HL Deb 30 June 1983 vol 443 cc365-7

3.19 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the carbon fibre raw material for the Agile Combat Aircraft will be from British, Japanese or other sources.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, the Agile Combat Aircraft is a private venture project by industry, led by British Aerospace, in collaboration with European partners. I understand that the three collaborative partners have chosen a Japanese source of carbon fibre.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Would he agree that if the Japanese carbon fibre is used for the production of the demonstrator it will be extremely unlikely that it will be possible for the British carbon fibre to be used in the production line? This is a material which has such a great future, and it is one in respect of which we held the lead 10 years ago. That whole lead will disappear and will be transferred to the Orient.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am advised that there would be no technical difficulty in changing to British manufactured material of comparable quality, but the decisions in this matter must be taken by the companies themselves. The noble Lord may be interested to know that for some years we have been financing a demonstrator programme at British Aerospace, Warton. For that work it was agreed at the outset that on technical grounds carbon fibre of United Kingdom origin would be used.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the seriousness of the point made by his noble friend, especially as regards the British position? Will the Minister say what the criteria were in relation to the alternative sources of material? Further, can he say what aspects were taken into account in reaching this decision, which set a very difficult precedent for British interests?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid these were matters for the commercial judgment of British Aerospace and not for the Government.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, would it not be possible to say that suitability and price were the main considerations? Would it not also be possible for the noble Lord and others to pay tribute to the manufacturers for their progressive application of this new material in the new aircraft?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is referring to the aircraft manufacturers, and certainly I can confirm that the availability of this new material opens the way for some exciting developments.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is it not particularly important that all high technology equipment, where conceivably possible, should be incorporated and embodied in this aircraft and should come from either Britain or her partners? Is it not sad that carbon fibre, which was invented at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, should be one of the high technology composite materials which we now have to buy from Japan—one hopes that this is only temporary—rather than from sources in the United Kingdom, the place it was invented?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I certainly hope that it may be possible to use a British source for this material in the future, but I must say that in this initial experimental programme it would not have been right to impose conditions of that kind on the manufacturer.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, will my noble friend express the concern of the House to British Aerospace over this matter, particularly as the United Kingdom manufacturers say that they can meet all the specifications that are required and can match the particular fineness, I think it is, that the Japanese can achieve?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am certain that British Aerospace will take careful note of the exchanges in your Lordships' House this afternoon.

Lord Morris

My Lords, while I accept my noble friend's point that this matter is for the commercial judgment of the company concerned, what plans do Her Majesty's Government have for persuading or encouraging the company to buy British rather than Japanese?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as I have said, it would not be right for the Government to impose conditions on the manufacturer of the kind the noble Lord has in mind. We are always anxious that British sources of materials or components are used when the technical specification is right, when the price is right and when the other conditions, such as delivery, are right.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether there are applications for carbon fibre outside the defence field and British Aerospace? Will the Government give priority to this growth industry, which is clearly one of the industries of the future?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I imagine there are other applications for this material, but as is so often the case it is the aerospace industry that is leading the way.