HC Deb 20 January 1992 vol 202 cc30-6 4.15 pm
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the selection of the defensive aids sub-system, known as DASS, for the European fighter aircraft.

The House will be aware that the majority of contracts for the development of this aircraft have already been let, including the radar selection which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 8 May 1990. However, the selection of a DASS for the aircraft has remained outstanding. This system is a key element of the integrated suite of capabilities for the EFA. It will enhance the survivability and combat effectiveness of the aircraft in hostile electromagnetic environments by providing a self-protection capability, including warning of hostile missile attack and initiation of counter measures. Our Gulf experience showed this to be a crucial requirement.

The DASS is thus required to meet a most demanding specification at the forefront of combat avionics. Invitations to tender were issued to companies throughout the EFA partner nations. The EURODASS consortium led by Marconi Defence Systems Limited offered a solution, and this has been subject to rigorous scrutiny to confirm that it meets the necessary technical criteria. There have been equally difficult negotiations to satisfy the partner nations' demanding requirements.

I can now tell the House that, subject to the resolution of a number of detailed contractual points, we and our EFA partners, Italy and Spain, will endorse the selection of the EURODASS proposal. The fourth EFA partner, Germany, has not yet completed its selection process, but the option to join its partners in the EU RODASS solution remains open. I am grateful to my ministerial colleagues in Italy and Spain and their officials for their constructive and helpful approach.

The Government remain strongly committed to the EFA development programme and to the provision of high quality equipment for the armed forces. An effective DASS is essential for the EFA's survivability.

The EURODASS proposal illustrates the vitality and competitiveness of the British aerospace industry. I am sure that the whole House will welcome this further evidence that the EFA programme continues to gather pace.

The EURODASS contract will be worth around £200 million with Marconi's share at just below £100 million. It is expected to lead to the creation of some 500 new jobs, mainly at Marconi's Stanmore and Plessey Avionics' West Leigh sites, but also at a large number of sub-contractors throughout the United Kingdom.

The step that I have announced today represents an important milestone for British airborne technology, in collaboration with our partners, in a major international development project. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

On behalf of all my right hon. and hon. Friends, I welcome the Minister's announcement of the contract. I am pleased that, as with the EFA radar contract, it will go to a British-led consortium. The whole House recognises the importance of the contract for the future defence needs of this country and we are pleased that the Minister has been able to lead the negotiations to a successful conclusion. Like him, we are disappointed that Germany has not yet signed up and we hope that it finally will. The implications for our defence industry and for those who work in that declining sector are substantial. I am sure that the news will be most welcome to those whose jobs will now be safeguarded.

Although the news is positive, can the Minister now advise the House on the latest German position on the whole project? He will know, as other hon. Members do, of the considerable doubts being expressed by politicians from all parties in Germany. In the event of the Germans pulling out after the development stage is finalised at the end of the year, what will be the cost and quantity implications for the procurement of the aircraft by the Royal Air Force?

Everyone recognises Marconi's important work in support of our operations in the Gulf. We congratulate Marconi's civilian employees on their work at that time. We hope that the awarding of the contract will help to safeguard our national electronic warfare capability well into the next century. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on the procurement of air-to-air missiles for the aircraft?

Mr. Clark

I am glad to get the hon. Gentleman's endorsement, especially in such positive and unqualified terms. I take that as part of the Labour party's approach to defence procurement, which is to tick off each individual project, factory or programme whenever it comes before the House and to say that it fully endorses it. As we all know, that is immediately reflected in the inconsistency of Labour's accounting programme. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There is nothing ungracious about that comment. The sums are open to anyone who can add or subtract. I welcome the commitment by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers). We can accumulate the figures and we can all do our sums.

I do not believe that my statement means that the Germans will not necessarily take the system into the aircraft that they order. However, they could end up by having to buy the system off the shelf, in which case it would be more expensive for them. The only alternative would be to put in an inferior system, which means that the German aircraft would be less capable than those in the other three air forces.

I recognise that periodic doubts are expressed about the overall German commitment to the project. The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that they are shared by all political parties in Germany, although they are shared by some of them, especially the socialist parties. It is not too alarmist in looking to the future—

Mr. Rogers

The Minister does not know what he is talking about.

Mr. Clark

We are talking about the commitment of the Luftwaffe compared to that of some of the other parties. I sometimes wonder whether the Labour party, if it were ever able to do so, would consider cancelling the project and doing so under the alibi of some joint arrangement of approaching German political parties in the future. I have my doubts and I believe that many who are concerned with making the aircraft may bear those thoughts in mind. At present, there is nothing in German policy or in service requirement terms to suggest that the Germans will get out of the aircraft.

