirements in the near future. That will be the basis of the decision that we shall have to take.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Does the Minister agree that AST 404 was the product of a study, but that it did not produce helicopters? Is he aware that Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House have made representations to his Department over four years, and does he realise that without orders Westland is in grave danger of not surviving?

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that it has taken some time to resolve this matter. As he will be well aware, exercises took place two years ago in central Europe which gave us food for thought as to what the real requirements for the future would be. As a result of that, this study is trying to articulate exactly what those needs will be.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Army is comparatively poorly equipped with helicopters and that there is a strong case for increasing our mobility rather than, say, purchasing more tanks? Will he agree to equip a new mobile brigade of Lynx helicopters from Westland?

Mr. Younger

Although I would not at this stage make the comparison that my hon. Friend makes with tanks, we certainly have requirements for more air mobility. The study is designed to address the way in which those requirements should be met.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Will the Minister confirm that there really is no future for Westland as a manufacturing company making helicopters without substantial orders from the British Government and in particular from the Ministry of Defence? There is no private sector solution to Westland's problem. Secondly, will he confirm that there is no military requirement for the Black Hawk helicopter, contrary to what was said in some circles during the famous battle for Westland?

Mr. Younger

On the latter point, we have not yet reached a conclusion on what types of helicopters might be required, so, I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance either way on that point. On the neeed for helicopters and their increasing use, that is what the study is designed to establish.

Mr. Jim Spicer

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the team from Westland, led by Sir John Cuckney, has made the position of that company totally clear and has not in any way indulged in what one might call the histrionics to which we have perhaps become accustomed in recent years?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend exactly. I am in touch with the chairman of the company and I am being fully briefed on the needs of the company, which I shall, of course, take fully into account.