HL Deb 25 October 1993 vol 549 cc710-3

3 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull asked Her Majesty's Government:

What has happened to the RAF order for EH 101 helicopters, and whether they are aware that the delay is causing damage to other potential export orders of this helicopter.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, we are not yet in a position to make a Statement, but we shall do so as soon as we can. In the meantime, we have made clear to potential export customers, in particular the Government of the Netherlands, our strong support for the EH 101.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. First, will he confirm that this is a very successful joint Anglo-Italian project? It has already cost this country £1.6 billion. Secondly, that the trial flights of the RAF version have proved exceptionally good for all-weather capability and very suitable for Bosnia and Northern Ireland? Is the Minister aware that the continuing delay is causing deep concern in one of our most successful exporting industries and that those concerned in the RAF deserve our finest British technology?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am very happy indeed to confirm to my noble friend that this is an extremely successful project. I can also confirm from personal experience that it is a remarkable aircraft in which to fly. The delay in the orders for the utility version is nevertheless, to some extent, contradicted by the faith which we have shown in the airframe itself, which is the key part of the project, by virtue of the fact that we have ordered 44 of the Merlin version for the Royal Navy and that the trials for that version are now two-thirds complete.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it not the case that the decision to order the project was taken six years ago by the Government? Is it not also the case that the EH 101 is the only helicopter offering all-weather capability which is essential in potential trouble spots such as those which we have seen recently? Is it not further the case that the EH 101 development programme is two-thirds complete? A great deal of money has already been spent on the project. Are the Government now considering buying secondhand Puma helicopters and more Chinooks? Is that really what they are considering, or will they get a move on and order the EH 101 for the RAF?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I can confirm that, as the noble Lord knows well, an announcement was made six years ago about our intention to purchase the helicopter. That announcement was in the context of strategic considerations prevailing at the time. We have looked again at the requirement in view of the changed strategic position and I can certainly confirm to the noble Lord that we have an enhanced requirement for support helicopters. From his own military history, the noble Lord will be aware that there are two considerations here. One is lift and the other is the consideration which he mentioned. There are a number of possibilities which we are examining, including a mixed force of Chinooks and EH 101s. I believe that the noble Lord used the words "two-thirds complete". That refers to the Merlin programme which, as he well knows, is the naval version of EH 101.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, is it not time that the Ministry of Defence explained to the Treasury that every time it makes a cut in our defence projects we lose billions of pounds in foreign orders? At the moment, this year alone, our foreign exports of weapons have amounted to £5.6 billion. If the Treasury knocks that off, it will make a horrible hole in our balance of payments. Therefore, it would be wise not to proceed with a project for cuts worth £1 million because we shall suffer in the long run.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am very happy that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, pays tribute to the export performance of British defence manufacturers. As he well knows, it is second only to that of the United States in world performance. That is a tribute to the policies of procurement which we have pursued over many years. It ensures that the quality of what we procure is not falsely subsidised and that operational requirements are not graded downwards in order to satisfy the lower standards which some foreign manufacturers are able to satisfy. I point out to the noble Lord that this helicopter has been bought by the Canadians. That is a tribute to the quality of the beast concerned.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, will my noble friend accept from me that I have spoken about the plane to parliamentarians, particularly in the Western European Union? While they understand that Her Majesty' s Government have made clear their strong support for the project, the parliamentarians use such varying phrases as: "Fine words butter no parsnips", and "It would be as well to put one's money where one's voice is". Will my noble friend accept that if we are to get into the export business with this aircraft, a quick decision is needed?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am the first to agree that one of the principal supports which Her Majesty's Government and, in particular, the Ministry of Defence can give to our export efforts in the defence field is that we should buy British equipment. I also feel, paradoxically, that the quality of British equipment is much improved by a rigorous procurement process. The balance between those two things is a fine art of which I am sure my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, are well aware. I merely say to my noble friend that the purchase of the helicopters which the Canadian Government have made is evidence enough that the trust we have shown by ordering the naval version has been helpful in that regard.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, if that is the case, why do not the Government get on and order the utility version for the RAF? Why do they persist in thinking about a Chinook replacement, which is, after all, old technology? Everyone recognises that the EH 101, an advanced technology helicopter, is superior to anything else available on the market at the moment.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I yield to no one—least of all to the noble Lord, Lord Williams—in my admiration for the technology of the EH 101 helicopter. It is a fine example not only of British industrial capability but also of European co-operation. The noble Lord and I agree about that. What we must also realise is that the Armed Forces of the Crown deserve the best and most cost-effective solution. In view of the changed. climate, that is what we are endeavouring to procure. In defence of the Chinook, I would say that, as with the. C-130 aeroplane, the fact that, apparently, an airframe: has been continuing in the same shape for more than 20 years does not necessarily mean that the inside works are exactly the same as they were when it was first produced.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, while I accept the remarks about the admirable nature of the EH 101, is it not true that at this very moment, with the defence industry and defence budget in such a precarious state, the important issue is value for money? Will the Minister agree that what is needed here is the right decision, not just a quick one?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, who echoes my sentiments precisely. Nevertheless, the right decision does not necessarily mean that we shall procure an aircraft other than the EH 101. We are anxious that the operational requirement should be satisfied, which may be by the purchase of one aircraft or a mixture of aircraft. I ask your Lordships to give us a little more time. We are as anxious as anyone else to come to a decision on this matter.