HC Deb 09 January 1990 vol 164 cc804-6
2. Mr. Colvin

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he is yet in a position to confirm his order for 25 utility EH101 helicopters for delivery in 1999.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)

The EH101 utility helicopter programme is still at an early stage. We are giving our attention to a number of different considerations, but it is much too soon to confirm an order.

Mr. Colvin

I am disappointed to hear that answer because in April 1987 my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), the then Secretary of State for Defence, promised an order for delivery early in 1990. That gives rise to a couple of questions. First, can my hon. Friend tell the House whether the project definition stage of the EH101 utility version has yet been completed? If not, when will that happen? Secondly, can my hon. Friend say more about the review of the role of the helicopter in the land battle in Europe, which we all badly want to learn about?

Mr. Clark

I remind my hon. Friend that when my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence made his statement about the order for 25 aircraft, he said that it was subject to contractual and other considerations. We hope that the project definition study will be completed in April. The more comprehensive programme of operation analysis will continue. It is a detailed topic that will affect our consideration of the mix of helicopters and other weapons in the battlefields of the future, and we shall be drawing the appropriate lessons for our procurement.

Mr. Ashdown

I take this opportunity to tell the Minister of the seriousness—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has hardly got a word out.

Mr. Ashdown

I remind the Minister of the seriousness of the situation. Does he realise that the two-year delay is creating a serious impediment to the effective financial management of the project, which is so important both to Westland and to the nation? Is the Minister aware that the delay means that the first type 23 frigate will have to wait a full five years—perhaps one quarter of its total life—before it receives the EH101 for which it was designed, and without which its operational effectiveness will be considerably diminished? How can the Minister continue with that folly?

Mr. Clark

If the right hon. Gentleman is honest with himself and with the House, he will acknowledge that a number of specification incompatibilities remain to be solved. Until that is done to our satisfaction, we cannot place an order.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Has the specification been properly thought through in regard to the Army and the Royal Air Force? The signs are that both services are unhappy with the EH101 as a basic helicopter for the future.

Mr. Clark

As I said, there are specification incompatibilities, but it would not be appropriate for me to reveal them to the House. However, they have been fairly well ventilated in the specialist press. My hon. Friend can read those specialist journals and see what he thinks.

Mr. Rogers

The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said that he was unhappy with the Minister's reply. The Opposition are appalled at the Minister's reply. In April 1987, when he cancelled the NH90 project, the then Secretary of State for Defence gave a firm commitment to the EH101, stating that we intend to place an order for an initial batch of 25 utility EH101s for delivery in the early 1990s. We are now in the early 1990s, and still no delivery of EI-1101s has been made because an order has not been placed. That statement by the then Secretary of State and the Government's current statements serve deliberately to mislead the House.

Mr. Speaker

Order. No Minister deliberately misleads the House.

Mr. Clark

Characteristically, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) did not complete the quotation. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence clearly also used the words: subject to satisfactory contractual negotiations."—[Official Report, 9 April 1987; Vol. 114, c. 470–71.] Does the hon. Gentleman want me to order an aircraft before I am satisfied that it is effective and represents good value?

Mr. Marlow

In view of recent changes in eastern Europe, many of which are irreversible, and given the likelihood that, in future, we shall be less involved in a defence policy that is dependent upon armour, and likely to require a more mobile and flexible capability, does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are more likely to invest in helicopters than in tanks and armoured vehicles?

Mr. Clark

The mix between helicopters, armour and other weaponry on future battlefields is subject to a detailed programme of operational analysis that my Department is currently undertaking.