HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc10-2
9. Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

What progress has been made towards the consolidation of the European defence industry. [75973]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

Governments in Europe are making good progress in their work to facilitate defence industrial restructuring, as set out in the letter of intent signed by the Defence Ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom on 6 July 1998. Industry in Europe is responding to the initiative with its own commercial developments, most recently last week's announcement by GKN and Finmeccanica of a merger between Westland Helicopters and Agusta.

Mr. Jones

Does my right hon. Friend agree that European consolidation can be enhanced if we speedily settle the requirements of the seven European air forces, including our own—specifically with regard to the A400M, formerly described as the future large aircraft? Is it the case that some 288 airframes are required by 2006? We had hoped for an order for 50 future large aircraft from the Ministry. My constituents—3,700 of them—are quite good at making wings for Airbus.

Mr. Robertson

Few Members are as assiduous as my hon. Friend in promoting their constituents' interests. I pay tribute to those who make some of the best wings in the world for Airbus. There is no doubt that Airbus Industrie has been a huge commercial success, and its bid for the future large aircraft will deserve a lot of attention.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Secretary of State has spoken of the importance of the defence industry. Does he accept that many companies have grown over the past 20 years especially because of their defence links? Does he recognise the enormous success of Admiral, an information technology company in my constituency—I visited it only this morning—which, having been founded by just two people in 1979, now has nearly 2,500 employees worldwide, and five offices in the constituency? It is now the 190th most successful company in the FTSE 250, and is heavily involved in Ministry of Defence work.

This morning, representatives of the company told me that they wanted a successful future for the symbols of British defence. To that end, will the Secretary of State rule out any prospect of the conversion and ruining of the original, listed staff college buildings in Camberley, immediately opposite Admiral's headquarters, which I saw this morning and which his officials have been threatening to convert to luxury flats, ignoring the fact that there is a war memorial in that historic listed building?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman had a good try with his bid for attention for his constituents, but he still came in second behind my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones).

I recently met the chairman of Admiral, and I know that the company's record is very good. I am sure that the chairman will be delighted to read the tribute in Hansard that may well have been intended by the hon. Gentleman.

We have not yet come to a decision on the future of the fine buildings at Camberley, but it is something that I feel strongly about. The hon. Gentleman may be assured that we have not lost sight of the issue.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

As my right hon. Friend is aware, there is considerable interest in the House in arms exports, particularly those to countries with bad human rights records. When are we to get the annual report on arms exports, so that we can see precisely what licences have been granted for such exports? I realise that my right hon. Friend's Department is not the only one responsible—three other Departments are involved—but the report is now one year overdue. Why has there been a delay? When the report is released, will a statement be made in the Chamber, so that we may question Ministers precisely on it.

Mr. Robertson

On the issue of when, my answer is soon. On the question of delay, it has arisen in order that we get all the statistics right. Whether there will be a statement on the report depends on my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, whose Department has responsibility for it.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, to have a European defence policy, we must have an integrated European defence industry? Does he also agree that that European defence industry integration must include the activities of illegitimate arms dealers in Europe? Will he assure the House that the Government will support the German Government's proposals to control arms brokers in Europe?

Mr. Robertson

I welcome the hon. Lady to the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench team in the absence of her two colleagues, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), one of whom wrote to me in advance and whose reason for being absent is perfectly understandable.

I am not entirely certain what question the hon. Lady is asking. She calls for an integrated defence industry—the Government are working towards further consolidation in that sector, but, clearly, it must be driven by the industry itself. If I got her question right, I believe that she said that integrated defence industry is to include illegitimate arms dealers. We have absolutely no intention of including the activities of such dealers in that industry. If they are illegitimate, by definition, they have no place in our future consolidation or rationalisation of the industry.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the latest example of European defence consolidation, namely, the merger of GKN-Westland and Italy's Agusta, both highly successful industries in their own right. Does he agree that further consolidation of European defence industries is essential if they are to be efficient and competitive and to have a future role to play? Does he believe that progress is being made throughout Europe in achieving that consolidation and speeding it up?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on about the necessity for consolidation and about the fact that, at present, European industries lack the scale to be globally competitive. That must be a clear priority for all those who are employed in the industry and who depend on it. I assure her that we will continue to put in the maximum effort to ensure that the companies recognise that their salvation and, indeed, the industry's survival depend on further moves towards consolidation being made.