HL Deb 05 July 1967 vol 284 cc653-7

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I should like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Defence in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"The French Government have informed Her Majesty's Government that they have decided that for budgetary reasons they must withdraw from the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft project. They have been forced to take this step solely because of the pressure on their budget for a number of years ahead; full agreement was reached on the specification, the development cost, and the production cost of the aircraft. M. Messmer has assured me that the decision will have no effect on the French attitude towards the other projects, both civil and military, on which agreements have already been reached, or indeed towards the possibility of further collaboration in the future.

Her Majesty's Government have received this decision with great regret. It raises a number of fundamental issues. We are now giving urgent consideration to alternative ways of replacing the V bombers in the conventional role in the mid-seventies, including the possibility of collaboration with other countries. In the meantime, in order to preserve as wide a range of options as possible we are authorising British firms to carry out a project study on a variable geometry combat aircraft to a modified specification. Exploratory talks with potential partners will be held as soon as possible.

I will, with permission, circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT the joint communiqué reporting the outcome of my meeting last week with M. Messmer which is being issued this afternoon.

The communiqué referred to was as follows:

"Mr. Denis Healey, Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Stonehouse, Minister of State for Technology, and M. Messmer, the French Minister of Defence, met in London on 29th June.

2. M. Messmer informed the British Ministers that the French Government had been forced to make a number of budgetary economies and in particular in the defence field to withdraw from the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft project which was being negotiated.

3. This decision, which has been taken on purely financial considerations, has no effect either on the agreements already reached on the other aeronautical programmes, or on the possibility of new agreements.

4. The Ministers signed supplement number three to the Memorandum of Understanding of 17th May, 1965, authorising the second stage of the development programme for the Jaguar.

5. The Ministers decided to hold a meeting in September to discuss the progress of the collaborative helicopter programme."


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that Statement, but I must say straight away that it is a sorry one. It is grave in its implications for our defence posture in the 'seventies; it is grave in its potential impact on future collaboration on advanced projects with our neighbours; it is grave for the British aircraft industry. And it is grave, not least, for the Government and the Secretary of State for Defence. It means, in fact, the complete collapse of Mr. Healey's longer-term plans for military aircraft. I need only remind your Lordships that this joint project was proudly proclaimed by Mr. Healey in his 1966 Defence White Paper as being the goal, both operationally and industrially, of our long-term aircraft programme.

Quite clearly, we shall have to debate this important Statement in the near future. No doubt we shall have an opportunity later this month if, as I trust we can, we then discuss the last instalment of the Government's series of White Papers on Defence. In the meantime, I should like to put two questions to the noble Lord. First, can he categorically assure the House that the other agreed Anglo-French aircraft projects are in fact going ahead full blast? I ask this in view of the rather careful wording of the Statement on this point and in view of Press speculation that the Anglo-French helicopter deal is turning sour. I do not necessarily give credence to that myself, but I should be glad of a satisfactory assurance, if the noble Lord can give it to us.

Secondly, I must confess that I am puzzled by what the noble Lord said about alternative ways of replacing the V-bomber in its conventional role. Surely the noble Lord would agree with me that the original specifications for the British version of this aircraft—the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft—covered a far wider role. Does this phrase mean that the modified specifications—I am glad to see that a project study is going to be carried out—will in fact be down-graded?


My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl that this is an unfortunate Statement, but, of course, we are dealing with a situation which he will recognise is not of our making. I can give the noble Earl the assurance that he asks. I am glad to give it to him. I, too, have read the extraordinary report in the Daily Telegraph this morning. I should be most distressed to feel that there has been anything of a "tit-for-tat" as a result of a decision made by the French on this one aircraft. That report in the Daily Telegraph, I am assured, is wholly false and I am surprised that a paper of its reputation should have published it. So far as the future is concerned, I note what the noble Earl says about a debate. No doubt it can be arranged. I think I had better leave until that debate any consideration of what is entailed about the future of the V-bomber or its replacement.


My Lords, are the Government really convinced that a replacement of the nuclear V-bomber in the 'seventies could, in our present economic conditions, really be considered as what is called a credible deterrent from the political point of view? If not, among other alternatives that they are now considering, would they not also consider that of not replacing the nuclear V-bomber force at all?


My Lords, I think that that is a leading thought which the noble Lord would do well to develop in the debate which we have been promised by the Opposition. It raises an aspect of the matter beyond the immediate situation.


My Lords, in the opening words of the Statement just read out by the noble Lord we heard that the French Government had decided, for budgetary reasons, that they could not continue. Can the noble Lord give us an assurance that they are only budgetary reasons?


My Lords, that is an assurance which I am entitled to give. As the noble Lord will see from the communiqué when it is published, the French have agreed that this is the reason. Moreover, at the meeting which took place between the Secretary of State and M. Messmer, in May, when specifications were agreed, there was then absolutely no question of any hesitation on their part in regard to specifications, and we had no reason to think at that time that they would not find the aircraft project acceptable to them.


My Lords, could I ask the noble Lord two questions? On November 30 last in another place, the Minister of Aviation, Mr. Mulley, announced that the Government were very well advanced in contingency planning should the Anglo-French V.G. aircraft project be cancelled. Can the noble Lord say what has been achieved so far in that respect, particularly with regard to the project study, now to be set up, being able to proceed rapidly? Secondly, may I ask with whom these exploratory talks are to be held? Can the noble Lord tell us who these potential partners are to be?


I do not have the statement to which the noble Lord referred before me and will not therefore comment on it. So far as potential partners are concerned, I was referring to industrial firms, not overseas partners; but, of course, if we decide to go ahead with an aircraft of our own then we should hope that it would be possible to find potential partners, possibly on the Continent, for such a project.