On missile capability, as the hon. Gentleman knows and as I have announced in the House, we have invited tenders for the ASRAAM—advanced short-range air-to-air missile—capability and we are evaluating them. I hope to be able to make an announcement in the early spring.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this is excellent news for British industry, especially for the British defence industry? Will he pass on our congratulations to all those in the Ministry of Defence and in industry who have worked so hard in co-operation to continue British primacy in the project?

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, as in all co-operative and collaborative ventures, we must try among the allies to minimise the differences over such procurement projects? If we cannot collaborate in future, collectively we shall never be able to afford the best for our forces.

Mr. Clark

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his commendation and for the constructive attitude that the Select Committee on Defence has adopted during the past years in helping us extrapolate the various solutions towards which the project is striving. My hon. Friend put his finger on the importance of co-operation, reaching early agreement and avoiding conflict on all the separate aspects of the collaborative project, but I have no reason to believe that anything untoward is occurring. The agreement on the DASS—the fact that we were able to agree with Italy and Spain to proceed with a system, even though the Germans are currently hesitating, possibly on grounds of economy or operational requirement—seems promising. It shows that the overall project is likely to go ahead even if, at intervals, individual members of the consortium do not participate in a particular system.

Sir David Steel

(Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): The Liberal Democrats give an unqualified welcome to the statement, which will be good for British technology, jobs and European co-operation. There have been some reports about problems with the flight control system. May we take it that today's announcement means that if there were any, they have been overcome? Would the project continue to be viable even if, unhappily, the Germans were not to adopt it?

Mr. Clark

The project is more likely to be viable if the Germans drop out of it than if the Liberal party's defence programme is ever put in place. I am sure that that programme's ultimate aspiration is for a 50 per cent. cut in defence expenditure. I am entirely confident about the present state of the project. The flight control system is not the same as the defensive aids sub-system—the two are separate—but I have no reason to anticipate any serious hold up with the flight control system.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, while we all want the Germans to stay in the project, should they decide to withdraw from it at the end of the development phase, the aircraft would, if anything, be cheaper for the Royal Air Force and there would be increased employment possibilities in this country?

Mr. Clark

I have heard that assertion, which I find attractive and welcome, but there must be a catch in it somewhere—more than that I should not like to say. I should certainly not wish the House to believe that a German withdrawal would lead to the whole project falling asunder. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said, it is a major international collaborative project, and the skills and technological resources of all the partners are necessary if it is to do itself justice.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

The Minister knows that the statements of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) confirm that there is all-party support for the project. It is not helpful for the Minister to try to make petty political capital out of the issue. The project is of enormous importance to British industry. The research and development contract alone involves expenditure in the United Kingdom of £2.5 billion. Therefore, his statement on the allocation of the contract to Marconi and his strong reaffirmation about the project's future will be warmly welcomed. Can he confirm that everything is going broadly according to plan and that the first prototype plane is expected to fly at Farnborough this year?

Mr. Clark

I am glad to confirm all those points. I should like to repeat the tributes that I have paid to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he gave all our efforts—across party divides—to ensure that the Ferranti radar system was chosen for the aircraft in the spring two years ago. That system, in common with the others, is proceeding well.

Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister continue to press the Labour party and try to establish whether it is committed to the project? I welcome what Opposition Members have said today, as I am sure my right hon. Friend does. However, we are waiting in Bristol to have the largest industrial contract confirmed, but whenever Labour Members visit Bristol, they refuse to confirm their long-term commitment to the European fighter aircraft.

Mr. Clark

As I told the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), the Labour party has moved quite transparently into pre-election mode in respect of its attitude to all defence projects. Labour varies its tune according to the audience—a familiar distortion imposed by the pre-electoral pattern. Whenever Labour Members visit a factory or dockyard or stand outside the gate of a defence establishment which is threatened with rationalisation, they say, "Of course, under us, not only would it remain, but it would be expanded and we would put more money into it."

When such reports are brought to the unfortunate right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) periodically and he has to add up another £50 million, £90 million or £120 million, his heart must groan under that extra burden. [Interruption.] It was, I believe, a shadow Foreign Minister who came out with a lavish commitment for a fourth Trident submarine in our defence debate a few weeks ago. We could actually hear—never mind see—some of his colleagues wincing as he said that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are getting a little wide of the statement.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I will not be wide of the subject. May we be told precisely why the Germans are hesitating? Is it for operational or economic reasons? The House deserves to know.

Mr. Clark

In that case, if the House really deserves to know, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman visits Germany and uses his well-established contacts there—

Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was asking the Minister.

