HC Deb 18 June 1998 vol 314 cc490-2
2. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What is the forecast United Kingdom content of the proposed Airbus A3XX; and what assistance she is giving to British Aerospace to aid its development. [45051]

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

The Government have already had preliminary discussions with British Aerospace and its Airbus partners about the planned development of the A3XX. Any application for launch investment for the project will be considered on its merits.

Mr. Prentice

That is heartening news. I pay tribute to the Government for the help that they have given to Rolls-Royce for the development of the Trent engine and for Airbus. Is my hon. Friend aware that, over the next 20 years, passenger air traffic is expected to increase by a factor of three? The Airbus A3XX will carry 650 passengers in double-decker fashion. We need larger, quieter aircraft. That is another reason why the Government should support British Aerospace in developing the new aircraft.

Mr. Battle

I thank my hon. Friend, who has a track record of championing the industry on behalf of his constituents. We are well aware of the prestige and value of the project, which will take the industry much further forward technologically. It is too early to forecast sensibly the possible UK content of Airbus development, but there are major potential benefits for UK industry and I hope that our companies will be well represented in the project.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Although it may be too early to forecast the UK content, is it not the case that, the more substantial the British launch aid, the more likely it is that British Aerospace and other British companies will have a significant share of the work on the aircraft? The A3XX is the only gap in the full range of aircraft offered by Airbus to the civil market that remains to be filled. Will the Government look more favourably on any application for the A3XX than on any for the future large aircraft?

Mr. Battle

Requests for proposals on the future large aircraft have been issued to Airbus, Turkish Aerospace Industries, Alenia of Italy and Flabel of Belgium on a provisional basis, pending the formation of the Airbus military company. Any application for launch investment for the A3XX will be considered on its merits, subject to rigorous appraisal and monitoring to ensure that projects do not undertake or duplicate work that could be done elsewhere. No one is in any doubt about the significance of the project.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Some 3,600 of my constituents make the wings for all European models of the Airbus family and they hope to make the wings for the new super jumbo jet. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when he visited the factory in my constituency on Monday, he saw a modern, progressive, productive and loyal work force? They appreciated the ceremony that he carried out.

Mr. Battle

I was particularly impressed by the technical excellence of the work of the internationally competitive, leading-edge work force. That is encouraging. Airbus already provides £1 billion a year to the UK's trade balance, representing 1.5 per cent. of UK manufactured exports. We are doing well in that manufacturing sector and we hope to continue to do well for many years.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I am sure that the Minister realises that this is wider than a single-constituency issue, although I cannot fail to mention Aerostructures Hamble, which does a magnificent job overseas in the same markets. The British aerospace industry has a record of high added value and high skills, putting it among the leaders in British manufacturing. It is a world-class industry. Exports account for 75 per cent. of the production of our aerospace industry. That has been achieved through long-term investment over the past 30 or 40 years. Is the Minister aware that, over the past 15 years, the Government's partnership investment in the industry has declined to a fraction of the levels known in the 1980s? Does he agree that, if that continues, in 10 years' time we shall be in the sorry state of having no British ownership of the aerospace industry? What will he do about it?

Mr. Battle

To some extent, I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. We do not want to be complacent. We want to ensure that there are skills to back up the industry and that there is private sector investment in the long term. All I would add is that the Government agreed public-private partnerships with British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce that were worth £320 million of investment last year. That is not an insubstantial investment to move the industry forward.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Obviously launch aid is important. The world needs this generation of aircraft. I hope that the Government will back it and look favourably on the military version of the Airbus for the FLA.

Mr. Battle

As I commented in answer to an earlier question, the requests for proposals have been issued. The formation of the Airbus military company is pending. The Government are discussing with our partners when requests for proposals will be issued to potential suppliers under, of course, competitive arrangements. A procurement decision will be made in the light of the conclusions of the strategic defence review. My hon. Friend's points were clearly made and will be taken on board, along with those of other colleagues.

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