§ 5. Mr. David Nicholson
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress with the development of the EH101 helicopter and its variants.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Despite the blase remarks made earlier by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), my hon. Friend will be aware that many people in the south-west are concerned about employment in defence industries. He will also be aware that a number of my constituents work at Westland in Yeovil. The Government have spent £1.4 billion on developing the EH101 and have already ordered 44 Merlins for the Royal Navy, so why should there be a delay in placing the contracts for the 25 utility support helicopters for the Royal Air Force when the money for those was allocated by the former Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Younger, in 1987?
§ Mr. Aitken
My hon. Friend's pride in the EH101 helicopter and its variants, and in the craftsmanship and skill achieved at Westland, in his constituency—or rather, where many of his constituents work—is entirely justified. But his impatience, although understandable, is not entirely justified, in view of the ministerial duty to achieve value for money on such a massive procurement project. The right course is to have a fair competition, and we intend to hold one as soon as possible for Britain's support helicopter requirements.
§ Dr. David Clark
Does the Minister recall a previous Conservative Secretary of State announcing to the House on 9 April 1987 that the Government intended to order 25 utility EH101 helicopters? In view of the desperate and dire shortage of helicopters in our armed forces, what has happened to that order?
§ Mr. Aitken
The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise how much the world and the strategic environment has changed since 1987. For helicopters alone, we face a wider spread of less predictable scenarios, in terms of the distance that troops may have to cover, the equipment that they will carry, the terrain over which they will have to fly, and the nature and intensity of the air defence threat that they may face. It would be remiss of us not to take account of those changes in reassessing our support helicopter requirement. I am sorry that that has taken rather a long time.