HC Deb 24 November 1992 vol 214 cc729-31
6. Mr. Thurnham

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about the future prospects for the British defence industries; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)

We receive a variety of representations about the prospects for British defence industries from many sources. Despite the downturn in defence spending, our industry is both efficient and internationally competitive, and is well placed to meet the challenges of the future.

Mr. Thurnham

Does my hon. Friend agree that the European fighter aircraft project is an example of this country's ability to lead Europe, in regard to both the strength of our defence policies and the capability of our manufacturing industry? Should not all parties unite to support British industry, rather than engaging in the sickening display of humbug that we witnessed last night?

Mr. Aitken

Now that the political temperature may have returned to normal, the political co-operation that has characterised the attitude of hon. Members on both sides of the House towards the EFA project will continue to be very welcome. Prospects for a new EFA have brightened considerably in the light of Chancellor Kohl's positive statements at the Anglo-German summit on 11 November, and the industry has identified considerable cost reductions in its survey. In view of those factors, we hope that positive progress can be made towards the fulfilment of the production phase of this four-nation project.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is the Minister aware that the defence industry also includes the royal ordnance factories, which the Government sold off? Does he realise that there is a large and continuing haemorrhage of jobs away from the industries concerned—on a so-called voluntary basis— and no clear planning about which of those important factories are to be retained? Will the Minister instigate an immediate investigation into how the units are to remain viable?

Mr. Aitken

I have some sympathy with the point that the hon. Lady has rightly made. We are now discussing with Royal Ordnance and others the placing of longer-term contracts, which will ensure a longer-term future for manufacturers of that type.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Does my hon. Friend accept that the prospects of small-arms manufacturers in this country —and, in particular, at Radway Green in my constituency —depend greatly on the Ministry of Defence not opening its order books to bids from other European countries that do not reciprocate? Furthermore, does he accept that it is vital to maintain our manufacturing capacity, for strategic reasons?

Mr. Aitken

As I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises, we already place approximately 90 per cent. of the equipment budget, in terms of orders, with British companies. That is a record of which we can be rightly proud, as can the industries concerned.

I know about the difficulties experienced by the Royal Ordnance factory at Radway Green. I assure my hon. Friend—as I have just assured the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—that we are considering the possibility of offering longer-term contracts, which should allow longer-term security for those organisations.

Mr. Foulkes

I am grateful to the Minister for the helpful comments that he made earlier about the European fighter aircraft. Is he aware, however, that the important all-party consensus on EFA was endangered last night by the Secretary of State's intemperate reply to yesterday's debate? Is the Minister aware that our support for EFA is aimed not just at the jobs of our constituents, but at securing the best possible fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force, and for the air forces of our partners and of all other democracies?

Our arms sales policy, however, excludes the sale of arms to military dictatorships. Will the Government—[Interruption.] The other Minister of State will find himself in the "Guinness Book of Records" for other reasons if he is not careful.

Will the Government state clearly whether they share the view that there must be no arms sales to any military dictatorship?

Mr. Aitken

I understand why the Opposition are feeling a little bruised, if not carved up, after last night's superb winding-up speech by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The hon. Gentleman is obviously still suffering from the morning-after feeling. He has enunciated an extraordinary new Opposition policy: that we should sell arms equipment only to democracies. That might be all very well in an ideal world, but on 13 October the hon. Gentleman advocated that the Government should make much more vigorous efforts to sell the Challenger tank to Kuwait, which is not yet a democracy. We constantly receive letters from Opposition Members regarding arms sales to all sorts of countries which are not democracies. I do not believe, therefore, that the Opposition have yet come down from their double-standards perch.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Does my hon. Friend accept that the observation that the prospects for the European fighter aircraft have brightened will be very much welcomed in my constituency? Will he congratulate those who made such a wonderful effort to bring down the cost of EFA to suit the pockets of all those concerned?

Mr. Aitken

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's point. The aerospace industries of this country responded superbly to the challenge that they were set to bring down the costs. Their surveys reveal that there is a maximum cost-saving potential of 30 per cent. which, as my hon. Friend said, will bring EFA's cost well within the target mentioned by the German Defence Minister some months ago.