HC Deb 15 January 2001 vol 361 cc5-8
2. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

How many new aircraft his Department plans to procure for the RAF; and if he will make a statement. [143712]

3. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

How many new aircraft his Department plans to procure for the RAF; and if he will make a statement. [143713]

8. Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

How many new aircraft his Department plans to procure for the RAF; and if he will make a statement. [143718]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

Including aircraft on order, we currently plan to acquire 232 Eurofighter multi-role aircraft; 25 A400M transport aircraft; 25 C130J transport aircraft; 21 Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft; eight Chinook mark III support helicopters; 22 Merlin mark III support helicopters; and five modified Global Express jets to carry airborne stand-off radar. We will also lease four C17 transport aircraft.

In addition, there are several projects where the exact number of aircraft that the RAF will use has still to be determined. Those include the future strategic tanker aircraft; the future carrier-borne aircraft; the future offensive air system; the support, amphibious and battlefield rotorcraft; and the UK military flying training system programmes. Some of those programmes are planned to involve private finance initiative solutions where the aircraft will not be owned by MOD.

Mr. Hoyle

Obviously, we welcome those orders and the commitment to BAE Systems in the north-west, which specialises in defence aircraft, but does my hon. Friend share my worry that redundancies are taking place in the north-west with a full order book? The worry is that the company will not be able to complete the orders that the Government have provided the north-west with and benefit from the work that could come out of the joint strike aircraft.

Dr. Moonie

We share my hon. Friend's concern about potential job losses in the north-west. Given the size of the programme to which we are committed, together with the likely outcome in relation to the other aircraft that I mentioned, the company should have a secure future.

Mr. Borrow

My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern in the households of many thousands of my constituents following the redundancy announcements and expected job losses at Warton and Salmesbury in Lancashire. Can he reassure me and them that the orders for Eurofighter and the 6,000 jobs that depend on those orders are secure? Does he understand that the less than wholehearted support for the Eurofighter project from the Conservative party causes my constituents concern about their future?

Dr. Moonie

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend, who is assiduous in looking after his constituents' interests, that the present programme for Eurofighter is constructed on a solid base. I am happy to say that the Greeks, who announced their intention to purchase Eurofighter, have confirmed that the purchase will go ahead, thereby underpinning the security of long-term jobs in his constituency.

Mr. Hendrick

Will my hon. Friend comment on the disgraceful way in which BAE Systems announced the job losses, given in particular the recent Indian Government announcement that they intend to buy the Hawk jet? Many of the job losses are associated with the work force on that jet.

Dr. Moonie

It is always disappointing when workers learn about their future through other sources, rather than directly. The order book looks quite promising. In his recent visit to India, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was assiduous in promoting the interests of the Hawk aircraft. I hope that redundancies will not be nearly as severe as has been forecast.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

To put that impressive-looking list in perspective, will the Minister, first, tell us what proportion of existing RAF aeroplanes are airworthy, and secondly, confirm that the number of fast-jet fighter pilots is now almost 20 per cent. below manning levels? Are we approaching through the back door the era of unmanned flight?

Dr. Moonie

Unmanned flight seems to be a capacity of the Conservative party. I do not have to hand the figures on current levels of airworthiness—which is hardly surprising, as the matter is somewhat complicated—but I should be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The nation will have been pleased to hear the Minister reconfirm that the Government are to acquire 232 Eurofighters. Will he also take this opportunity to reconfirm that there is no slippage whatever in their delivery? In that context, when will the final C130J be delivered to RAF Lyneham in my constituency?

Dr. Moonie

I can confirm that, in the past, there was slippage in the Eurofighter programme—most of which occurred under the previous Government, and is therefore not really a matter for us. We have managed to stabilise the programme—trials are going well—and we hope that it is now on target.

The C130J is clearly a most worthwhile aircraft. I do not have a firm delivery date on the final aircraft, but the in-service delivery date of the 12th aircraft was June 2000. I shall certainly provide the information to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

May I take the opportunity to remove all ambiguity on the matter, as there is too much misinformation and, sometimes, damned lies from certain quarters—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not referring to any Member of this House.

Mr. Davies

Of course not; I said from certain quarters, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I just wanted to be clear about that.

Mr. Davies

I can give you that assurance absolutely, Mr. Speaker. I also make it absolutely clear that Conservative Members are fully committed to all those programmes, a number of which we launched ourselves, including the Eurofighter and the C130J.

It is very curious that the Government have made no statement today about the joint strike fighter. This morning, there was a report from the Press Association that Ministers were about to do what we have been urging them to do and sign up to the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the project. May I ask Ministers for an assurance that, if they do take that decision, they will come to the House, as they should, and make a proper statement, so that we can question them, rather than simply leaking the decision to the press?

Dr. Moonie

I am happy to say that we have certainly not been involved in leaking anything to the press. I am also happy to say that it is normal to wait for a question before one answers it; and, having had a question, I shall answer it. Although no decision has yet been made on whether we will take the joint strike fighter, we remain fully involved in its development, which is still at a very early stage. It is also no secret that that development is about to proceed to the next stage. Later this week, my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement will visit the United States to progress the discussions further.