Mr. Clark

Indeed, but I have no responsibility for the German Government. If the hon. Member for Linlithgow were to travel around and frequent the various places where people of that mind foregather, he would probably be able to pick up a few tips and tell us all about it in an Adjournment debate.

I have no responsibility for the German Government. I imagine that, like all Governments, they are subject to the same kind of mix of political pressure, service in-fighting and conflicting operational requirements of one kind or another. However, I am glad to say that that is quite outside my responsibility.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I welcome the Government's unequivocal commitment to the European fighter aircraft represented by this important decision on the defensive aids sub-system. That will be extremely good news for the Royal Air Force and for workers in Stanmore in north-west London. Is my right hon. Friend the Minister aware that it is only a year since the RAF proved in action how important it is to have aircraft of the highest quality with an excellent electronic warfare capability? We are moving in the right direction with the European fighter aircraft.

Mr. Clark

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. Many people who argue against the aircraft—and this is certainly true of the Germans—appear to assume that, now that the cold war is over, combat aircraft development has come to a halt and we can all continue to use the aircraft that we have until they wear out or fall apart. However, there will be a continuing requirement for serious ranking world powers—such as the United Kingdom and other Community countries—to maintain effective equipment within their air forces. Many schools believe that it is not operationally practical to go to the extent of aircraft such as the ATAs—advanced tactical aircraft—that are being developed in America which cost between $70 million and $100 million each. We will have a more versatile, more manoeuvrable and more responsive aircraft, probably with increased range, performance and climbing rates. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Rafale is another example of that. We believe that it is inferior in all those respects to the EFA. There will be such a requirement for an aircraft which will be combat capable in the first 10 or 25 years of the next century.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

The House will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement which demonstrates the Government's commitment to a defence project that is essential in this day and age, despite a peace dividend, for our defence capability and also for our defence industrial capability. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the development stage of the project is still likely to be in the order of £2.5 billion? Will he also tell us when he expects to make a statement on the production phase of the project, which had been expected by the end of this year?

Mr. Clark

I can confirm my hon. Friend's figures. We still expect that the first aircraft will fly at Farnborough. Depending on what happens then and in the months immediately afterwards, I see no reason to deviate from the original forecasts for a statement on production.

Mr. Rogers

May I express my surprise at the way in which the Minister responded to what he acknowledged at the beginning of his statement as constructive support from the Opposition? As the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) said, the peddling of untruths by the Conservative party simply for electoral purposes is easily seen through. In every statement, we have always offered our support for the project. We have continually given unequivocal support for it. The Minister knows that, and he is telling untruths if he is suggesting otherwise. Normally, he behaves like a clown, but normally he does so without malice. That is why I was amazed at his response today. He obviously feels under great pressure because of his small majority. [Interruption.] It is small.

The reservations in Germany come from all political parties. If he reads the statements of Mr. Hauser, who is a member of the CSU, which is part of the CDU coalition, he will find that such reservations occur across the spectrum.

We do not accept criticism from the Minister. He has been responsible for the loss of 150,000 jobs in the defence industry in the past few years. The cuts that have taken place under "Options for Change" have been Treasury-driven. They were not decided by any grand defensive strategy on behalf of the Government. The Government have lurched from crisis to crisis. They have the cheek to criticise the Labour party's defence policy. Our record on defence since the war is a darned sight better than the Conservative Government's was when they consorted with the Nazis in the 1930s.

Mr. Clark

I am sorry to have wounded the hon. Gentleman. There was nothing personal about it.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there anything in "Erskine May" that allows you to protect Back-Bench Members and others against flippant answers by Ministers? What have we been asked to do? We have been, in effect, asked to go to Herman Von Richthofen, the German ambassador, and ask him, as I shall do, a perfectly legitimate question—what are the objections to the project of a major industrial power in Europe? All we are told is to go there and see it. The Government are doing the negotiating. I do not think that that is good enough.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that anything in "Erskine May" would enable me to adjudicate on answers to questions, but I understand the reason why the hon. Gentleman has raised that point of order.

Mr. Mans

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I raise with you a very important point of order. We have just heard a statement on the most important military project that we have outstanding. The aircraft is built in Lancashire, close to my constituency. I note that not a single Labour Member from Lancashire is here today. Could we therefore, at the earliest opportunity, have not only a statement but a debate on the subject so that the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), in particular, and other Labour Members can give their views on this subject, as the hon. Lady has clearly opposed it in the past?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order for me. The hon. Member should raise that point with the Leader of the House on Thursday, if he catches my eye.