HL Deb 28 November 1984 vol 457 cc894-7

2.39 p.m.

Lord Mulley

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 they have now decided to approve the purchase of a British aircraft as the new basic training aircraft for the Royal Air Force.

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

My Lords, we are proceeding with the full evaluation of the four tenders that we have received in respect of the new basic trainer aircraft. As I informed your Lordships on 17th October, we hope to take a decision around the turn of the year.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Minister for that Answer. I hope that in that evaluation it will be borne in mind that the British interest is not only that the RAF should have an aircraft meeting its specifications—which presumably all the contenders do, because otherwise they would not be shortlisted—but that we should have the exports that will undoubtedly follow from the adoption of a particular aircraft by the Royal Air Force. Would the noble Lord also consider, in the longer term, what international competitors will make of it if in fact it is known that we in this country have been incapable of designing and making a basic trainer for our own airforce?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that all considerations of that type will be taken into account. It is worth remembering, of course, that all the contenders that we are presently considering anticipate a major part of the manufacture in this country.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that one of the first questions which foreign purchasers ask as regards arms is, "Is this aircraft used by the British Air Force?" If the answer is, "No", it will be almost impossible to think about sales.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am certainly aware of that consideration.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, while recognising that there will be fierce competition for this order, will the Minister agree that the tender by Shorts is as British as any other tender that has been considered, and that in fact the aeroplane that has been tendered by Shorts is in operation? Will he also agree that 80 of these 'planes are in operation in various countries throughout the world, and that 70 per cent. of the airframe will be built on British terrritory—namely, in Northern Ireland—with the exception of the Canadian engine, which I believe all the other tenders will use as well? Given the state of the economy in Northern Ireland, were such an order given to Shorts, will he not agree that it would immediately create 1,000 jobs in Shorts and 3,000 jobs throughout the United Kingdom? Given the experience which Shorts has and that it has only 2 per cent. of aircraft orders from the Ministry of Defence, will the Minister not agree that on this occasion Shorts has a legitimate claim, provided that it can fulfil the specifications for this order?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I suspect that all the tenderers will say that they have a legitimate claim to bring to the attention of the Ministry of Defence in this matter. We certainly are considering and will consider all the tenders very carefully and will be taking into account considerations of the sort which the noble Lord has mentioned.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister agree that in this particular requirement parliamentary pressure has probably gone as far down the road as it can usefully go? If there is an important issue of British content here, will he confirm that the PC9 now has a British design leadership? Will the noble Lord also confirm that the PC9 has as high or higher a British content of equipment as any of the competitors? In these circumstances will it not be better now to leave it to the professionals to make their choice?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the even-handedness of your Lordships is reflected by three at least of the four contenders who have produced supporters in your Lordships' House this afternoon. But the sort of considerations which the noble Lord mentioned are relevant in this case and will be taken into account.

Baroness Airey of Abingdon

My Lords, in view of the Secretary of State's statement on economy in defence and assuming that all the contestants are agreeable to the RAF, should we not take into account the question of price when considering choice?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that will of course be a very important consideration.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, may I remind the Minister that when he spoke on this matter on 17th October he told the House that the prime consideration had three elements to it: first, the aircraft had to obtain cost effectiveness; secondly, that the aircraft had to have a good performance; and thirdly, that it had to have a long fatigue life. Given that all of the applicants or more than one of the applicants comply with those criteria, will the Minister not agree that it would be in the best national interest that the ultimate criterion ought to be that which provides most British jobs?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure that the assessment of the first three criteria to which the noble Lord referred is quite as simple as he imagines. We are now engaged upon ensuring that the contenders meet the criteria to which the noble Lord referred, and then we can reach our decision on this matter.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we are all in favour of providing adequate defence? Not a word has been said in connection with this Question about additional cost. Is he aware that we spend £17 million on defence, apart from research into the use of satellite missiles which is bound to increase our defence if we make a contribution at all, as indeed we must? In view of our economic position, when will we stop spending on defence?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords. I can assure the noble Lord that I am very well aware of the size of our defence expenditure at this time. That is why, with regard to this particular project, the question of cost-effectiveness will be so important.

Lord Morris

My Lords, does my noble Lord recall that during the course of the debate on 17th October he relied very heavily on the fact that the four tenderers were British companies? Will he not agree that, even though a company be thoroughly British from a proprietorial and managerial point of view, it is nothing other than naive to consider that the company is de fact British, because de fact control need not necessarily rest with the company? Will my noble friend be kind enough to comment on that point?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure that there is any doubt about the Britishness of British Aerospace, Shorts, Westlands or Hunting Aircraft, which are the companies concerned.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I should declare that I am a Firecracker man and I am not competent to make a judgment on this. Notwithstanding the demands in the interests of employment, will the noble Lord not agree that it is important that the RAF should have the best aircraft for the purpose and that in the past they have had aircraft from some areas which have been mentioned which were not satisfactory? In view of the interest which has been expressed, may I ask that when the decision is taken—and it is not an easy one to take—the noble Lord will consider reporting the results of the assessments?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I have no doubt that when we come to make and announce a decision on this matter there will be intense parliamentary interest in what we have to say and I am also certain that we shall be called upon to justify our decision in the most detailed terms. I certainly believe that that would be right.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, if, sadly, we still have to go in for spending more on defence, should not we spend it in Northern Ireland, where we shall have to spend anyway?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure that it is part of the purpose of the budget of the Ministry of Defence that it should be used for social purposes in any part of the United Kingdom, no matter how desirable those social purposes might be. Having said that, we shall of course take into account the considerations that the noble Lord has put to us; but I do not think that they could be paramount considerations.