HL Deb 19 December 1985 vol 469 cc892-4

11.14 a.m.

Lord Rodney

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 what progress has been made towards the European fighter aircraft project.

The Minister of State for Defence Support (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, excellent progress has been made since agreement was reached in the summer between the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain to proceed with the further definition and refinement of the EFA programme. Work on the project definition phase is now well under way and a report is expected from industry next summer.

Lord Rodney

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend the Minister for that encouraging remark. Is he aware of the very considerable satisfaction with this pan-European project? It is hoped that it will be as successful as the Tornado project. Can he assure the House that if the Americans and the French do take a small interest in this project our advanced technology will be adequately protected?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend is right that both the Americans and the French have expressed interest in the project recently. For our part, we shall need to be certain that no new arrangements in any way cause the project to slip, particularly in time terms.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, in view of the very long time it has taken to achieve this agreement—I make no complaint about that, having started it in 1978—does the noble Lord think it feasible in the short time that now seems possible for Westland to secure a similar European consortium, something which I am sure many of us would have liked to see happen? I think it ought to have been started a little earlier.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not get dragged into the Westland matter at this moment. But the noble Lord is certainly right that an ambitious timescale will now be necessary if the EFA project is to come to fruition in a timely way. Nonetheless, we are satisfied that that can be achieved.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us anything further about the choice of engine in this project and also about the likely number of jobs involved for British Aerospace in the British input in this European project?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the number of jobs will depend upon the work share, and the details of that have yet to be determined. With regard to production, the work share will depend upon the number of aircraft ordered by each of the participants. With regard to the development phase, it has been agreed that the United Kingdom work share will be 33 per cent. On the question of the engine, the United Kingdom objective is to ensure that, whatever engine is ultimately chosen for the EFA aircraft, it will be compatible in size and other factors with the existing RB 199 engine fitted to the Tornado.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, is the Minister in a position to say a little more about the nature of the agreement that was made on 2nd August? Bearing in mind that the French were one of the original five partners, can he say a little more, first, on why they are dragging their feet; and secondly, on what is required as an inducement for them to participate fully in the matter? Would the Minister care to say anything about the employment prospects for the United Kingdom arising from this development? To say that they are good or excellent does not quantify the possibilities of employment. Would the Minister care to say something about the firm design proposals? What progress has been made towards them and when will actual building begin?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is a rather comprehensive supplementary question, if the noble Lord will allow me to say so. What we are now engaged upon is the project definition phase, to define exactly what is required by all the partners concerned. With regard to French participation, the noble Lord will be aware that up to now, anyway, the French have taken the view that they wanted a rather smaller aeroplane than the one that is now proposed. It is for that reason that they have not so far felt able to join in the project.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, is it not the case that we have for the first time created a really strong industrial base for EFA, and that the Americans have, again for the first time, come to us asking, "Can we do a deal with you?" Bearing in mind that the American defence industry is usually rather protectionist, is that not unprecedented good news for Europe? Furthermore, have not the Americans done a similarly encouraging thing with our multiple launch rocket system?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, certainly we are most interested to receive whatever approaches the United States wish to make to the United Kingdom and to the other partners in this project. Whatever they have in mind will be most carefully studied. It is true, as my noble friend has said, that the Tornado project has established a very good basis for pan-European cooperation in this matter and that it is now coming to a successful fruition.

Lord Morris

My Lords, if American involvement in the project comes about, will it still be referred to as the European Fighter Aircraft project?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the basis upon which American participation is currently being discussed is a fairly modest one. I do not anticipate any fundamental change in the programme resulting from it.